Lionel Messi and his teammates were due to arrive in Argentina to a hero’s welcome on Monday as millions of their compatriots waited to catch a glimpse of the World Cup trophy.
In the capital Buenos Aires and throughout the country, millions took to the streets on Sunday to celebrate the penalty shoot-out victory over France in a remarkable final in Qatar.
Messi finally crowned his record-breaking career with football’s biggest prize as he produced one of the greatest World Cup final performances, scoring a first-half penalty and netting again in extra time.
France had fought back from 2-0 down in the last 10 minutes of the match as Kylian Mbappe scored twice to equalise and force extra time in a pulsating match watched by an 89,000 crowd in Lusail Stadium.
Messi seemed to have decided the match in extra time with his second goal of the game before his Paris Saint-Germain teammate Mbappe completed only the second World Cup final hat-trick in history to bring the score to 3-3 and force penalties.
Gonzalo Montiel swept home the decisive spot kick to win the shootout 4-2 for Argentina -- but this was Messi’s moment.
And while the players were able to celebrate with an estimated 40,000 fans inside the stadium on Sunday, 45 million people back home are eager to share the moment with them on Monday evening.
“Of course, it’s what we’re all waiting for,” teacher Veronica Silva, 44, told AFP from the Plaza de Mayo square in central Buenos Aires.
“This will continue for a couple of days. It started now and it won’t end tomorrow because they arrive tomorrow: it will go on for longer.”
“Of course we can’t wait to see the players, all of them,” added cleaner Rosa Rodriguez, 63.
“It’s a good team who did us proud. The biggest celebration will be when they arrive.”
‘ I can’t ask for more’
Messi had tasted bitter defeat in the 2014 final against Germany but in his fifth and final World Cup, the 35-year-old finally emulated Argentina idol the late Diego Maradona by leading his nation to World Cup glory for the first time since 1986.
He told Argentine television: “My career is coming to end because these are my final years. What more could there be after this?”
But he said he would continue with the Argentina squad. “I want to keep experiencing a few more matches as world champion,” he added.
The disappointed France players became the last team to leave Qatar on Monday but their fans were kept guessing as to whether they would get a chance to meet the national team on its return.
Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said the team planned to go to the Place de la Concorde in Paris after their plane touches down.
But within hours, the chief of France’s football federation (FFF), Noel Le Graet, contradicted the minister, saying the players just wanted to go home.
“When you don’t win you don’t feel like wandering down the Champs Elysees or anywhere else,” Le Graet told the BFMTV broadcaster, in reference to the glamorous avenue running from Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.
France coach Didier Deschamps rued the failure to become the first team in 60 years to retain the trophy.
“I don’t want to take any merit away from Argentina but there were lots and lots of emotions and it was cruel at the end because we were so close,” he said.
The captivating final rounded off one of the most controversial World Cups in history.
Qatari organisers had to face persistent questions about the country’s treatment of migrant workers and its laws on homosexuality.
Football’s world governing body FIFA said the tournament attracted more than 3.4 million spectators, making it one of the most watched ever.
The 1994 World Cup in the United States had the most spectators with more than 3.5 million. Brazil in 2014 also had more than 3.4 million spectators.
FIFA said more than one million visitors travelled to Qatar to watch the matches, matching predictions from the Gulf state that people would not be dissuaded by the negative publicity over its rights record.