Argentina won. That ruined my prediction of a victory for France. Lionel Messi, sporting a bisht (Arabian men’s cloak), joyously held the gleaming FIFA World Cup aloft as his teammates danced and whooped with delight. I loved that sight. It was marvellous. Gave me goosebumps. That was a sight all Messi supporters wanted to see. But I didn’t see that coming. I thought France were too clever for them.
La Albiceleste — the Argentine football team — sprung a surprise on the French and me. They put their front foot forward and laid siege on the French goal. Such intent and aggression were not seen from the Argentinians in Qatar.
The positivity was clear proof of how badly they wanted to win. That would be a fitting farewell for Messi. Coach Lionel Scaloni’s move to bring in Angel Di Maria turned out to be a masterstroke as he was a thorn in France’s right side. A whiff of goal was in the air every time he rampaged down Argentina’s left flank, so it was little surprise when Di Maria had a hand in the first two goals.
It looked like Messi’s and Argentina’s night. The Argentine captain scored from a penalty and set off the move that produced Di Maria’s goal, the result of seven touches. The little magician has stamped his mark on the World Cup final, I said to myself. Messi seemed to have gift-wrapped his farewell present. A World Cup moulded with his left foot was within grasp. Ten minutes away, to be precise
The spectre of Maradona
The huge Argentinian contingent in the Lusail Stadium was celebrating, and I was gathering my thoughts for the piece on how my prediction went horribly wrong. That’s when Kolo Muani, who had an excellent night, made the first of his many raking runs and earned a penalty. Kylian Mbappe buried the penalty and 97 seconds later unleashed a volley to put France on level terms. I didn’t see that coming, either.
Shades of 1986, I thought. That was when Diego Maradona’s Argentina led by goals from Luis Brown and Valdano, only for West Germany to equalise through Rudi Voeller and Karl Heinz Rumenigge. In extra time, Maradona set off Jorge Burruchaga on a counter to score the winner.
There was no Burruchaga moment this time. It continued to be a battle between Messi and Mbappe, the one everyone and their grandmothers had predicted. The finest footballer in the world against the young man who would soon wear that mantle. That was an intriguing clash. Exciting too. Edge-of-the-seat stuff, actually.
Messi pokes in a rebound with his right foot, a rarity, and 10 minutes later, Mbappe hammers in another penalty, the one that fetched him the Golden Boot. A hat-trick in the final! Stalemate again. At this point, I didn’t care who won, although I secretly wished for an Argentinian win so that Messi could have his elusive trophy. That would mean my prediction would go wrong: but I didn’t mind.
Penalty shootouts are tricky. It’s anybody’s game. I have watched the only two shootouts in the World Cup finals. One enduring image is Italy’s Divine Ponytail Roberto Baggio firing into the night sky to hand Brazil the trophy in 1994. Twelve years later, the Italians made amends, and France’s David Trezeguet hit the crosspiece. Messi didn’t miss in Qatar. He wouldn’t have, for it’s his night. Mbappe followed suit, but two teammates couldn’t.
Argentina won, ruining my prediction. But I’m happy to see the World Cup in Messi’s hands. That would turn his critics into admirers.
This was Messi’s World Cup. He hauled Argentina from the dumps of the defeat against Saudi Arabia and saved them with his wizardry throughout the tournament. The final too. After all, this was his last World Cup. His last shot at World Cup glory.
And it went according to the script. Messi turns Argentina’s saviour to end the 36-year World Cup drought. Maradona would be beaming from above. Argentinians everywhere would be dancing the night away.
So what if my prediction went wrong? Viva Messi!