The World Cup reaches its climax on Sunday with Argentina facing defending champions France in a mouth-watering finale – but what have been the on-field highlights of the tournament in Qatar? Here, the Sky Sports writers pick out their standout moments from the past four weeks…
Best player of the World Cup
Adam Bate: It is Lionel Messi (Argentina). Nobody has scored more goals and nobody has provided more assists. In willing his team to the final, he has also shown an edge to his game that has not always been evident. At 35, he is past his peak. He is still better than everyone else.
Sam Blitz: Antoine Griezmann (France). Three months ago, the France forward was in the midst of a ‘substitution scandal’ with Atletico Madrid and looked shot of confidence. While he’s been starring in a deeper role at the tournament, his attacking output has not diminished. The player with the most chances created in the tournament and some crucial interventions from within his own penalty box, France would not be in the final without him.
Nick Wright: Messi. It has to be. Five goals, three assists and so much more. That pass against Holland. That run against Croatia. Moments to savour from the world’s best.
Peter Smith: At a tournament where Cristiano Ronaldo’s star faded, his great rival Messi has defied the passage of time to produce an incredible run of performances in Qatar and inspire Argentina to another World Cup final. It would be a career-capping moment if he were to lift the trophy on Sunday. But after scoring in each knockout round and produced magic moments throughout, Messi has reaffirmed his status as an absolute legend of the game.
Laura Hunter: Messi – could it be anyone else? I realise this is the sentimental choice. But he’s every football purist’s dream. The little magician deserves to get his hands on a World Cup trophy – testament to his service to the game. He’s also been dazzling at times during this tournament. His performance against Croatia in the semi-finals was particularly captivating – you couldn’t take your eyes off him. So aesthetically pleasing.
Ron Walker: Griezmann. Sorry, Lionel – you’ve been the star of the show, but Griezmann has been the key cog taking France to the final. Six years ago he won the Golden Boot at Euro 2016, but at World Cup 2022 he’s been reinvented. Playing in the hole behind Olivier Giroud has allowed him more freedom to roam and to create. He’s taken it with both hands and become the most creative playmaker in the tournament.
Dan Sansom: It may seem the obvious choice, but Messi’s performances in Qatar have put Argentina within touching distance of the World Cup trophy. The 35-year-old has rolled back the years and appears determined to win the one piece of silverware that has so far eluded him. His five goals and three assists have steered Argentina into Sunday’s final. Would they have got there without him? I don’t think so.
Adam Smith: Messi. When Kylian Mbappe gets going, it’s like watching a game at double speed. It’s exhilarating. But at 35 years old, Messi has tailored his game without that speed – stopping the ball, bursting again, bamboozling opponents with skills to find fractions of space that shouldn’t exist. It’s mesmerising. It’s an honour to watch the genius. This tournament has sealed his status as the greatest ever.
Jack Wilkinson: In an apparent move of desperation, France turned to Griezmann to fill the chasm vacated by injured midfielder Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, but Didier Deschamps’ gamble has blossomed into a masterstroke. Griezmann’s evolution into a box-to-box midfielder capable of impacting the game in defence as well as attack has been the remarkable tale of France’s progress in Qatar. Only a Messi-inspired victory for Argentina in Sunday’s final can deny Griezmann the Golden Ball.
Dan Long: For me, it has to be Messi. To score five goals and assist three in six matches would be an outrageous return for any player, but to do it at 35, in the twilight of your career is something else. Watching the Argentine legend weave past players, seemingly with the ball stuck to his feet, will never not be a privilege – and to see him lift the trophy would cement his place as the GOAT.
Adam Williams: There are a few great picks, but the obvious choice is Messi. Yes, he is a compromise because his game involvement is limited, but do Argentina make it to the final without his ability to change a game?
Zinny Boswell: There is no other choice than Messi. At 35, to be doing what he is doing – no player with more goals (5) or assists (3) – is astounding. Irrespective of Sunday’s final, he is the GOAT.
