Messi takes giant leap from Maradona’s shadow
Many felt Lionel Messi’s World Cup ambitions had vanished in the Kazan sun four and a half years ago, when Argentina was defeated 4-3 by France in the Russia 2018 quarter-finals.
Qatar 2022 offered the chance for vengeance, but those prospects appeared to be fading as a Kylian Mbappe-inspired France simply refused to go away in Sunday’s riveting final, which ended 3-3 after extra time.
Argentina, though, would not let the most elusive of opportunities slip from Messi’s hands again, with Emiliano Martinez doing the business in a penalty shoot-out for the Albiceleste.
According to the account, he still suffers sleepless nights as a result of the 2014 final loss to Germany; those nightmares will be erased by the 2022 final replaying in his dreams for the rest of his life.
After all, for Messi, it was all about this.
He stated again this week that Sunday’s game would be his final World Cup appearance. Everyone assumed that would be the case regardless, but the ultimate confirmation simply added to the excitement.
This was effectively France vs the rest of the world. There has arguably never been a more one-sided World Cup final in terms of fan support, and it was all due of one player.
For years, the discussion over who is the ‘best of all time,’ or ‘the GOAT,’ has centered on Messi. While the majority has never needed convinced of his right to such a position, there have always been naysayers.
Detractors of Messi pointed to one caveat: his lack of success with Argentina. Technically, it was accounted for last year with Copa America victory, but he would need to emulate Diego Maradona and win the World Cup to definitively silence the most ardent naysayers.
There were numerous indicators that something was different about Messi this time before Argentina and Les Bleus served up their feast at the huge golden bowl of Lusail.
In Qatar, his performances and aura were tinged with rage and revenge. Messi has appeared like a man possessed in the search of one final goal, from ice-cold goal celebrations to embracing – even leading – the needle in the quarter-final shoot-out win over the Netherlands.
He picked off just where he left off against Croatia. The first 20 minutes were virtually as good as they could have been, with Messi at the center of almost everything.
France appeared terrified in the face of Argentina’s ferocity and aggression, while the Albiceleste seemed to love the pressure on their shoulders.
Les Bleus frequently gave up possession in their own half, inviting pressure and, eventually, a goal. Angel Di Maria easily skinned Ousmane Dembele before luring him into a foolish foul in the box.
The wait for Messi to take the kick felt like an eternity, but he handled it with the ease of a man who already knew his fate.
Argentina’s fierce start deserved more, and more was to arrive in the form of an immediate all-time great World Cup final goal.
Messi was vital once again. His devilishly effective flick after receiving a tough pass. When Julian Alvarez was released into the France half on the counter, he had the awareness to feed Alexis Mac Allister, and his superbly weighted pass into the box left Di Maria with an easy finish.
It rounded off a first-half performance that left Didier Deschamps stunned, with the France coach’s double withdrawal before halftime a World Cup final first.
Argentina, on the other hand, shrank after the half, and their plan to sit on a 2-0 lead proved ill-conceived. France did not threaten at first, but when they did, Lionel Scaloni’s troops were immediately in a bad way – oh, how the tables changed.
Mbappe scored one penalty and then scored another 97 seconds later, a perfect finish following a beautiful one-two with Marcus Thuram. Messi gave lost control in the build-up to what appeared to be an improbable equalizer only five minutes earlier.
While Mbappe had gone from 0-100 in the flash of an eye, Argentina’s captain was physically and emotionally tired. It was sliding through his fingers in the most agonizing way possible.
Even in the face of a rejuvenated Mbappe, Messi stood out as the guy most likely to deliver the decisive blow.
Argentina believed Messi had won it when he tapped in after Hugo Lloris had failed to stop Lautaro Martinez’s shot in the second half of extra time.
But France returned. Again. Argentina’s players, bench, and fans were all in disbelief after another Mbappe penalty. A shootout beckoned, but only after Emiliano Martinez had saved wonderfully at the death from Randal Kolo Muani.
So the most outrageous of World Cup finals was going all the way; Messi’s final waltz would be as agonizingly fierce as possible.
Mbappe took the ball first and scored, but Messi responded with a penalty so composed that his teammates must have taken encouragement from it.
The save by Emiliano Martinez on Kingsley Coman and Aurelien Tchouameni’s terrible mistake proved pivotal. Argentina cried, while France stood stunned, having come so near to their own seismic moment in history, battling back twice in defense of their crown, only to come away empty-handed.
But all eyes were on Messi. The greatest player of all time finally had his chance to lift football’s most coveted prize, the trophy that his greatness required. Argentina flocked to him, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the stadium.
“Messi! Messi! Messi!” fans chanted in unison as the massive throng in Lusail basked in the gravity of what they had just witnessed.
This is what World Cup finals are meant to be like, but there will almost certainly never be another like it.
It was the football equivalent of man touching foot on the moon for the first time; in future years, people will reminisce about where they were when Messi won the World Cup, and the utter madness of the game will just add to an already compelling story.
Finally, Messi took his own huge leap, crossing his final barrier.