LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi had to attend, and wait, and wait. He had to attend until he was reaching the sunset of his glittering, glorious profession. He had to attend until he had already tasted the sting of defeat in a World Cup final. He had to attend even after he appeared to have inspired Argentina’s soccer team to beat France on this yr’s final on Sunday, first in regulation time, nonetheless in beyond regular time.
He had to attend until after he scored two goals — but Kylian Mbappé of France, his heir apparent on the world stage, had gotten three, becoming the primary man to attain a hat trick in a World Cup final in greater than half a century. Regulation time ended 2-2; beyond regular time ended, 3-3; after which there have been penalties, which Argentina won, 4-2, the last twist in essentially the most extraordinary final on this tournament’s long history.
Only then did Messi’s wait, his agony, come to an end. Only then could he finally claim the one prize that had eluded him, the one honor he craved above all others, the one achievement that might further cement his status as the best player to have played the sport: delivering a World Cup championship to Argentina, its third overall but first since 1986.
A wild, raw energy had swirled around Argentina throughout this tournament. It coursed through the streets of Doha, filled with tens of hundreds of Argentine fans for the last month. It washed down from the stands during each of the country’s seven games here, a pulsating, urgent electricity.
The players detected it, too, their euphoria after every victory just slightly more intense, just slightly more desperate, the pressure of not only ending Argentina’s 36-year wait for a 3rd World Cup but ensuring Messi’s profession apotheosis driving them on and maybe weighing them down in equal measure. The 35-year-old Messi had said this may be his last World Cup, his last likelihood to experience a joy that he and most of the fans had not felt of their lifetimes.
The whole lot Argentina did in Qatar was to an extreme. Its loss to Saudi Arabia plunged the team into despair. Each of its subsequent victories unleashed a fervent, unrestrained exhilaration.
Sunday night had teased deliverance. With only slightly greater than 10 minutes to play, Argentina stood on the cusp. Coach Lionel Scaloni’s team had shouldered the load of history, the load of expectation, admirably frivolously.
Argentina had not a lot as quieted Mbappé as silenced him. It had gone ahead, 1-0, within the twenty third minute, when Ángel Di María was fouled and Messi put within the penalty kick. Argentina flexed its muscle within the thirty sixth minute with one of the sumptuous goals the World Cup final has seen, a flowing move orchestrated by Alexis Mac Allister and finished by Di María but hinging on a pass that was a moment of characteristic Messi alchemy, a silken touch that turned essentially the most base material into something golden.
For all that point, the 2-0 lead looked like smooth sailing; Argentina must have known it could not work like that. Within the space of two minutes late within the second half, France worn out Argentina’s advantage, all of its painstaking work crumbling within the blink of a watch: one other penalty, this one converted by Mbappé within the eightieth minute, followed almost immediately by a fierce volley, again by Mbappé.
Argentina’s players slumped, the breath drawn out of their lungs. That they had been so close. Straight away it was 2-2; they were so far as ever.
France smelled blood; Argentina could do nothing but hang on for beyond regular time. Messi roused himself again, driving the ball home within the 108th minute after goalkeeper Hugo Lloris made a save on Lautaro Martínez.
Over again, Messi was swamped by delirious teammates. Over again, he stood in front of Argentina’s fans, pumping his arms, an idol and his worshipers. And over again, Mbappé wouldn’t be denied, wouldn’t accept a cameo role in another person’s story. His shot struck the outstretched arm of Argentina’s Gonzalo Montiel. Mbappé drilled home the penalty. The sport would go the gap, to the sweet cruelty of penalties.
There, for once, it could not be Messi — or Mbappé — who delivered the decisive blow. They each scored. But irrespective of how teams try to govern the order, to direct destiny, penalty shootouts are, invariably, a spot for unlikely heroes and unlucky villains. Kingsley Coman and Aurélien Tchouaméni missed for France, leaving Montiel, an unheralded right back, standing along with his country, and Messi’s legacy, on his shoulders.
The noise that Argentina’s fans emitted when the ball struck the web appeared to pierce the sky. Messi’s wait, eventually, was over.
Within the moments after he had arrived at what he has at all times seen as each his destiny and his duty, though, Messi seemed improbably, blissfully calm. As his teammates ran to 1 one other, to the massed bank of Argentina’s fans behind the goal through which the ultimate, crucial blow had been delivered, most of them could bear it not.
For many, all of that hope, all of that belief, all of that fear broke without delay. Di María’s face was stained with tears, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Messi, alternatively, simply smiled, a brow briefly furrowing in a fashion familiar to any harried parent as he tried to work out how his wife, Antonela Roccuzzo, might bring their three children onto the sphere.
It was only when he embraced his mother a couple of minutes later that he could maintain his composure not, when he finally allowed his joy, his relief, to brush him away. Messi may need learned way back that it could not be easy to emulate Diego Maradona, to show Argentina right into a world champion; he couldn’t, surely, have imagined it could be quite this difficult.
Now it was done. He congratulated his teammates. He joined them, arms slung over their shoulders, as they danced and bounced with their fans. He found his family, clasped them tight.
After which he was summoned to the stage that had been erected in the course of the sphere. FIFA likes to attract this stuff out; before the World Cup trophy is presented, it must run through the young player of the tournament, the highest goalkeeper, the leading scorer, one of the best player. That final prize went, in fact, to Messi. This World Cup was about him. It has at all times been about him.
He collected his best-player statue from Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president; shook hands with the assembled dignitaries; and walked off down the rostrum. The trophy he cared about was sitting there, golden and gleaming, in his sight.
There have been a couple of minutes, yet, before he would have a medal placed around his neck, a ceremonial bisht draped over his shoulders, and the prospect to hoist the trophy into the air. It was an hour or so before he can be carried around the sphere on his teammates’ shoulders, an enormous crowd of staff members and partners and kids of their wake, a homage to Maradona’s celebrations in 1986, the last time Argentina was champion of the world.
He still had all of that to return. He would have his moment, soon enough. But now he stopped next to the trophy. He checked out it. After which he leaned down, ever so barely, caressed its smooth dome, and kissed it, once, twice. Messi had waited long enough. He didn’t wish to wait any longer.