Once the presentations had been made and the trophy lifted, I dashed straight to a car and we battled through the traffic to get to the airport.
I’m waiting there now, in these hurried minutes before my overnight flight back home from Doha, sifting through broken thoughts and trying to make sense of the epic we’ve just witnessed. A strange feeling; when the plane touches down in the UK and my eyes open, maybe it will have been a dream.
There has been a fractured reality all the way through the Qatar World Cup, from controversial inception to epic conclusion, from its timing in the middle of a busy season for European clubs to its very location. We all knew that it would be a different tournament — a difficult tournament for many reasons. If there was anything approaching a sure bet it was that Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe would feature prominently in the storyline somewhere, but nobody would have predicted this.
Not this magnificence, not this match for the ages, not this game that took an age to reach a crescendo and which then never let up, pushing the boundaries of shock and incredulity. Not this duel in the desert between the best there ever was in Messi — there can be no disputing that now — and this fearless young pretender chasing him down.
Football is a team sport, the best sport, but this was pure gladiatorial combat.
What’s that line from the movie, mouthed by Russell Crowe? “Are you not entertained?!”.
It was head-to-head between the pair of them, going at each other, fuelled and pushed on by each other, responding to and inspiring and eclipsing each other.
The night Messi won the World Cup – told with some help from the man himself
Chatting to colleagues as we navigated Doha’s choked streets away from the stadium, the comparison we came up with was Tyson Fury being knocked down by Deontay Wilder in their boxing trilogy and somehow rising from the canvas to win. Argentina were dazed and the count was climbing towards 10.
The biggest match on the greatest stage served up the best World Cup final of all time and I’m still coming to terms with being there and bearing witness. In my punditry position for the BBC, my job is to analyse and pick out talking points, but there were moments in the game when you could only be swept away by the beautiful madness of it, to gasp and shout as the wonder ebbed and flowed. To pinch yourself at the privilege.
At the end of it all, my initial response was to say thank you, to France and Argentina, to Messi and Mbappe, for giving us what they did, for that extraordinary refusal to be undone and outdone and what felt like the symmetry of a baton being passed. It was gratitude for giving us one of the sporting nights of our lives, an iconic game on an iconic night. Surrounded though it may be by domestic fixtures — just one week’s build-up after the Premier League hit pause, back to work for a quarter of its clubs in the Carabao Cup tomorrow (Tuesday) — we’ll remember this alright. We remember history.
Staggering. And staggering, too, how long it took for the pot to come to a boil, how subdued and flat the French were as Argentina took the lead and then extended it, with those little flashes of brilliance from Messi, coming good with his penalty, slower now at 35 and more static, less eager to run, but still blessed with those pitter-patter feet and that fantastic weight of passing. His touch and finishing still razor-sharp.
Lionel Messi doesn’t need the ball to hurt you
At 2-0 down, France were gone, and the youngsters were being chucked on in an attempt o give them legs and energy. To give them anything.
And then, speeding at you, one of football’s greatest cliches… goals change games.
Changed? Mbappe’s 80th-minute penalty, his team’s first shot on target all night, disfigured it beyond any recognition. A couple of minutes and that brilliant equaliser later and suddenly all momentum had seeped from Argentina, who were now hanging and gripping on.
There is no logic to any of that, no real way to explain it beyond brains going haywire.
Being present was surreal. Where did the French summon their response from? How did Argentina not buckle at the prospect of effectively having to win the game twice? On the bench, the substituted Angel Di Maria wept with joy and then despair and you could only marvel at how Mbappe and Messi weaved through all that emotion, all that pressure bearing down on them and finding a way to soar above it.
Was Argentina’s win over France the best World Cup final ever?
And you can only feel for Mbappe, the first man since 1966 to score a hat-trick in the final, who ends the tournament with the Golden Boot and nothing else, yet… it felt appropriate that Messi prevailed. I said before the game that I thought it was written in the stars that the biggest star of all would shine and so he did, but we didn’t expect destiny to taunt and challenge him like that. We didn’t expect a miracle. We got one.
So much of the last two decades has been framed around Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, a rivalry crystallised at Barcelona and Real Madrid, those grand old enemies.
How extraordinary that this competition should be dictated and decided by team-mates at Paris Saint-Germain, one veteran, one young, who are never quite convincing together, not when Messi can’t close down anymore and when Mbappe doesn’t want to. When they have a different sort of needle.
The mind scrambles at the thought of their first conversation when they report back for training at PSG. I hope they can find a way to celebrate each other.
Messi, Mbappe and an uncomfortable rivalry defined by mutual respect
From a footballing point of view — a sad but necessary caveat — it’s been a really good World Cup, one that had a bit of everything. There were upsets, none bigger than Argentina’s first match, when they lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia, ending a 36-game unbeaten run and leaving Messi’s great dream dangling on a thread. Saudi Arabia and then Morocco, in particular, made this feel like a global experience. Argentina brought the fans and then the fairytale.
For England, there was familiar hope, familiar despair, familiar heartbreak for Harry Kane, prominence for Jude Bellingham but none of the recrimination that used to travel with us. Hope is still alive.
And then this; what a way for it to finish, with Mbappe’s magic and Messi’s masterpiece, leaning one way and then the other, all fused together and dragged towards penalties. Part of me didn’t want it to ever stop. The other part is exhausted.
This; given the stakes, quite possibly the greatest game’s greatest game.
Who and what to follow now the World Cup is over
(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)