Lionel Messi, World Cup winner. Finally, fantastically – frenetically – a World Cup winner.
Maybe dreams do come true. Maybe stories can have their fairytale endings. Maybe it was written that Argentina would be two goals up against the world champions and then pegged back in 97 seconds at the end of normal time, and then think they had won it all over again.
That they would come through a World Cup final for the ages – 2-2 in normal time, 3-3 in extra-time – on penalties, that Messi would after all not be denied. Not by Kylian Mbappe’s heroic hat-trick, not by France, not apparently by cruel fate either.
The tears flowed, on the pitch and in the stands. Perhaps all around the footballing world, which in the build-up to Sunday’s final seemed to unite behind not a country, but one man.
But all through Qatar these past four weeks, the sense was he was everybody’s too. At a trembling Lusail Stadium against France, they had what they craved, what Messi has craved across the lost finals – four, including the 2014 World Cup – and the international retirement and the return.
If the 2021 Copa America success relieved the pressure valve of expectation, then the 2022 World Cup hoisted Messi to the rarest of environs, occupied only by one.
Budge up, Diego. Move over, Maradona. At last – at long last –there’s room for two.
How do you sum up all that? That the 64th and final match of this utterly extraordinary World Cup would come down to this?
For most of normal time, it was going to Argentina. They had swarmed all over France from the onset, grabbing a deserved lead on 21 minutes, when Di Maria sold Ousmane Dembele a dummy, chopped inside and was tripped by the faintest of touches.
Messi sent Lloris the wrong way from the spot. It marked his record-extending 12th for Argentina at the global finals; the third of four penalties converted this past month.
Soon it was two. Nine minutes before half-time, Messi caressed a pass with the outside of his boot in the way that only he really can to Julian Alvarez, who released Alexis Mac Allister to roll across to Di Maria, who supplied the finish. The Juventus winger, not used too much this World Cup, was crying even then.
Immediately, Didier Deschamps hooked Olivier Giroud and Dembele, the duo not lasting the half, France’s malaise laid bare. Yet, from nowhere, they rallied.
Late in the second half, with Argentina poised to see it out with minimum fuss, Nicolas Otamendi brought down substitute Randal Kolo Muani in the area, and Mbappe converted.
Ninety-seven seconds later, he hauled back France from the brink. Messi – of all people – surrendered possession and the ball found its way to Mbappe, who volleyed beautifully past Emi Martinez.
As Argentina lost all sense and shape, Otamendi looked to have felled Muani again in the area, but the referee booked the France forward for simulation.
Deep into injury-time, Lloris palmed away Messi’s thunderous drive. In extra-time, Dayot Upamecano blocked brilliantly from Lautaro Martinez, the kind of block that wins World Cups, and Raphael Varane headed clear Gonzalo Montiel’s goal-bound shot.
Martinez, another late introduction, poked wide when almost through. Messi tested Lloris again, low to his left.
On 108 minutes, Messi thought he’d won it. Again. Everyone did. He followed up Lloris’ save at point-blank from Martinez and bundled the ball home.
But Montiel used an arm to stop an Mbappe shot and Mbappe stroked home the spot-kick, ice evidently in his veins. A first World Cup final hat-trick since Geoff Hurst, more than half a century ago. His eighth goal this tournament, unmatched.
There was still time for Emi Martinez to somehow prevent Muani from snatching it, and Lautaro Martinez to head off target when the moment was there.
To penalties, to ecstasy and agony. Martinez saved from Kingsley Coman, Aurelien Tchouameni screwed wide, and Montiel atoned in the most spectacular way. Argentina had done it, Messi soon celebrating on the mic.
It was 9pm in Doha, 3pm in Buenos Aires. Argentines the world over were going to party until whatever time and wherever it was they ended up.
Messi and a mammoth effort from his team, beaten by Saudi Arabia in the opener, delivered it. Delivered it in the most dramatic of fashions. But, in the end, the 2022 World Cup delivered to Messi his ultimate coronation.