This surely was the last chance. Lionel Messi at 35 had been on a mission, compelling his ageing legs to defy the years of rigour and produce moments of balletic grace to sprinkle some of his stardust on this World Cup. Here again, much like in every Argentina game, the stands were blue-and-white, his followers waiting in anticipation for the glory that Messi and the world have yearned for from June 16, 2006, when he made his World Cup debut against Serbia and Montenegro. His fate, since that day, was no more just his but the dreams of his country too, forever longing for the glory days of El Diego.
And 6029 days, 120 gruelling minutes and a shootout later, the agony was finally over as Argentina trumped France to make it a momentous, beautiful night at the Lusail Stadium, which was spilling over the rim and making quite the din.
For Messi, this World Cup had to be his as no more chance was left, and early in the final he chased and harassed Theo Hernandez from the right flank to the centre circle, showing the opponents and his team that he was not shying away from any fight. It almost looked like he would be left with more pain, a career without the final touch of perfection, much like Don Bradman’s zero robbing him of that three-figure average.
But he and his Argentina hung on, refusing to be beaten every time the French and its resplendent star Kylian Mbappe threatened to gate-crash the party that everyone here was craving for.
Early on, when Angel Di Maria stopped, turned, and ran past Ousmane Dembele inside the box, the push from the French winger was light but illegal enough for the Argentine to tumble down and for Polish referee Szymon Marciniak to award a penalty, much to the joy of the assembled lot. Messi, too, paused for Lloris to commit to his right, and the French skipper, in mid-dive, watched in anguish as the ball sailed past. Messi slid to the turf, and his mates were soon on top and the crowd, here, was no longer sitting tight.
The French for a while looked like a three-day-old helium balloon with no gas left to keep it afloat and Argentina was all too eager to deflate it further. The counter-attacks were coming swift, leaving France with no time to think. Transitions had been France’s key to unlocking opponents earlier, but here Messi played the ball to Julian Alvarez on his right, who sent Alexis Mac Allister on a dash behind enemy lines, with Aurelien Tchouameni and Jules Kounde chasing like out-of-shape cops running after the teenage punk with the paint canister. And when Di Maria was found on the left of the box the result looked ominous as France had no one back to track. Lloris rushed out but Di Maria was too experienced to be troubled by that and lifted it over the French skipper and went celebrating with the fans by the left corner flag. The stadium mimicked his signature heart gesture.
Many more chances arrived as the second half rolled. Rodrigo De Paul fired a first-time shot, but Lloris had this one covered, and then Alvarez, too, came awfully close.
But just when you thought there would be no late drama or anxious anticipation that had been a feature of Argentina’s games in Doha before the imperious display of the semifinals, Nicolas Otamendi pushed Kolo Muani Randal down when he was no match for the pace of the younger man. Mbappe converted despite Emiliano Martinez jumping the right way, and the France striker, the star of the show in Russia four years ago, soon got the French president on his feet when he equalised with a powerful shot to the bottom-right.
Argentina had lost a similar lead in the 1986 final against West Germany, and the triumph came only when Diego Maradona escaped his markers to play the decisive pass to Jorge Burruchaga in the 84th minute. And Messi here almost stepped outside Maradona’s ever-increasing shadow, with a stinging left-footer from outside the box that had to be acrobatically parried away by Lloris.
But he, too, was getting desperate as the game moved into extra-time, the anxiety betraying even his touches that always have had the assurance of the divine.
He thought he finally had the Cup in his grasp when he was there to tap in Argentina’s third after Lloris had sharply saved the first shot from Lautaro Martinez. Hernandez’s attempted clearance came after the ball had crossed the line and as VAR confirmed the same, Messi pumped his fist; joy and relief, he believed, had at last arrived.
But it was not the end yet. Mbappe converted a penalty with minutes left after Gonzalo Montiel was adjudged to have handled the ball, and the anxiety was now eating everyone alive.
Martinez rushed out to thwart Kolo Muani in the dying seconds with a miraculous block to take it to penalties, and there he continued his heroics and blocked France’s second shot from Kinsley Coman after Mbappe had converted his third penalty of the night. Messi looked lost in his thoughts as he walked to the box, but he caressed his shot in, not feeling the pressure that was coursing through all of us.
Martinez dived to his right to stop Coman and jumped in joy with the rest of the stadium (minus Macron). Paolo Dybala, too, converted with aplomb, hitting it through the middle after Lloris had picked the left side to dive. When Tchouameni’s effort harmlessly sailed wide, Martinez was jiving, as were the rest of the Argentines. Leandro Paredes blasted in the next and ran to the ‘keeper. The celebrations were on. Though Kolo Muani converted for France, Montiel scored, and pandemonium engulfed the night.
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