Richard Morgan: Messi has further cemented his place as the best player on the planet by inspiring Argentina to a second final appearance in eight years at Qatar 2022 with a tournament-high eight goal involvements so far – but it is not so much his brilliant attacking numbers that matter, more his all-consuming influence over his team-mates, who would not be taking on France on Sunday without him.
Breakout star of the World Cup
Sam Blitz: Sofyan Amrabat (Morocco). Where on earth did this guy come from? So smooth in the middle of the park for Morocco and his calmness rubbed off on the rest of his team-mates as they made history in Qatar. A big future awaits for the midfielder.
Adam Bate: Jose Mourinho called his performances “absolutely incredible” and millions will agree. Many of Morocco’s players exceeded expectations in Qatar but Azzedine Ounahi felt different. It was more than a magical month, he oozed class in that midfield. A big move beckons.
Peter Smith: The increasingly inglorious end to Ronaldo’s time at the very top of the football world was hammered home at this World Cup with images of him looking on from the bench as his replacement Goncalo Ramos banged in a superb hat-trick against Switzerland. But Ramos’ arrival should be celebrated in its own right. At a tournament which saw teen sensations Jamal Musiala, Jude Bellingham, Gavi and Pedri shine, 21-year-old Benfica ace Ramos announced himself as a frontman of the future.
Dan Sansom: Croatia’s journey to the semi-finals was a collective effort, but they would not have got there without their goalkeeper. Dominik Livakovic was key to his country’s success, making big saves at big moments and starring in two penalty shootouts. The 27-year-old currently plays for Dinamo Zagreb but after an outstanding tournament, he’s surely earned a move to one of Europe’s top five leagues.
Ron Walker: Ounahi. The first game of the World Cup I covered was Belgium against Morocco, and amid a line-up of familiar names he didn’t stand out on the team sheet. He did by full-time, with his energy and technical quality eyebrow-raisingly good to watch. The 22-year-old has been a dynamo in the Moroccan midfield, so comfortable on the ball and just as dangerous without it.
Jack Wilkinson: Jude Bellingham had a superb tournament with England, announcing himself on the world stage with mature performances which belied his age. But when it comes to a genuine breakout star, a name few had heard of before the tournament, look no further than Morocco midfielder Ounahi. Relatively unknown before the tournament, Ounahi’s club Angers have a fight on their hands keeping hold of one of the stars of Qatar 2022.
Adam Smith: I interviewed Alexis Mac Allister on the day Argentina confirmed he was included in their World Cup squad. I was struck by how humble and dedicated he was. While Messi, Julian Alvarez and Rodrigo De Paul grab headlines, it should be acknowledged the Brighton midfielder reclaimed a starting berth in the Argentina team after the opening 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia and has kept his place ever since. He always makes the right pass and frequently recycles to kick-start fresh sequences upfield.
Laura Hunter: England fell short but Jude Bellingham overdelivered. We all knew he was talented. We all knew his stock had been steadily rising in the Bundesliga. But we didn’t know he could carry England’s hopes with all the maturity and assuredness of a major tournament specialist. He looked like he’d been at it for years – never out of place. At only 19, he’s some prospect.
Adam Williams: It was already clear that Bellingham was special. However, the way that Gareth Southgate unlocked the young Brummie has underlined just how much of a world-beater he can be. He could walk into almost any starting XI in the world.
Dan Long: This tournament has illustrated just how bright the future is with some of the young talent emerging around the world, and one of the most prominent is Ounahi of Morocco. The 22-year-old midfielder – who only made his international debut in January – has started all six of his country’s matches and his work-rate has shone through, with some tipping him for a move to the Premier League from Ligue 1 outfit Angers.
Nick Wright: It’s been a delight to watch Morocco’s Ounahi. A complete unknown only last year, now bound for stardom. If only someone had written a long read on his remarkable rise.
Zinny Boswell: Jamal Musiala’s performances were pure poetry during his short time in Qatar. Hardly an unknown before the World Cup but for those that didn’t know quite how good he was before the tournament, they certainly do now. He deserved better than for Germany to go out at the group stages. What could have been for England.
