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He did it, for them. But they did it, for him, too. In the end, they crossed the divide together, Lionel Messi and Argentina, as world champions. He takes his place in the pantheon now, yet humble foot soldiers helped him there. This was not destiny. This took blood, sweat and, quite literally, tears from them all.

A fairy-tale, it will be called, but fairy-tales can be slight. Nothing here was pre-ordained, nothing was written in the stars or won lightly. Destiny alone would not have done it for Messi in Qatar. This didn’t happen just because he turned up. It was a triumph of sheer will – his and that of his Argentine team-mates. They won the match, they surrendered the match; they won the extra-time, they surrendered the extra time. And then they triumphed a third time, on penalties. In that way, it could not just be about one man. Not even a man as great as Messi. One man cannot win a penalty shoot-out, not even a goalkeeper as gutsy as Emiliano Martinez. And one man can’t win a match, really. It’s just that since Diego Maradona in 1986, we think one can.

That was another year when Argentina was supposedly one and ten others. Maradona never saw it that way, and Messi won’t here. He knows the truth. 

Lionel Messi lifts the World Cup after Argentina beat France on penalties following a thrilling final at Lusail Stadium

Lionel Messi lifts the World Cup after Argentina beat France on penalties following a thrilling final at Lusail Stadium

Messi casually rolled in his spot-kick to give Argentina the lead in the shootout after the match had finished 3-3 after extra time

Messi casually rolled in his spot-kick to give Argentina the lead in the shootout after the match had finished 3-3 after extra time

Messi kisses the trophy after helping Argentina to victory in the final. The PSG star scored twice in normal time

Messi kisses the trophy after helping Argentina to victory in the final. The PSG star scored twice in normal time

MATCH FACTS 

Argentina: E. Martinez, Molina (Montiel 90), Romero, Otamendi, Tagliafico, De Paul (Paredes 102), Fernandez, Mac Allister (Pezzella 116), Messi, Alvarez (Lautaro Martinez 103), Di Maria (Acuna 63).

Subs: Armani, Foyth, Rulli, Palacios, Correa, Almada, Gomez, Rodriguez, Dybala, Lisandro Martinez.  

Goals: Messi (23, 108), Di Maria (36)

Booked: E.Martinez, Montiel, Paredes, Fernandez, Acuna

Manager: Lionel Scaloni.

France: Lloris, Kounde (Disasi 120+1), Varane (Konate 113), Upamecano, Theo Hernandez (Camavinga 71), Tchouameni, Rabiot (Fofana 96), Dembele (Kolo Muani 41), Griezmann (Coman 71), Mbappe, Giroud (Thuram 41).

Subs: Pavard, Guendouzi, Veretout, Mandanda, Saliba, Areola, 

Goals: Mbappe (80, 81, 118).

Booked: Rabiot, Giroud, Thuram

Manager: Didier Deschamps

Referee: Szymon Marciniak 

 

 

 

The way Argentina won makes this more than just the triumph of Messi. Even in the pantheon, beside Pele and Maradona, the greatest players to walk this earth, he will know it needed a team to beat France. A squad, a unit. The other penalty scorers – of course Messi went first, and nailed his, rolling it to the left as Hugo Lloris went the wrong way – comprised three men who did not start the game, Paulo Dybala, Leandro Paredes, and finally Gonzalo Montiel. The player of the first-half, when Argentina led 2-0 was Angel Di Maria. Martinez, the goalkeeper, made some fine saves, including one from the spot against Kingsley Coman in the shoot-out. Together, they pushed this contest in Argentina’s favour.

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And then there was Messi. He thought he had won it in normal time, and then in extra time when Hugo Lloris saved from Lautaro Martinez, and he was first to the ball to turn it in. Yet on each occasion Kylian Mbappe refused to yield. The man who would be king, chasing a second World Cup at 23, brought France back into this game even when they scarcely deserved it. In extra time, he scored his third goal, his second from the spot, emulating Sir Geoff Hurst’s record of a World Cup final hat-trick. Hurst finished a winner in 1966, though. Incredibly, Mbappe could not. Messi and Argentina denied him.

Yet what a match. Outstanding yet also, at times, inexplicable. How did a team that played so poorly, that did not have a shot at goal until 71 minutes, that had withdrawn two players for tactical reasons even before half-time, come to take a World Cup to a penalty shoot-out? 

France were not ahead for a minute of the game and trailed for 67 of them yet there were periods late on when all the momentum, and the eventual victory, seemed to be with them. Equally, Argentina were exceptional, particularly for the first hour, yet a two goal lead with 11 minutes remaining was not enough.

As good as the first hour was for Argentina, so it was poor for France. It was hard to comprehend why. Scepticism had greeted talk of a virus in the camp, certainly when Didier Deschamps declared everyone in the squad fit, but maybe they were playing it down, not up. Ousmane Dembele couldn’t do a thing right; Olivier Giroud was ineffectual. Both men were substituted four minutes before half-time. By then, however, France were already two behind. 

