Lionel Messi stepped on the stage in search of the prize which has eluded him in his illustrious career. He had played in five World Cup tournaments, losing the 2014 final to Brazil. He has claimed every major laurel in world football and was regarded as the greatest player of his era.
However, he needed that career-defining World Cup trophy to seal his legend along with the sport’s immortals such as Pele of Brazil and Diego Armando Maradona, widely his country’s greatest player who led Argentina to their second World Cup glory in 1986.
In what was expected to be his final World Cup appearance, Messi produced the kind of virtuoso performance that Maradona-led Argentina won the trophy in Mexico.
In yesterday’s final against France, Argentina was made to work for the trophy as France suffered a 2-4 penalty heartache after the two sides drew 3-3 after extra time.
Messi scored two of the goals and set up Angel Di Maria to score the other, while France striker Kylian Mbappe scored a hat-trick, twice from the spot kick. However, the South Americans prevailed during the shootout as France missed two of their kicks to hand Argentina their third World Cup trophy as Messi took a bow from the world’s premier competition when the applause was loudest.
He was beside himself, danced with his family on the pitch and waited to be handed the pure gold World Cup trophy, as they celebrated his unique feat like never before, finally settling in Qatar any debate about his place in football history.
Messi had long hinted that he would retire from the national team at the end of the World Cup in Qatar and after landing the one prize he had always worked hard for at the age of 35, the world may have seen the last of the Argentine maestro in the blue-and-white shirt as he took his last dance yesterday.
Twice Argentina took the lead and the French responded impressively with their quicksilver striker Kylian Mbappe scoring all three goals to win the Golden Shoe Award as the competition’s top scorer with eight goals, one more than his Paris-Saint Germain teammate, Messi, who scored one goal less.
As a teenager, Mbappe won the World Cup with France four years ago, beating Argentina in the process. Yesterday he was France’s key man in the attack. For moments in the first half, he was held in check by the Argentina defencemen and goalkeeper, Emilano Martinez, who pulled off some big saves, especially surfing extra time, but the striker’s hat-trick could only keep the French hopes alive into the tie-breaking shootout.
When Messi opened the scoring from a spot kick in the 23rd minute and set up Di Maria to increase the lead after 36 minutes, following the intense pounding of the France goal area, it appeared the ‘Albicelestes’ were set for a goal harvest.
However, the game swung in favour of Deschamps side who began to play a pressing game with Mbappe operating from the left side of attack with Kingsley Coman as the front man. Clear scoring chances were few and far between until the hour mark when the French took control of the midfield exchanges and used their pace to create spaces within the previously solid Argentina defence.
In the 70th minute, Mbappe came close to scoring when he cut in from the left and dribbled past two markers to create space to strike but his final delivery went wide. It was a red flag the South Americans did not read clearly as Randal Kolo Muane was fouled by Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi in an attempt to score a spot-kick. The young striker picked his spot and drilled a low shot past goalkeeper Martinez to reduce the deficit in the 79th minute.
A minute later, Mbappe struck again from a non-drop shot after being set up by substitute Coman during a quick-counter attack to level the scores to 2-2 and silence the vociferous Argentina fans.
The next 30 minutes of extra time brought out the best in the two sides and their goalkeepers Hugo Lloris for France and Martinez of Argentina, the winner of the Golden Gloves as the tournament’s best shot-stopper, who made big saves to keep their sides in the hunt for the ultimate prize in world football.
Messi won the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s most outstanding player but it was the pure gold trophy he had waited for after suffering a heartache in 2014 when they lost the final to Germany.
However, he saved his best for the last by inspiring his country to World Cup glory under the bright lights of the Lusail Stadium and staking a legitimate claim as the greatest player of his generation and one of their game’s immortals in the class of Brazil’s Pele and Argentina football god Diego Maradona who last captained the South Americans to World Cup glory, 36 years ago.