Richard Morgan: It is fair to say very few people had heard of Angers midfielder Ounahi heading into the World Cup, but that is most certainly no longer the case after the twinkle-toed 22-year-old lit up the tournament, culminating in a hugely impressive semi-final display against France for one so young.
Best goal of the World Cup
Adam Smith: Richarlison’s second goal against Serbia lived up to the anticipation of this Brazil team, created with a deft cross, struck with the outside of the boot, flicked up and finished with a scissor finish. This was a goal for the ages, rooted in tradition.
Nick Wright: Richarlison’s overhead kick for Brazil against Serbia – as much for his first touch as his finish. Sublime execution.
Sam Blitz: Goal of the tournament needs to be audacious, mind-blowing and memorable. All three boxes were ticked for Wout Weghorst’s second goal against Argentina. While the final action from Weghorst was a scrappy, slide-rule finish from close range, the courage those Netherlands players had to play that type of free-kick in that moment was off the charts.
Jack Wilkinson: From his brave header to win back possession and his driving run in behind, to centre-backs Marquinhos and Thiago Silva combining to play him through on goal, Richarlison’s goal in Brazil’s first-half demolition of South Korea encapsulated Brazilian football at it’s best. A one-touch move of the highest quality, movements off the ball, and every touch of the ball executed to perfection. A handful of goals have got me off my seat during this tournament, but this generated the biggest leap.
Dan Sansom: Luis Chavez’s spectacular free-kick for Mexico against Saudi Arabia. An unbelievable strike.
Adam Williams: The one that sticks out is the audacious scoop from Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar against Serbia. The ball almost reached the moon and yet it still dropped beautifully into the goal.
Ron Walker: Richarlison against South Korea. There were probably better goals, but this encapsulated a little bit of the Brazil samba style in more ways than one. From the ball juggling on his head to both centre-backs getting involved in the one-touch build up, and Thiago Silva’s pinpoint pass in particular, there’s not many other teams who could’ve scored a goal like that at this World Cup. It was a jaw dropper.
Peter Smith: 90+11. What was so incredible about the Netherlands’ equaliser against Argentina was not just the audaciousness of the set-piece, but the nerve to try that play with the very last kick of the game. Weghorst had rattled Argentina with his towering presence in the box but they were undone by the cleverness and boldness of the free-kick move which saw Teun Koopmeiners roll Weghorst in to convert the most jaw-dropping of goals.
Adam Bate: Myths about samba football and ‘joga bonito’ are just that, an illusion of what we would love Brazilian football to be. It is rarely like that but Richarlison’s goal against South Korea was fantasy turned reality as an electric Brazil scored the team goal of the tournament.
Laura Hunter: Richarlison’s second against Serbia. Mesmerising technique. Such athleticism. He’s drawn comparisons with ‘R9’ during this tournament – who he’s since had tattooed on his back – which may feel farfetched but he’s fast endearing himself into the hearts of Brazilian fans, much in the same way Ronaldo did. Nothing and no one will replace R9. Or his adoration. But Richarlison imitated his hero in this instance.
Dan Long: Two stick out in my mind – and both were scored by Richarlison. The Brazilian’s acrobatic volley in his nation’s opener against Serbia was exquisite, as was his goal against South Korea in the last 16, where he coolly finished after an intricate move that oozed flair.
Zinny Boswell: Look no further than Richarlison’s incredible goal against Serbia in the group stages. The trivela cross from Vinicius before the chest and acrobatic volley from ‘O Pombo’ brought a bit of ‘joga bonito’ to Qatar.
Richard Morgan: Given it was a World Cup semi-final, with the game still on the line, then take into account the actual goal itself, a mesmeric, jinking solo run that started inside his own half after an outrageous Messi assist, leaving several Croatia defenders kicking at air, then this Julian Alvarez goal has to be the best strike of the tournament.
Best match of the World Cup
Sam Blitz: Costa Rica 2-4 Germany – Germany were going through, then they were heading out. Then Costa Rica were going through, then both teams went out. A quite baffling few days of group stage permutations were no better summed up than the drama that concluded Group E.
