Lionel Messi walked alone into a single floodlight amid the darkness of the Lusail Stadium to finally take possession of the only prize that has remained painfully out of reach throughout his silver-lined career.
The 35 year old player Argentina maestro rubbed his hands in glorious anticipation of his coronation, donning the traditional Arabian robe known as a bisht, before finally lifting the World Cup skyward amid an explosion of flashlights and of pyrotechnics.
Messi had fulfilled his dream. The void in his scintillating collection had been filled – the complete set after arguably the most spectacular world cup final in history, a game for the ages that tore through emotions and wreaked havoc on the pulse before the Argentine icon reached his peak.
He can now add the World Cup to seven Ballon d’Ors, four Champions Leagues, a Copa America, 10 La Liga titles with Barcelona and a Ligue 1 crown in France with Paris St-Germain.
It was this one. It’s the trophy Messi’s millions of lawyers will now use as ‘Exhibit A’ in their argument that he’s the greatest to ever play the game.
It’s a trophy, nearly 15 inches of solid gold, which many will now say Messi is the greatest – and those with a counter-argument will have an extra degree of difficulty making their case.
Comparisons are stretched across generations adding a different frame to all the arguments, but no one can now deny that Messi belongs to the same pantheon as Pelé and another whose image featured on many Argentine banners at the Lusail stadium. Sunday.
Inevitably, Diego Maradona, his legendary predecessor in Argentina’s number 10 shirt, had a powerful case for the best. The point of difference has always been his World Cup triumph in Mexico 36 years ago – a triumph Messi did not have. It has now been deleted.
Messi will always be in any conversation about the greatest, and the fact that he now has the greatest honor the world game has to offer allows for a more powerful discussion of its merits.
How can you even begin to tell the story of how Messi reached his peak? How do you recount the events that ultimately led to Argentina’s World Cup victory and the climax of a tournament that will forever bear the name of Lionel Messi?
Messi should have known, given his history of heartbreak and disappointment at the World Cup dating back to 2006 and including a lost final against Germany at the Rio Maracana in 2014, that it was an honor that would not be won easily .
The fact that that spectacular evening at the Lusail stadium contained so much pain before Argentina and Messi reached the heights of their third World Cup victory may make it even sweeter.
And all of that was met with the brilliance of the 23-year-old who, if not already there, will join Messi in any debate over the sport’s true elite in years to come: Frenchman Kylian Mbappe.
France appeared to be rolling out the red carpet for Messi’s coronation as they barely threatened for 80 minutes. Lusail was Messi’s playground when he scored Argentina’s first goal from the penalty spot, making him the first player in World Cup history to score in the group stage, round of 16. final, quarter-final, semi-final and final in one tournament.
Messi then helped set up Angel di Maria’s second, with the game following a routine course with celebrations started among Argentinian fans until the much-anticipated battle with Mbappe was joined in stunning fashion.
Mbappe struck one back 10 minutes from time and then fired a brilliant volley seconds later. Messi’s grin that stretched across the giant screens in every corner of the stadium was one of ‘not yet’ disbelief.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni pulled off a selection masterstroke with the inclusion of 34-year-old Di Maria, who raggedly managed Jules Kounde but then seemed to give way to fatal conservatism as he took him off with his side in the lead after 64 minutes for the professional Marcos Acuna.
Messi, of course, brought Argentina back with his second added time, but France, resurrected from previous mediocrity, were level again thanks to Mbappe’s penalty.
In an atmosphere of near hysteria, Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez saved Randal Kolo Muani with the World Cup at his mercy in the dying seconds, although there was still time for Lautaro Martinez to miss a goal unguarded at the other end. .
To say that extra time was very busy would be an understatement, with some fans even looking away from the action, the tension was so unbearable.
Beautifully stressful, it went to a penalty shoot-out which Argentina won 4-2, a painful way to settle a game that will now be talked about whenever the World Cup comes up.
When Gonzalo Montiel scored the decisive spot-kick, Messi collapsed to his knees in tears in the center circle, his arms raised skyward before being buried under an avalanche of light blue and white striped shirts.
He then demanded a microphone to address Argentina fans amid scenes of festive mayhem.
Messi won the Golden Ball for Player of the Tournament, the first player to win it twice since its introduction in 1982, having also won the honor in 2014.
He has now been involved in 21 goals for Argentina at World Cups – 13 goals and eight assists, the most by any player from any nation. The goals in this World Cup final give him 793 in his career. He was also the first player to score in every round of the same Men’s World Cup tournament.
There was one statistic that mattered more than all the others that night: Messi was a World Cup winner – finally.
He sat straddling the figure-eight stage on which he had won the World Cup with his team, rejoicing that he could finally fill that space in his trophy cabinet. It was a stage later filled with friends and family from the Argentine team, their country now back at the top of the footballing world for the first time since 1986.
Argentina fans stayed in their seats for more than an hour, perusing the songbook that served as the soundtrack to their World Cup campaign, paying tribute to the man they relied on. The man who gave birth.
The seismic shock of this first defeat against Saudi Arabia seemed far away. It was Messi who started Argentina’s World Cup with a brilliant goal against Mexico and he was unstoppable as he saw it through to the end.
Messi had the golden trophy in his hands. It was mission accomplished – a mission that dates back more than 16 years when he came on as a goalscoring substitute in a 6-0 win over Serbia and Montenegro in Germany.
The final chapter of Messi’s World Cup story was a first-to-last thriller against France, with the plot taking on so many twists and turns. He delivered the perfect ending to an unforgettable night in Qatar.