Messi thought he had won it in extra time as he put Argentina 3-2 up before another late fightback from the French side

Messi thought he had won it in extra time as he put Argentina 3-2 up before another late fightback from the French side

Kylian Mbappe levelled from the spot with his second penalty of the match to send a pulsating final to a shootout in Lusail

Kylian Mbappe levelled from the spot with his second penalty of the match to send a pulsating final to a shootout in Lusail

But it wasn't to be for the French star, whose side lost on penalties as they failed to defend the trophy they won in 2018

But it wasn’t to be for the French star, whose side lost on penalties as they failed to defend the trophy they won in 2018

Messi and his Argentina side were the ones celebrating after overcoming a tired France side 4-2 on penalties in the final

Messi and his Argentina side were the ones celebrating after overcoming a tired France side 4-2 on penalties in the final

And while some felt the penalty that opened the scoring soft, there is no doubt the scoreline did not flatter Argentina. They were outstanding. Bold and on the front foot, the way England tried to be against the world champions, but with less fear about what France could do to hurt them. It was a brave call by coach Lionel Scaloni, recalling Angel Di Maria. It was thought he might keep him in reserve and play another defender, but his boldness was rewarded. Di Maria won the penalty for the first goal, then scored the second. He was already in tears before France had even restarted the game. Sometimes raw emotion can be unhelpful in a match like this, but Argentina rode a mighty wave of it. Their fans were invested, their players too. Di Maria wasn’t the only one bawling at the initial swagger of this performance. The many thousands that had followed Argentina here were initially overcome, then stunned into silence.

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What a display this was from Di Maria, too. He tore down Argentina’s flank, terrified France and his team lost something when he was removed midway through the second-half. Yet he set them on the path to glory. In the 23rd minute, Di Maria got the ball wide and came inside into the penalty area. Dembele, not a natural defender, got into a poor position, made a clumsy attempt at retrieval and Di Maria went down. There was certainly contact. Enough to fall? Maybe. Yet Dembele has enough experience to know the potential consequence. This was his 35th cap, at the age of 25. He’s not a kid anymore. So Di Maria tumbled and referee Szymon Marciniak of Poland pointed to the spot. Now it was Messi time. 

The stadiums at this World Cup have all got air-conditioning but it’s not needed in his case. From 12 yards he’s always the coolest man in the ground. So it was here. Messi delayed his run with a tiny stutter, saw Lloris commit, went to the other side, low and right. It was his sixth goal of the tournament and four have come from the spot, including three in the last three games. Don’t let anyone get away with thinking that’s easy. Three of Messi’s four penalties broke the deadlock in the game. That’s pressure.

Messi put Argentina ahead from the spot as the South American side took full advantage of a sloppy start from the French

Messi put Argentina ahead from the spot as the South American side took full advantage of a sloppy start from the French

Angel di Maria doubled Argentina's lead in the first half with a goal many are describing as the best ever scored in a final

Angel di Maria doubled Argentina’s lead in the first half with a goal many are describing as the best ever scored in a final

Mbappe's superb volley brought France level after he had scored a penalty 95 seconds earlier late on in the final

Mbappe’s superb volley brought France level after he had scored a penalty 95 seconds earlier late on in the final

Messi was in the right place at the right time as he followed up from a Lloris save to put Argentina back in front in extra-time

Messi was in the right place at the right time as he followed up from a Lloris save to put Argentina back in front in extra-time

But Mbappe pulled France level with a penalty awarded with less than five minutes of extra-time remaining in the final

But Mbappe pulled France level with a penalty awarded with less than five minutes of extra-time remaining in the final

Soon after, Argentina went further ahead with a goal that truly exploded the myth of the one-man victory. Frankly, it is hard to remember a better team goal at this tournament. It involved seven touches, and six Argentinian players, but the move truly got going when Messi laid the ball out to Julian Alvarez, a sublime touch on the right. He played in Alexis Mac Allister of Brighton – one imagines not for much longer after this tournament – and his cross picked out Di Maria for a wonderful finish with France’s defence stretched beyond capacity. Five minutes later Didier Deschamps made his changes and France improved, as they had to.

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Yet it was not until the 79th minute, in an uncanny echo of Argentina’s 1986 World Cup final, that France came back into the game. Back then it was Karl-Heinz Rumenigge and West Germany who confounded expectations; this time, Mbappe. He’d done nothing. Nor had France, really. Not even a shot at goal from either of them until the 71st minute. Yet then, from nowhere, Argentina’s World Cup was seemingly wrenched from their grasp.

We can talk tactics, strategy, but sometimes stuff just happens. Deschamps had been bold in his substitutions but even in the second-half Argentina had been the better side. And then, Randal Kolo Muani got the better of Nicolas Otamendi who panicked and brought him down. No doubt this time. Marciniak pointed to the spot, and suddenly another spot fell on Mbappe. It wasn’t his best effort. Martinez guessed right and got a hand to it – he did in the shoot-out, too – but the power was too great. France were in touching distance again, with 11 minutes to go.

They needed just three. Coman dispossessed Messi – sport’s cruel at times – and set up a counter-attacking move that ended in a one-two between Marcus Thuram and Mbappe. It ended with a lovely chip over the top and Mbappe volleying past Martinez. France were level. Mbappe was now tournament top scorer. Messi’s head disappeared inside his shirt, as if he could no longer bear to be part of this.

It could have got even worse had Marciniak not made the smartest decision of the tournament, correctly identifying that Thuram had sought contact with Otamendi when falling in the penalty area, and had not been tripped. It would have been a travesty had that stood. Fortunately, justice was done. The best team won; the best player won; Messi, the beautician, got what he deserved from the beautiful game. The little genius led destiny to the pantheon; jumping, singing and wearing the proud colours of his enabling team-mates.

Emiliano Martinez produced more shootout heroics for Argentina and earlier kept them in the final with a stunning save

Emiliano Martinez produced more shootout heroics for Argentina and earlier kept them in the final with a stunning save

There were wild celebrations from Argentina as they became world champions for the first time since winning the 1986 World Cup

There were wild celebrations from Argentina as they became world champions for the first time since winning the 1986 World Cup

France manager Didier Deschamps walks past the World Cup trophy after his side were beaten on penalties by Argentina

France manager Didier Deschamps walks past the World Cup trophy after his side were beaten on penalties by Argentina

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