Adam Bate: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – The drama of the Netherlands’ comeback was hard to match as Argentina seemed to be cruising to victory. The incongruous sight of some Weghorst ingenuity threatening to dash Messi’s dreams was astonishing. And the best team still won in the end.
Nick Wright: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – Argentina’s penalty shootout win over the Netherlands in the last eight. Extraordinary drama. Brilliant football. Visceral hatred. What more do you want?
Ron Walker: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – It wasn’t for everyone, but it certainly had something for everyone. Messi’s pass through for the opener. The genius of Weghorst’s last-minute equaliser. And acrimony. Oh, so much acrimony. From the first yellow card to the last, I absolutely loved every second of it.
Laura Hunter: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – This was a truly enchanting encounter. It was routine for Argentina, until it wasn’t. A wonderful exhibition of knockout football, which included one of the goals of the tournament. Weghorst. A free-kick that can scarcely be executed with such precision on the training ground, let alone in the 101st minute of a World Cup quarter-final. The nerve was astonishing. Drama-fuelled fun.
Adam Smith: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – It was pulsating. There simply isn’t a better word to describe that game. It was awash with narratives, from Messi to Van Gaal. Tension ramped up and tempers flared. This was pure entertainment for neutrals, and a roller-coaster of pain and ecstasy for the nations involved.
Jack Wilkinson: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – This was a tense and cagey affair for 83 minutes, then all hell broke loose. In the most-thrilling finale to a match at Qatar 2022, the Netherlands threw caution to the wind, rolling the dice in a last-ditch effort to salvage their campaign. The Netherlands would end up going out on penalties at the end of a disappointing campaign, but the valiant comeback staged by Louis van Gaal and his players certainly will certainly live in the memory.
Adam Williams: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – The seemingly never-ending roller-coaster that saw Argentina eventually beat the Netherlands on penalties gave everyone plenty to shout about. The referee lost control but controversy with a comeback on the side? Tasty.
Peter Smith: Croatia 1-1 Brazil (Croatia win 4-2 on penalties) – While my colleagues have rightly raved about the Friday night Argentina-Netherlands slugfest, the earlier quarter-final between Croatia and Brazil delivered equally huge measures of drama and emotion. Neymar’s moment of magic for Brazil’s goal had him and his team-mates grinning midway through extra-time. They had more than one foot in the semi-finals. But Croatia – helped by Luka Modric’s midfield masterclass, a late leveller and Dominik Livakovic’s penalty-saving skills – don’t know when they’re beaten.
Dan Long: Japan 2-1 Spain –There have been some absolute corkers, but I loved Japan’s win over Spain. The Spaniards looked home and hosed after taking the lead through Alvaro Morata’s goal, but their opponents dug in after the break and turned the game in the blink of an eye – courtesy of Ritsu Doan’s leveller and Ao Tanaka’s controversial winner that had the whole of Twitter creating homemade examples to illustrate the illusion of perspective. It left La Roja shell-shocked and set them on their way to a surprise last 16 exit.
Dan Sansom: Cameroon 3-3 Serbia – Argentina’s penalty shootout win over the Netherlands in the quarter-finals came close, but this six-goal thriller in Group G gets my vote. An incredible game. Vincent Aboubakar and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting sealed a stunning comeback for Cameroon. The result may not have helped either side, but it was a fascinating watch nonetheless. Aboubakar’s outrageous scooped lob is one of the goals of the tournament.
Zinny Boswell: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – Nothing makes for a World Cup classic like a display of the game’s dark arts. The Weghorst double off the bench, the Virgil van Dijk shove or Nicolas Otamendi’s goading celebration. This game had a bit of everything – not to mention 18 yellow cards and a sending off.
Richard Morgan: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (Argentina win 4-3 on pens) – This match had everything, from great goals, an unforeseen late, late Dutch comeback, including a sensational last-gasp equaliser from Burnley striker Weghorst, a touchline melee as 17 yellow cards were dished out, before matters were concluded with a dramatic penalty shootout!
