February 2, 2023

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World Cup final: Lionel Messi leads Argentina to glory – is he the greatest in football now?

Lionel Messi walked alone into a single spotlight amidst the darkness of the Lusail Stadium to finally claim the one prize that has remained achingly unattainable throughout his career.

The 35-year-old Argentinian maestro rubbed his hands in anticipation of his coronation and donned the traditional Arabic robe known as a bisht before finally lifting the World Cup trophy into the sky amid an explosion of flashlights and pyrotechnics.

Messi had realized his dream. The gap in his glittering collection was filled – the set complete after arguably the most spectacular World Cup final in history, a match for the ages that tugged at emotions and ravaged heart rates before Argentina’s icon reached its peak.

He can now add the World Cup to seven Ballons d’Or, four Champions Leagues, one Copa America, 10 La Liga titles with Barcelona and a Ligue 1 crown in France with Paris St-Germain.

That was it. This was the trophy that Messi’s millions of supporters will now use as evidence A in their argument that he is the greatest man to have played the game.

This is a trophy, nearly 15 inches of solid gold, that many will now say Messi is the greatest – and those who have a counter-argument will have extra difficulty making their case.

The comparisons are stretched across generations, giving a different framework to all arguments, but no one can now deny that Messi belongs to the same pantheon as Pele and another, whose image featured on many Argentina banners at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday.

Diego Maradona, his legendary predecessor in Argentina’s number 10 shirt, was bound to have a strong case for the best. The difference has always been his World Cup triumph in Mexico 36 years ago – a triumph Messi didn’t have. It has now been removed.

Messi will always be about the greatest in any conversation and the fact that he now has the greatest honor the global game has to offer makes for more discussion about his merits.

How do you even begin to tell the story of how Messi peaked? How do you narrate events that eventually led to Argentina’s World Cup victory and the culmination of a tournament that will forever be associated with the name of Lionel Messi?

Messi, with a history of heartbreak and disappointment at the World Cup stretching back to 2006, should have known that it was an honor not easy to win.

The fact that that spectacular night at the Lusail Stadium included so much suffering before Argentina and Messi reached the heights of their third World Cup win perhaps makes it even sweeter.

And all in light of the brilliance of the 23-year-old who, if he’s not already there, will enter any debate with Messi for years to come about the sport’s true elite: Frenchman Kylian Mbappe.

France appeared to be rolling out the red carpet for Messi’s coronation as they barely threatened for 80 minutes. Lusail was Messi’s playground when he scored Argentina’s opener from the penalty spot, becoming the first player in World Cup history to score in the group stage, round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final in a single tournament.

Messi then helped create Angel di Maria’s second, the game taking a routine course with celebrations starting among Argentinian fans until the much-anticipated fight against Mbappe was received in breathtaking fashion.

Mbappe pulled one back from the spot with 10 minutes to go and fired off a brilliant volley seconds later. Messi’s smile, stretching across the huge screens in every corner of the stadium, was an incredulous ‘not again’.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni succeeded with the substitution of 34-year-old Di Maria, who pinched Jules Kounde in the knee but then appeared to succumb to a fatal conservatism when he was turned off after 64 minutes with his side in charge of the artisan Marcos Acuna.

Messi, of course, drew Argentina with his second in extra time, but France, revived from previous mediocrity, equalized again with Mbappe’s penalty.

In an almost hysterical atmosphere, Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez saved with his foot from Randal Kolo Muani, who had the world champion at his mercy in the final seconds, although Lautaro Martinez still had time to miss an unguarded goal at the other end.

To say that overtime was supercharged would be an understatement as some fans even averted their eyes from the action, such was the unbearable tension.

Stressful was the penalty shoot-out, which Argentina won 4-2, a painful way of deciding a game that is now talked about when the World Cup is talked about.

As Gonzalo Montiel scored the winning shot, Messi fell to his knees in tears in the center circle, arms raised to the sky, before being buried under an avalanche of light blue and white striped shirts.

He then claimed a microphone to address Argentina’s supporters amid scenes of celebratory chaos.

Messi clinched the Golden Ball as player of the tournament, the first player to win it twice since its inception in 1982, having also won the honor in 2014.

He has now been involved in 21 goals for Argentina at World Cups – 13 goals and eight assists, the most by any player of any nation. The goals in this World Cup final give him 793 in his career. He was also the first player to score in each round of the same men’s World Cup tournament.

One statistic was what counted that evening: Messi was world champion – finally.

Sitting astride the aft stage where he and his team received the World Championship, he basked in the fact that he could finally fill that one spot in his trophy cabinet. It was a stage that was later filled with friends and family from the Argentina team, whose country is now back at the top of the footballing world for the first time since 1986.

Argentina fans sat in their seats for well over an hour going through the songbook that soundtracked their World Cup campaign to pay homage to the man they could count on. The man who delivered.

The seismic shock of that opening defeat to Saudi Arabia seemed a lifetime away. It was Messi who started Argentina’s World Cup with a brilliant goal against Mexico and he was unstoppable as he carried it through to the finish.

Messi had the golden trophy in his hands. It was a mission accomplished – a mission that stretches back more than 16 years to his coming on as a goalscorer in Germany’s 6-0 win over Serbia and Montenegro.

The final chapter of Messi’s World Cup story was a thriller from start to finish against France, with the plot taking so many twists and turns. It provided the perfect ending to an unforgettable night in Qatar.

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