Messi finds the fitting ending to cap Argentina’s long quest for glory

France 3 Argentina 3 (after extra time)
Argentina win 4-2 on penalties

This was the ending that Lionel Messi deserved. At 35, the best player of our and possibly any era won football’s biggest prize at his fifth attempt. As a mark of his devotion to the task, he has now played a record 26 World Cup matches. “It’s the title I was missing,” he exulted afterwards. “I can’t wait to go to the country [Argentina] to see the craziness there.”

But before Qatar’s emir draped him in an Arab robe to lift the trophy — the first for a non-European side since 2002 — we lived through surely the most dramatic World Cup final in decades. “A madness,” Argentina’s coach Lionel Scaloni called it. “Football really is a crazy sport,” marvelled Messi.

There was a logic even to this game, which suddenly tipped France’s way after they had spent 75 minutes looking like a lower-division team. The night’s main characters were the two billed as such beforehand: Messi and Kylian Mbappé, teammates at Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain but opposites as footballers. While Messi is the master of small spaces, able to find openings amid serried ranks of opponents, the sprinter Mbappé is unmatched in open territory.

The first 75 minutes, while formations were still relatively compact, were won 2-0 by Argentina under Messi’s orchestration, with Mbappé a spectator who barely touched a ball. Then, after spaces opened up, France came back. In a way it was a clash of continental styles: Latin American technique versus European pace.

After Argentina began their World Cup with a shocking defeat to Saudi Arabia, Scaloni overhauled their line-up, bringing in three youngsters: midfielders Alexis MacAllister and Enzo Fernández, and striker Julián Alvarez. That created a fluent passing unit, with compact lines clustered around the playmaker Messi, able to supply him. In the final he operated mostly at inside-right, passing both imaginatively and near faultlessly.

France’s starting line-up — including five players who had won the last World Cup final in 2018 — failed to show up. Looking paralysed with nerves, and perhaps weakened by the virus that plagued their camp this week, they barely constructed a passing move. In the first phase not a single player rose above the malaise. Adrien Rabiot, usually a left-half, was playing so far back to cover Messi that France often had only two midfielders, Antoine Griezmann and Aurélien Tchouaméni, who found themselves swamped. There were almost always more Argentines around the ball than Frenchmen.

Lionel Messi reacts fastest to a rebound from France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to score his side’s third goal © AP

Messi’s companion since teenage years, 34-year-old Angel Di María, was then brought into Argentina’s starting line-up, in a surprisingly attacking reorganisation to probe France’s right flank. It worked. Di María proved too tricky a dribbler for Ousmane Dembélé, usually a winger himself but here continually needed to assist France’s overburdened right-back Jules Koundé. Di María was frolicking through the French penalty area when the panicked Dembélé gave him a probably unnecessary shove in the back. Polish referee Szymon Marciniak, who got little wrong here, pointed to the spot. On 23 minutes Messi netted his fourth penalty of the World Cup.

Then Dayot Upamecano misplaced a pass down France’s left, and a magnificent Argentine counterattack, inevitably featuring a visionary flick by Messi, ended with MacAllister putting Di María alone in front of French keeper Hugo Lloris. Di María netted and, overcome with emotion after so many disappointments in his long years in blue and white, wept.

The goals were just reward for Argentina’s dominance, and at this point the game already seemed over. So desperate was the habitually conservative French coach Didier Deschamps that after only 40 minutes he remade his forward line, sending on Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani for Olivier Giroud and Dembélé. Mbappé moved from the wing to centre-forward. It would take another 40 minutes, but the change paid off.

France didn’t register a shot in the first half or even touch the ball in the opposition’s penalty area. While they were down, Deschamps made forays from the bench to scream at his players, but he must examine his own role in sending out this listless starting eleven.

Then, as Argentines tired and probably grew complacent, France’s fast forwards found space. Argentina’s sentry-like central defenders Nicolás Otamendi and Cristian Romero crumbled when tested by runners. On 78 minutes Marciniak gave France a penalty after Otamendi tugged down Kolo Muani. Mbappé materialised from nothingness to net it, and President Emmanuel Macron leapt from his seat. Ninety-seven seconds later, Mbappé had equalised. French substitute Kingsley Coman dispossessed Messi to start a French move that ended with Thuram setting up Mbappé for a gorgeous volley into Emiliano Martínez’s far corner. “We came back from nowhere,” said Deschamps.

Argentina fans with a Diego Maradona banner celebrate their victory in Buenos Aires
Argentina fans with a Diego Maradona banner celebrate their victory in Buenos Aires © REUTERS

With the game now end to end, Argentina’s lines spread out and they struggled to bring the ball to Messi. They resorted to what has been their go-to defensive tactic this tournament: fouling the moment the opposition start building an attack. Substitute Leandro Paredes in particular lived up to his reputation for violence.

In extra time the madness continued, with chance after chance on both sides. Messi seemed to have won the cup after 108 minutes with his seventh goal of the tournament, stabbing home a rebound after Lloris had blocked Lautaro Martínez’s shot. But then Gonzalo Montiel stopped a drive from Mbappé with his arm, and Marciniak awarded the night’s third penalty. Mbappé struck it, apparently nervelessly, into the same right-hand corner as before.

The penalty shootout was held in front of the stand filled with Argentine fans, who had sung most of the match until the tension silenced them. Now Mbappé faced the practically unique test of taking a third penalty within an hour against the same keeper. Again he went for Martínez’s right-hand corner and, though the keeper dived the right way and got a glove on it, he couldn’t stop it. Then Messi rolled his penalty just past Lloris’s outstretched hand. But Martínez in Qatar has been much better in shoot-outs than in regular play (his award for keeper of the tournament seemed generous) and he blocked Coman’s hard-hit shot. Tchouaméni pulled wide, and Montiel scored Argentina’s winning penalty. “The players broke their backs,” said Scaloni. “We deserved this win. South American football is top level.” 

“I am very sad,” said Deschamps, who wouldn’t say whether he would continue in his job. After grumbling without detail about the referee, he added, “Bravo for the Argentine team.”

Mbappé finished the evening willingly or otherwise in Macron’s embrace, a loser despite notching the first hat-trick in a World Cup final since Geoff Hurst’s in 1966. At least he was the tournament’s highest scorer, with eight goals. Still days from his 24th birthday, he now has 12 in two World Cups.

 Messi said he would continue playing for Argentina “to honour the title of world champion”. Almost all thoughts will be for him, inevitably and rightly named player of the tournament, but there are so many other stories in this team: his midfield adjutant Rodrigo De Paul, whose strength is that he plays angry; Alvarez, 22, still pimpled, still a reserve at Manchester City, only four months into his European football career, but scorer of four goals in Qatar, not to mention running his socks off defending; Fernández, just 21, who grew up a Messi worshipper and was named young player of the tournament; and Scaloni, appointed head coach in 2018 largely because he was cheap and already an assistant on the federation’s staff. His team became South American champions last year, and have lost just one game — against the Saudis — of their last 43.

Scaloni teared up as he hugged Messi on the field. Afterwards he said, “I wasn’t expecting to be a world champion but now we are. For Argentina, football is not just football, so we need to celebrate. It’s just a football game, life goes on, and our [country’s] problems are not going to go away.”

Whatever he achieves afterwards, this will surely always remain his biggest night.


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