Best manager of the World Cup
Adam Bate: Walid Regragui (Morocco) had been drafted in to galvanise the group. Nobody had anticipated this. Morocco were organised defensively in beating Belgium, Spain and Portugal but countered with quality too. Even France were fortunate. It was coaching alchemy from Regragui.
Sam Blitz: To do what the Morocco manager Regragui has done in the space of a month in the job is baffling. From settling in-squad disputes to bringing back talisman Hakim Ziyech, to masterminding his side to victories over Belgium, Spain and Portugal. He was watching Zoom coaching lectures from Mikel Arteta only a short while ago!
Ron Walker: It has to be Regragui. What he and Morocco have achieved is outstanding. Beating one of Belgium, Spain and Portugal at a tournament would be a decent innings for any team – dispatching all three of them, that’s something else altogether. His side haven’t just stuck 10 behind the ball, either. They’ve played some good football at times and most crucially, got the best out of their key players.
Nick Wright: It was an almost unfathomably impressive managerial performance from Regragui to take Morocco to the World Cup semi-finals, beating Belgium, Spain and Portugal, less than four months after taking the job.
Laura Hunter: Zlatko Dalic of Croatia could lay claim to this. As could Regragui. I’ve chosen Didier Deschamps because he’s a winner, and dignified with it too. He could have packed his bags after triumphing on the world stage in 2018. Now here he is, intent on replicating that triumph. What’s better than one World Cup winner’s medal? Two.
Peter Smith: Morocco boss Regragui rightly deserves the accolade across the World Cup but for a one-off performance, let’s hear it for Herve Renard, the former Cambridge United boss who had the Saudi Arabia players in tears before they pulled off one of the tournament’s greatest ever upsets. Argentina may well win this World Cup but they started it by losing their 36-game unbeaten run to a team ranked outside the top 50. “Sometimes things completely crazy can happen,” was how the inspirational Renard summed it up.
Adam Williams: Regragui comes to mind but let’s go with Gareth Southgate. It’s hard to remember a time when English football has been so united and exciting with such role models on the pitch. France hurt, but England will be back with Southgate at the helm.
Jack Wilkinson: Qatar 2022 will always be remembered for Morocco’s historic run to the World Cup semi-finals. The mastermind behind it, Regragui, enjoyed a modest career as a player but enhanced his reputation as an elite-level tactician with the scalps of Belgium, Spain and Portugal as Morocco became the firstAfrican nation to reach the final four.
Dan Sansom: It’s difficult to overlook the man who took Morocco all the way to the semi-finals, creating World Cup history in the process. Regragui masterminded some huge upsets and for most of the tournament, executed his plan brilliantly.
Dan Long: I’m going with Morocco’s Regragui. The North Africans had only qualified for one of the previous five tournaments and only once progressed from the group stage, but with an approach with its foundations in defensive stability, the Atlas Lions caused major upsets on their way to the semi-finals, where they certainly gave France a run for their money.
Zinny Boswell: Might take some stick for this, but it takes something quite special to guide a nation to consecutive World Cup finals. Didier Deschamps got a few decisions wrong at Euro 2020, but has made alterations and landed on another special group. The best international manager ever?
Richard Morgan: The Paris-born Regragui only took charge of Morocco in August having guided Wydad AC to the African Champions League crown earlier this year, with few expecting them to make it out of the group stage. However, not only did he guide the Atlas Lions to the knockouts for the first time in their history, but he then managed to further confound the doubters by seeing off Spain on penalties, then Portugal, before losing to world champions France in the semi-finals.
