It was a consecration, the spiritual connotation quite appropriate. Lionel Messi not only emulated the god of Argentine football, Diego Maradona, in leading the nation to World Cup glory; he finally filled the burning void in his CV, winning the only title that had eluded him – the fifth time, surely the last time. In the process, he golden his claim to be recognized as the greatest player of all.
Argentina had to win that final three times, with France refusing to accept that it was Messi’s fate to get his hands on the iconic golden trophy, that he was somehow predestined. It will certainly be the most beautiful World Cup final of all time, the most thrilling, one of the greatest matches in history because of the way Kylian Mbappe pulled France off the canvas near the end of regulation time.
He had been billed as Messi against Mbappe, with the Argentine hero opening the scoring from the penalty spot and contributing to Ángel Di María’s goal for 2-0. But then came Mbappé, shattering the idea that Argentina would close out the win with the minimum of fuss. This Argentina team doesn’t really work like that. They like to trade late dramas. Think of their wins over Australia and the Netherlands in the Round of 16.
Part of the story was the courage of the French champion, with the 2018 winners being revived by a handful of substitutions from Didier Deschamps. That and Mbappé, who was unplayable from the 80th minute. He scored twice in 97 seconds to force overtime; the first a penalty, the second a sublime side volley and there was a moment near the end of regulation time when he seemed determined to make sure the extra period was not needed.
Argentina came back in extra time, with Messi scoring his second for 3-2. But France came back, Mbappé equalizing with a second penalty in the 118th minute for his hat-trick and the Golden Shoe. He finished the tournament with eight – one more than Messi. He joined Sir Geoff Hurst as the hat-trick scorer in the men’s final.
At this point, it’s worth delving into the chaos that took hold at the very end of extra time.
Neither team was ready to accept that a penalty shootout was inevitable. Not even a little. Randal Kolo Muani, as a substitute for the game of his life, couldn’t stretch to get home a cross from Mbappé and will have nightmares about the one-on-one he failed to convert, the Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, coming out on top.
At the other end, Argentine substitute Lautaro Martínez shot a golden header then Mbappé beat two men with yet another explosive burst but not a third. Never has so much been crammed into an overtime final.
So on penalties and, after Mbappé and Messi scored, it was Emiliano Martínez’s turn and some of his dark talents to make the difference. After saving from substitute Kingsley Coman, Martínez threw the ball away before France’s next spot-kick, forcing 22-year-old Aurélien Tchouaméni to fetch it, further heightening his anxiety. Tchouaméni drags his kick in front of the post.
Martínez had to be physically restrained by referee, Szymon Marciniak, to face France’s next taker, Kolo Muani. Martínez was booked; Kolo Muani whipped home. But the stage was set for substitute Gonzalo Montiel to win it – to crown Messi and Argentina.
When Montiel scored, Messi fell to his knees in the center circle, engulfed by his teammates. Argentina’s third world Cup will remain as Messi’s World Cup, just as the second in 1986 had belonged to Maradona. Both men have come to transcend their teams and tournaments, with Messi collecting the Ballon d’Or here as the competition’s star player. He has long felt like he has a heavenly screenwriter at work, guiding him to his destiny. The image of him and the trophy was what so many fans – and not just those in Argentina – had dreamed of.
The beginning of the game seemed to be a very long time ago. It was then that Messi immediately located his passing rhythms and Di María dazzled. Di María won the opening penalty, exploding away from Ousmane Dembélé before being caught and Messi did the rest.
The first half was all Argentinian, a scintillating time for them, with Messi seemingly playing his own game. He sparkled or curled his passes, wowed with his changes of direction. He even set himself challenges.
Di María had lifted high from the start and it said all about France’s struggles as Deschamps made a double substitution in the 41st minute. He moved Mbappé from the left to the center and Olivier Giroud was the berserk. Dembele was also removed. Then come Kolo Muani and Marcus Thuram. At that time it was 2-0. Messi launched a smooth move with a jab at Julián Álvarez, who immediately sent Alexis Mac Allister running. Di María also took off on the other side and Mac Allister’s low cross ball was custom made. Di María was defeated after his emphatic finish.
France had been a macabre second-best in the first half of regulation time and, although they dug up some footholds in the second half, they struggled to create. Argentina – with Di María outstanding until his withdrawal – continued to look the most dangerous.
Then everything changed. Deschamps’ substitutions were acts of alchemy. He introduced Coman for the disappointing Antoine Griezmann and went 4-4-2, with Kolo Muani playing alongside Mbappe.
It was Kolo Muani who won France’s first penalty against Nicolás Otamendi and suddenly Argentina were overwhelmed with nerves. The equalizer for 2-2 followed Coman robbing Messi and Mbappe fine-tuning a home-and-away with Thuram before finishing in spectacular fashion. The French substitutes crossed the pitch towards Mbappé and France closed in on a winner in regulation time, with Mbappé now rampant. At the other end, however, they needed Hugo Lloris to reverse a blast from Messi to force extra time.
Argentina shook their heads in overtime. Lautaro Martínez made the difference. Twice he was denied by Dayot Upamecano’s late interventions and, when he unloaded for the goal and Lloris could only parry, there was Messi to get the ball across the line.
There would be other twists, including Mbappé’s second penalty for a Montiel handball before Messi and Argentina could celebrate.