Dubai: It was written in the stars. In his final appearance for Argentina on football’s biggest stage, Lionel Messi finally lifted the trophy he had craved the most. The mercurial forward, regarded as one of the best players of all time, has a cabinet full of trophies. 11 league titles, four Champions League crowns and a record seven Ballon d’Or’s. He helped his country win the Copa America last year but was missing the grandest prize of all - the FIFA World Cup. Until now. He’s got it, and it is the cherry on the top of a pretty magnificent cake.
The Argentine icon stated several times that this was to be his last tournament and he made sure to bow out on a high by helping his side beat France on penalties at Lusail Stadium after the most amazing game of all time. This was Argentina’s first World Cup triumph since 1986 - back when the late great Diego Maradona led the national team to success - and their third overall.
Messi, who helped the Albicelestes reach the 2014 final only to lose 1-0 against Germany, had been their driving force in Qatar with several stellar displays. This, his fifth tournament, had been his best. He had been awarded the man of the match award in four out of six matches and came into the final as the joint leading scorer with his French Paris Saint-Germain teammate Kylian Mbappe with five goals.
Following their shock 2-1 defeat against Saudi Arabia, the team regrouped and went from strength to strength. Mexico, Poland, Australia, Netherlands and Croatia were all put to the sword as the team marched on to their sixth World Cup final. Only Germany and Brazil participated in more with eight and seven respectively. Playing in his second final, Messi beat German Lothar Matthaus’ tournament appearance record by making his 26th and last, and what a way it was to say farewell.
He had already left his mark in Qatar with a sublime display in the semi-final which was capped by a stunning run to leave arguably the tournament’s best defender, Josko Gvardiol, in his dust before supplying Julian Alvarez for Argentina’s third goal. And against France he rolled back the years to provide magic with every touch of his wondrous left foot. It was a masterclass from Messi.
Les Bleus were looking to become only the third nation to win back-to-back World Cups, after Italy in 1934-38 and Brazil in 1958-62. Didier Deschamps had captained France to World Cup glory in 1998 and then, as coach, guided them to another success in Russia in 2018. But retaining the trophy proved a step too far. This was France’s fourth final since 98 and they had been unbeaten in their last 10 matches on the big stage against South American sides. The last defeat was in 1978 - by Argentina.
They came into the tournament facing questions after narrowly avoiding Nations League relegation in June and with Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema ruled out of the tournament after picking up an injury. He joined key midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, who both started the 2018 final, on the sidelines. But, Deschamps found a way for the team to be able to cope without the vital trio. Coming into the final, Mbappe had five goals, 36-year-old Olivier Giroud had four, while Antoine Griezmann, playing in a deeper role, had three assists and had been the team’s livewire. Indeed, France were ticking along very nicely and many believed they would beat Lionel Scaloni’s men. They had seen off Australia and Denmark before losing to Tunisia in a match Deschamps was allowed to rest players but then beat Poland, England and surprise package Morocco. But the fact several of their players - including three of their back four – had been ill and missed training leading up to the final did not help their cause.
They started the game poorly, there were too many loose touches in midfield with the Argentine players snapping at them. Alexis Mac Allister then picked up the ball, strode forward with purpose and let fly from 25 yards but Hugo Loris did well to smother it. Worryingly for France their main man Mbappe hardly had a touch in the first 15 minutes. It was one way traffic as Angel Di Maria, Alvarez and Messi continued to probe and look for a way past Raphael Varane and Dayot Upamecano in the heart of the France defence.
They looked busier and sharper on the ball and France’s carelessness was helping them build momentum. They were yet to create a big chance although it felt like it was coming every time they flowed forward and it did in the 21st minute when they were awarded a penalty. Ousmane Dembele tripped Di Maria in the box and up stepped Messi, the coolest man in the entire stadium, to casually slot the ball past Loris and give his side a deserved lead. It also meant that in the Golden Boot sideshow he moved a goal ahead of Mbappe, who was still struggling to get involved in the game.
France just had not got going at all and they knew they were up against it now. There had been nothing from Griezmann while Giroud cut a lonely figure up front. Argentina were quicker to every tackle and were fizzing the ball around with accuracy. They were well on top in every aspect with Di Maria looking a constant threat. And it was he who was at the end of a blistering seven-touch move involving Messi, Alvarez and Mac Allister to double Argentina’s advantage. It was absolutely ruthless and arguably the best goal of the tournament. Argentina had taken the game to the World Cup holders from the very first whistle and were now well in control.
