When the moment comes, Lionel Messi falls to his knees and looks to the heavens.
Most of his team-mates have already set off in celebration, but Messi stays on the halfway line, overwhelmed not just by emotion upon reaching the end of his odyssey but by exhaustion after a breathless, enthralling, unforgettable World Cup final.
Argentina are world champions for the first time since 1986, the year before Messi was born. At 35 it is the crowning glory of an extraordinary career that had never lacked embellishment.
Messi craved World Cup success because he felt he owed it to himself and his country. And now, after Argentina overcame France in a penalty shoot-out after a pulsating 3-3 draw in which he scored twice and his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe hit a hat-trick for France, Messi has delivered that success, just as the great Diego Maradona did 36 years ago.
In the build-up to this final, The Athletic wrote extensively about Messi’s journey through four previous World Cup tournaments, about the parallels with Maradona and about the way both players have redefined the meaning of greatness in football.
We decided to approach Sunday’s final with a different perspective, reflecting Messi’s experiences — and the final steps of that odyssey before he leaves the World Cup stage for the final time — through his own words in the past as well as through his actions on a day which promised define a glorious career.
As he said on Sunday evening, “This was the trophy I wanted all my life. This was my dream from childhood.” At the fifth and final time of asking, he has fulfilled that fantasy — and he did so in a way which, among other things, called upon the joyous, free-spirited football of his youth.
“I have fun like a child on the street.”
The first two minutes go by without Messi touching the ball. Others seek to get an early touch, eager to impose themselves on the game and on the opposition. Julian Alvarez is already charging everywhere, trying to unsettle the French defence, but Messi looks passive. He very often does.
Then he comes to life: first a clever ball out to Angel Di Maria on the left-hand side, which becomes a recurring problem for France, and then, when the cross is overhit, an exchange of passes with Rodrigo De Paul. A minute later the Argentina captain is caught from behind by Dayot Upameecano while contesting an aerial ball.
Suddenly Messi is involved in everything, helped by De Paul’s tenacity in forcing the play on Argentina’s right-hand side. Alexis Mac Allister, having tested Hugo Lloris from distance, looks up to be reminded that Messi was free five yards to his right. It is remarkable how often he is in space.
Argentina look so much more energetic all over the pitch. On eight minutes, receiving possession from Fernandez, Messi plays a lovely ball through the middle for the excellent Mac Allister to run onto. That leads to a De Paul shot which is deflected wide.
Again and again, receiving the ball in the inside-right channel, Messi looks for that pass into space for Di Maria on the left wing. From one such move, Di Maria moves forward menacingly and Messi hangs back, ready to attack the ball when, as he anticipates, it will be cut back to the edge of the penalty area. Sure enough, that is where Di Maria delivers the ball, but Aurelien Tchouameni makes the interception, at full stretch, just as Messi is preparing to connect.
As well as that dinked pass to Di Maria, Messi is looking to make little lay-offs when he receives the ball in tighter spaces with his back to goal, very much having fun like that child in the street. One such lay-off, in the 17th minute, sends De Paul scurrying down the right-hand side and Messi goes off in search of the return pass. De Paul picks him out, but Messi overruns the ball. A let-off for France, but not for long.
“The penalties. I would like to be more effective. But when the moment comes it’s much more difficult to do it than it looks.”
Inside Lusail Stadium, you can sense the moment is coming for Argentina. Their attacks are in waves and France, the world champions, have no idea how to stem the tide.
On 21 minutes Di Maria moves in from the left-hand side, away from Ousmane Dembele, and Messi, having initially hung back, darts towards the near post in the expectation of cross. It doesn’t come because Di Maria is tripped. Szymon Marciniak immediately points to the spot — a soft penalty, but a legitimate one.
And now it is Messi time.
For the fifth time in this World Cup (the sixth if you include the shoot-out in the quarter-final against the Netherlands) he is about to take a penalty.
The strange thing about Messi is that his penalty record, in contrast to just about every other aspect of his game, is distinctly average. His overall career record, going into the World Cup final, was 108 successful kicks out of 139 — a conversion rate of 77.7 per cent. To draw the obvious comparison, this is an area where Cristiano Ronaldo’s stats are far more impressive: 146 successful kicks out of 175, a conversion rate of 83.4 per cent.
In the past 12 months alone, Messi has seen high-pressure penalty kicks saved when playing for PSG against Real Madrid in the Champions League and for Argentina against Poland in the World Cup group stage — and that is before we think back to the most painful miss of all, in the shootout against Chile in the Copa America final in 2016.
Coaches and analysts have come to recommend two courses of action when taking penalties.
The first is for the taker to absent himself or herself from the shenanigans that precede almost every penalty, when their opponents are arguing, remonstrating or trying to cause a distraction. Messi does that, removing himself from the scene until the inevitable fuss has died down. Only then does he step forward and pause, closing his eyes and composing himself, awaiting the referee’s whistle.
The second is to take the penalty in your own time, not to regard the whistle as a starter’s pistol and rush the kick. Messi ignores that bit. Barely has Marciniak blown his whistle than the Argentina captain is on the move, but his kick is confident, stroked to the left of Hugo Lloris, who goes the other way. Off Messi goes in celebration, sliding on the turf in front of the cameras. Argentina are on course.
“What I do is play football, which is what I like. I do it because I love it — and that’s all I care about.”
There are few things in sport like watching Messi when the entire game is flowing through him. For the period of 15 minutes either side of the opening goal, he is irresistible.
As the first half goes on, everything he does seems to work perfectly: the lay-offs, the delicate passes out towards Di Maria, one of them preceded by a delightful body-swerve away from Griezmann in midfield.