Best moment of the World Cup
Peter Smith: The teams in Group E took final-fixture drama to a whole new level at this World Cup. Spain had thrashed Costa Rica 7-0 in their opening match but were on their way out when they trailed to a controversial Japan goal and Costa Rica sensationally took the lead against Germany. Luis Enrique’s side eventually scraped through but there was no reprieve for Germany, as a delirious Japan won the group. Incredibly, FIFA are set to scrap this format at the next World Cup…
Jack Wilkinson: Nothing will beat the sight of Messi cementing his legacy by lifting the World Cup, but if he doesn’t, my moment of the tournament came in my game of the tournament. As the clock ticked into the 11th minute of stoppage-time at the end of the Netherlands and Argentina quarter-final, Koopmeiners rolled a free-kick into the feet of Weghorst, who swivelled and fired in the most-dramatic of equalisers. An unthinkable comeback completed by the most daring of training ground moves, Dutch hope snatched from the jaws of defeat, and celebrations to rival any scene in Qatar.
Adam Bate: It has to be a Messi moment and Argentina’s third goal against Croatia was a personal favourite. Josko Gvardiol had been one of the defenders of the tournament but he was left humbled as the great man rolled back the years with a dribble to remember.
Dan Sansom: Saudi Arabia’s stunning victory over Argentina in Group C. Arguably the greatest shock in World Cup history. Coming from behind to win after Messi’s early penalty makes the result even more remarkable.
Ron Walker: That couple of minutes when Costa Rica took the lead against Germany, and they were briefly heading through with Japan. Imagine a World Cup where those two knocked out Spain and Germany – both winners in the last 12 years – in the same group. Of course, it couldn’t quite hold on for the fairy-tale ending, but Japan did get theirs and the drama and jeopardy of that evening was superb.
Laura Hunter: The group stages were a wild ride, full of thrills and spills and much more besides. The shock factor was initiated by Saudi Arabia, who beat Argentina to obliterate all pre-tournament predictions and odds. Of course the Argentinians, led by majestic Messi, have rallied exceptionally since then. But it was the result that begun a domino effect of upsets. The underdog story has enjoyed a wonderful narrative at these championships.
Adam Williams: What a story Goncalo Ramos wrote against Switzerland with his hat-trick. There was a lot of talk about Ronaldo but the pressure of replacing one of the best to ever do it must have been immense, and yet he delivered with style.
Sam Blitz: Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina: the moment where we all sat up and realised how good a World Cup this would be, on the pitch. Nobody, not even the great Messi, was safe from a shock at this tournament. It made other major nations nervous at the prospect of lesser teams – and gave teams like Morocco the confidence to strut their stuff.
Nick Wright: Can I say Messi lifting the trophy on Sunday? Until then, it’s Messi and his team-mates singing Argentina’s World Cup anthem Muchachos, Ahora Nos Volvimos a Ilusionar with their incredible supporters after Tuesday’s semi-final.
Adam Smith: Simply watching Messi. His deceptive nonchalant periods, humble ease, unworldly ability; the assists, tricks, and his goals. If this is the curtain call and Argentina reign supreme, it will take the house down. He’s taken my breath away in three successive games. How can he see what he sees at speed when we, watching, can’t see it from the heavens? This could be the swansong and it would be unlike any other.
Dan Long: Away from the action, Iran’s silent protest should be remembered as one of the most hard-hitting moments of the World Cup. The way the players risked punishment for standing in solidarity with those protesting against the actions of their nation’s government by refusing to sing the national anthem was dangerous, yet bold, brave and crucial. On the field, the final will produce the best moments of the tournament, particularly if Messi lifts the trophy for the first time in his career.
Zinny Boswell: Morocco’s history-making World Cup run has created so many special moments. But none better for me than Achraf Hakimi’s winning spot-kick against Spain with a panenka. The audacity to attempt that finish against the nation of his birth, the country he grew up in, with that pressure is quite something. And the penguin celebration, a nod to his PSG team-mate Sergio Ramos, who was left out of the Spain squad, was the cherry on top of the cake.
Richard Morgan: Yes, we may still be waiting for Pele’s prediction, made 45 years ago now, that an African side will win the World Cup to come true, but Morocco’s stunning 1-0 victory over Portugal in the last eight was still a watershed moment for the global game as the Atlas Lions became the first team from Africa to play in the World Cup semi-finals, resulting in never-to-be forgotten scenes both at the Al Thumama Stadium and back home in Morocco.