France had yet to land a punch and looked down and out on the canvas. Desperate times called for desperate measures and Deschamps made a double change before the break. Giroud and Demebele went off for Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani in a bold move hoping it would spark them to life. Giroud, who had had a superb tournament up until now, was not happy to be taken off. The water bottle went down, the seat took a pounding. He was uttering words into a towel held to his mouth. But Deschamps had to do something as his side were being schooled. Argentina had made them look utterly ordinary and at half time Deschamps had to deliver the team talk of his life to get France out of this trance.
The second 45 began and the balance in play did not alter one bit. It remained Argentina on the offensive and France holding on. Mbappe, a total passenger and growing increasingly frustrated, kicked out at Rodrigo de Paul. Argentina then went firmly in game management mode but just as they appeared to be slowing it down and eating into time they exploded into attack. Di Maria was again the architect, beating his man on the left and firing a low ball that Alvarez dummied for Messi to gather but Adrien Rabiot’s last ditch tackle denied the little wizzard his second goal of the game.
An hour of play passed yet France were still to have a touch of the ball in Argentina’s penalty area. The body language of the players was almost accepting of defeat – they looked down and out and incapable of getting back into it as Argentina continued playing with a swagger.
Thrown a lifeline
But with 12 minutes remaining France were thrown a lifeline as they were awarded a penalty after Muani was dragged down by Nicolas Otamendi which Mbappe drilled home and suddenly it became a test of Argentine nerves.
97 seconds later, Mbappe fired in the equalizer with an incredible volley and France were back from the dead. They had looked done and dusted for most of the match but in a flash they had drawn level. Lightning had struck twice for Argentina. The Netherlands did this to them earlier in the tournament and now France had come back from 2-0 down late on to restore parity. Mbappe was now leading the Golden Boot race with seven goals to Messi’s six as the full time whistle blew and this gripping, thrilling, stunning, jaw-dropping final headed into extra time with France suddenly looking the more likely.
Argentina had to regather themselves despite the psychological blow of those two Mbappe goals and unsurprisingly there was bit of a lull to the action at the start of extra-time. France suddenly had something to lose and Argentina were still dazed.
There were some tired legs out there but the two number 10s still looked capable of one more moment of magic to decide the game. And who else was it, but Messi. Argentina worked the ball down the right and when Lautaro Martinez’s effort was saved the little man seized the moment again and fired a shot that was hacked away by Varane but from way behind the goal line. It was with his right foot and the scruffiest yet most precious finish of his life, or so he thought. With three minutes remaining France were awarded another penalty and Mbappe smashed it home for his hat-trick. With one minute left Muani should have won it for France but his effort was brilliantly saved by Emi Martinez. Argentina went on the counter and Lautaro Martinez thought he had won it but his header went wide. The ref finally blew the whistle on the most extra-ordinary 120 minutes of football ever.
It went to penalties and Mbappe and Messi both tucked their spot kicks away but Kingsley Coman saw his effort saved. Paulo Dybala put Argentina ahead and then Aurelien Tchouameni dragged his wide. Leandro Paredes smashed home and Muani did likewise. Gonzalo Montiel didn’t start the game but he finished it with a cool penalty and Argentina became champions of the world 36 years since Maradona lifted the trophy in 86.
So, what is next for Messi? He looks likely to accept a new deal from current club Paris Saint-Germain until 2025 meaning he would still be playing at the top level when the 2024 Copa America comes around. But, he will be 39 when the next World Cup takes place in the USA, Canada and Mexico and although we are certainly not ready to see the last of him, he has already made his intentions clear. Football lovers everywhere will hope Scaloni and the Argentine federation can persuade him otherwise. For now at least, his World Cup story is over and although it has ended on a happy note we can all agree that things are going to be a lot less enjoyable without him.
The final felt like the passing of the torch with Messi handing it over to Mbappe. The Frenchman now carries the tag of being the world’s best forward. He’s just 23 and already has one World Cup winners’ medal and came ever so close of a second. He scored a hat-trick here, but still ended up on the losing side but it looks likely that he will end up with many more World Cup triumphs before he hangs up his boots.