CHENNAI: When the moment comes, Lionel Messi falls to his knees and looks to the heavens. Most of his teammates have already set off in celebration, but Messi stays on the halfway line, overwhelmed not just by emotion upon reaching the end of his odyssey but by exhaustion after a breathless, enthralling, unforgettable World Cup final.
Argentina is the world champions for the first time since 1986, the year before Messi was born. At 35, it is the crowning glory of an extraordinary career that had never lacked embellishment.
Messi craved World Cup success because he felt that he owed it to himself and his country. And now, after Argentina overcame France in a penalty shootout (4-2) following a pulsating 3-3 draw in 120 minutes, in which he scored twice and his Paris Saint Germain teammate Kylian Mbappe hit a hat-trick for France, Messi has delivered that success, just as the great Diego Maradona did 36 years ago.
“This was the trophy I wanted all my life. This was my dream from childhood,” said Messi. At the fifth and final time of asking, he has fulfilled that fantasy – and he did so in a way which, among other things, called upon the joyous, free-spirited football of his youth. “I have fun like a child on the street.”
The first two minutes go by without Messi touching the ball. Julian Alvarez is charging everywhere, trying to unsettle the French defence, but Messi looks passive.
Then, he comes to life: first, a clever ball out to Angel Di Maria on the left-hand side, which becomes a recurring problem for France, and then, an exchange of passes with Rodrigo De Paul.
A minute later, the Argentina captain is caught from behind by Dayot Upamecano while contesting an aerial ball. Suddenly, Messi is involved in everything, helped by De Paul’s tenacity in forcing the play on Argentina’s right-hand side.
Alexis Mac Allister, having tested Hugo Lloris from distance, looks up to be reminded that Messi was free five yards to his right. It is remarkable how often he is in space.
Argentina look so much more energetic all over the pitch. On eight minutes, receiving possession from Enzo Fernandez, Messi plays a lovely ball through the middle for the excellent Mac Allister to run onto. That leads to a De Paul shot which is deflected wide.
Again and again, receiving the ball in the inside-right channel, Messi looks for that pass into space for Di Maria on the left wing. From one such move, Di Maria moves forward menacingly and Messi hangs back, ready to attack the ball when it will be cut back to the edge of the penalty area.
Sure enough, that is where Di Maria delivers the ball, but Aurelien Tchouameni makes the interception at full stretch, just as Messi is preparing to connect. Messi is looking to make little lay-offs when he receives the ball in tighter spaces with his back to goal.
One such lay-off, in the 17th minute, sends De Paul scurrying down the right-hand side and Messi goes off in search of the return pass. De Paul picks him out, but Messi overruns the ball. A let-off for France, but not for long.
Inside the Lusail Stadium, you can sense the moment is coming for Argentina. Its attacks are in waves and France, the world champion, has no idea how to stem the tide.
Opening the scoring
On 21 minutes, Di Maria moves in from the left-hand side, away from Ousmane Dembele, and Messi, having initially hung back, darts towards the near post in the expectation of cross. It does not come because Di Maria is tripped. Szymon Marciniak immediately points to the spot – a soft penalty, but a legitimate one. And now, it is Messi time.
For the fifth time in this World Cup, he is about to take a penalty. Coaches and analysts have come to recommend two courses of action when taking penalties.
The first is for the taker to absent himself or herself from the shenanigans that precede almost every penalty, when the opponents are arguing, remonstrating or trying to cause a distraction. Messi does that, removing himself from the scene until the inevitable fuss has died down. Only then does he step forward and pause, closing his eyes and composing himself, awaiting the referee’s whistle.
The second is to take the penalty in your own time, not to regard the whistle as a starter’s pistol and rush the kick. Messi ignores that bit. Barely has Marciniak blown his whistle than the Argentina captain is on the move, but his kick is confident, stroked to the left of Hugo Lloris, who goes the other way. Off Messi goes in celebration, sliding on the turf in front of the cameras. Argentina is on course.
There are few things in sport like watching Messi when the entire game is flowing through him. For the period of 15 minutes either side of the opening goal, he is irresistible. As the first half goes on, everything he does seems to work perfectly: the lay-offs, the delicate passes out towards Di Maria, one of them preceded by a delightful body-swerve away from Antoine Griezmann in midfield.
Doubling the advantage
As well as Messi’s deft touches, there is so much movement around him. On 36 minutes, with his back to goal, he controls the ball and plays it, with the perfect amount of back-spin, to Alvarez, who releases Mac Allister with a brilliantly weighted pass.
The timing of Mac Allister’s run is matched by that of his pass to pick out Di Maria, who sweeps the ball home for a wonderful second goal that has Messi, his teammates and their fans in dreamland.
After that, it was no longer the Messi show. His contributions – and Argentina’s attacking threat – become more intermittent. But, Messi still seems to be having the time of his life, enjoying himself just as he did as a kid.
During a gruelling, anarchic period of extra time, both teams are scrapping for every ball and even Messi is getting involved. At one point, having lost the ball to Eduardo Camavinga, he resorts to something like a rugby tackle. A yellow card would not go amiss.
Making a comeback
Messi looks spent in the first half of extra time, but he comes again. Four minutes into the second period, Argentina attack down the inside-right channel and Messi slips a first-time pass through to substitute Lautaro Martinez, racing into the penalty area.
Lloris saves Martinez’s fierce shot, but the ball runs loose and Messi scores perhaps the scruffiest goal he will ever score, scrambling the ball over the line just before Jules Kounde can scramble it out. After Kylian Mbappe equalised again, it is time for penalties.
Messi, undeterred by his bitter experience against Chile at the Copa America final in 2016, prefers to go first. He believes that, by taking the responsibility, whether he scores or misses, he has set as an example for his teammates to follow. It worked against the Netherlands in the quarter-final and he opts to do the same again here.
This time, he takes longer over his run-up. He stutters and slows down as he approaches the ball, as if expecting Lloris to move first, but the goalkeeper does not commit himself. It is an awkward-looking penalty, not unlike one that Maradona had saved in the quarter-final against Yugoslavia in 1990, but Lloris cannot quite get to it.
Argentina is level and Messi walks back to the halfway line, his job done. Now it is all down to his teammates, particularly Emiliano Martinez. Martinez does the business, pulling off a great save to deny Kingsley Coman.
All of Argentina’s players on the halfway line celebrate, but none more than Messi. The scenes at the final whistle – and for at least a couple of hours afterwards – will live long in the memory.