By Martin Rogers
LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi did it.
It took a decade and a half, but he did it. It took years of disappointment, a brief retirement from the Argentina national team, five World Cup appearances, a ton of frustration, the survival of two wild and furious France comebacks and a nerve-shredding penalty shootout Sunday.
But history will only remember that on a December night in Qatar, the world’s most popular player finally won soccer’s most important trophy, as his country beat France in one of the most thrilling finals in World Cup history.
On penalties after extra time finished at 3-3, Messi converted Argentina’s first shot, and goalkeeper Emi Martinez was once again the hero, saving Kingsley Coman‘s kick before Aurelien Tchouameni missed and then, finally, Gonzalo Montiel sealed it for the South Americans, 4-2.
It meant all kinds of things. That Argentina would lift the trophy for the third time, and the first since Diego Maradona spearheaded a memorable 1986 triumph. That Messi would end up with seven goals after become the first player to hit the target in every game of the knockout rounds.
Argentina vs. France Highlights
It meant a remarkable resurrection following an opening game defeat to Saudi Arabia four weeks ago. It meant, and this should not be overlooked, that Argentina’s title came against probably the toughest opponent that fate could have dealt them, reigning champion France.
More than anything though, it meant that in his final World Cup match, Messi finally got his hands on the iconic trophy, to put the final touch on a career résumé that was already enough to put him among the all-time greats and was missing just this one last thing.
For a long, long time, it looked like it was going to be a much simpler coronation than this.
Messi sent Argentina on its way with a successful penalty midway through the first half, before a superb team goal was finished off by Angel di Maria on 36 minutes.
Lionel Messi’s PK gives Argentina the lead
However, with 10 minutes of regulation left, France superstar Kylian Mbappe took a script that was not to his liking and decided to rewrite it, scoring twice in the space of 97 seconds to tie it up.
In extra time, Argentina frequently looked spent, only for Messi to aim for his own dream outcome. On 109 minutes, Lautaro Martinez‘s fierce strike was expertly saved by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, but there was Messi, on hand to knock the ball over the line.
But Mbappe, seemingly intent on turning this into a personal duel, leveled it again, drawing a penalty for a handball and then converting it with two minutes remaining in the additional period.
Only for the unique intensity of the penalty spot to decide it. To separate two outstanding teams. To clinch the title. And to give Messi, finally, his ultimate destiny.
Lionel Messi scores in 108th minute
What a night. What a final. And what a player Messi is and has been, with Mbappe equally majestic in defeat.
By the end, all that happened during the normal 90 minutes might as well have belonged to a different time. It laid the foundation for all the exhilaration to follow though, a twisting, turning, extraordinary narrative in its own right.
The return of Di Maria to the Argentina lineup proved key, and the veteran winger was instrumental in facilitating the opening goal. Di Maria flew past Jules Kounde on the inside after 22, made the box, and went to ground when Kounde tried to recover.
Messi, calm as ever, made full use of a delayed final step, and when he saw goalkeeper Lloris start to dive to his right, rolled it into the other corner.
The second was a thing of beauty, the kind that can only be scored by a team settled in its own belief.
It came after four critical touches from its four most dangerous attacking threats. From within his own half, Messi got the first of them, a flick with the outside of his left foot, and Argentina was off and running,
Another touch from the brilliant and hard-working Julian Alvarez sent Alexis Mac Allister running into clear space beyond the France defensive line, and he had the presence of mind, having drawn Lloris off his line, to spot Di Maria charging in from the left and to set him up with another perfect pass.
Soon after the hour mark, Di Maria was replaced, perhaps necessitated by his injury layoff, or perhaps as a defensive precaution. However, now relieved of some defensive pressure, France started to create some moments of their own.
At that point, Mbappe had been unable to exert much influence and, in fairness, had not received much of the ball. But he grabbed it eagerly when Randal Kolo Muani was fouled in the box by Nicolas Otamendi and struck it firm and low past Martinez.
Then and there, it looked like little more than the set-up for a tense finish. Within seconds, that notion was blown away. Messi lost the ball to Coman in midfield and moments later it was in the back of the net, Marcus Thuram finding Mbappe in space to deliver a perfect strike past Martinez.
Kylian Mbappe levels in extra time
Messi’s Hollywood ending was delayed, despite his timely strike, as Mbappe brought France roaring back one more time.
But Argentina’s nerve from the spot had already been on display against the Netherlands in the quarterfinal, and so it was again.
For the ultimate drama. For Argentinian glory. And for Messi.
Messi’s exploits won him the Golden Ball as player of the tournament, and as he strode atop the stage he had to pass the World Cup trophy. It wasn’t yet time to hoist it aloft — it soon would be — but he couldn’t resist patting it gently and giving it a small kiss.
That’s how much it meant. That’s how long he’d waited.