As well as Messi’s deft touches, there is so much movement around him. On 36 minutes, with his back to goal, he controls the ball and plays it, with the perfect amount of back-spin, to Alvarez, who releases Mac Allister with a brilliantly weighted pass. The timing of MacAllister’s run is matched by that of his pass to pick out Di Maria, who sweeps the ball home for a wonderful second goal that has Messi, his team-mates and their fans in dreamland.
At this point, it is beginning to feel like a procession, leading to a coronation. France coach Didier Deschamps has made a double substitution as early as the 41st minute, replacing Dembele and Olivier Giroud with Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani in search of more energy and industry on the wings, pushing Mbappe through the middle, but half-time comes and goes without, initially, any real improvement in France’s performance.
It is, however, no longer the Messi show. His contributions — and Argentina’s attacking threat — become more intermittent. Messi still seems to be having the time of his life, enjoying himself just as he did as a kid playing on the streets of Rosario.
“I get more nervous today than when I was younger. To lose today means so much more. When you lose as a 15-year-old, that’s part of growing up. But today we’re fighting for titles.”
France’s comeback seems to happen without warning. On 79 minutes Muani goes beyond the Argentina defence and is wrestled to the floor by a desperate Nicolas Otamendi. Mbappe dispatches his penalty even more confidently than his PSG team-mate had done earlier. Messi, walking back towards the halfway line, puts his hands on his head, as if to say, “Surely not. Please, no.”
It gets worse for Argentina, though — and for Messi. Barely has the game restarted than the Argentina captain is dispossessed by Coman, allowing France to set off on the counter-attack. Mbappe moves ominously down the left-hand side, plays the ball infield to Thuram, who sends it back to him. On the half-volley Mbappe strikes a shot of outrageous power and precision. France, almost unimaginably, are level, having scored twice in 97 seconds.
Messi looks dismayed, his shoulders sagging, his chin dropping to his chest. As France’s players celebrate, Messi looks up to the scoreboard and sees the replay of Mbappe’s equaliser. Seeing that, sensing that clear shift in momentum — and knowing better than almost anyone just how formidable his PSG team-mate is — he must be fearing the worst.
The closing stages of normal time are chaotic. Both teams are going for it, as if desperate to avoid an extra half-hour let alone what might lie beyond. Mbappe threatens at one end, Messi likewise at the other, deep into stoppage time, with a rising shot that Lloris pushes over the crossbar.
Just as they had done in the quarter-final against the Netherlands, Argentina have let a 2-0 lead slip. Argentines of a certain age could be forgiven experiencing for a feeling of deja vu. In that 1986 final they led West Germany 2-0, only to be pegged back by two goals in quick succession.
On that occasion Maradona intervened, his superb through-ball releasing Jorge Burruchaga to score the winner. But Maradona was 25. Messi is ten years older — and he looks utterly exhausted.
“You have to fight to achieve your dream. You have to sacrifice and work hard for it”
There have been occasions over the years, when huge matches in the Champions League and the World Cup have run away from his team, when Messi has appeared lost.
Against Croatia at the last World Cup, as Argentina fell to a 3-0 defeat, he looked like a man whose world was collapsing around him. When his team needed leadership, Messi looked like he needed someone to show him the way.
We have seen a different Messi at this World Cup — shouting, imploring, sometimes even snarling. He will never be a natural, dominant leader in the manner of a Daniel Passarrella or an ebullient, outrageous personality like Maradona, but we have witnessed Messi becoming a quietly authoritative captain. It is as if the challenge of leading this young Argentina team has brought out another side to his character.
During a gruelling, anarchic period of extra time, both teams are scrapping for every ball and even Messi, who has usually been above such primitive stuff, is getting involved. At one point, having lost the ball to Camavinga, he resorts to something like a rugby tackle to stop his opponent getting away. A yellow card would not go amiss.
Messi looks spent, as if he is only being kept on in the hope of it reaching a penalty shootout. Is this a legacy of staying on until the end with the match won against Croatia on Tuesday night? That looked like questionable at the time. As that first period of extra time draws to a close, with Argentina hanging on and still looking to their tired leader for inspiration, it looks more so.
But he comes again. Four minutes into the second period of extra time, Argentina attack down the inside-right channel and Messi slips a first-time pass through to substitute Lautaro Martinez, racing into the penalty area. Lloris saves Martinez’s fierce shot, but the ball runs loose and Messi scores perhaps the scruffiest goal he will ever score, scrambling the ball over the line just before Kounde can scramble it out.
As Argentina’s substitutes flock from the bench, the celebrations that follow are those of a team who believe they have the World Cup in their grasp once more. Messi milks the moment for all it is worth. He is crying. Then, heading back to the halfway line, he gestures to the fans, imploring them to keep the noise up. He and his team-mates are going to need help to get through the next 11 minutes plus stoppage time.
Of course France fight back again. They — and Mbappe in particular — look irrepressible the way they responded at 2-0 and then 3-2 down. With time running out, Mbappe’s shot strikes Montiel on the forearm and Marciniak points to the penalty spot for the third time.
Mbappe lashes the ball past Martinez to make it 3-3, becoming the first player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final since Geoff Hurst in 1966. It is as if anything Messi can do, Mbappe can match it. Messi looks shattered. Mbappe, having taken so long to get going, seems to have plenty left in the tank.
Messi produces one lovely ball over the top for Martinez, who is crowded out, and then plays a part in one last incisive move, which ends with the Inter Milan forward missing the target. Marciniak signals the end of extra time and Messi shakes hands with Upamecano as he trudges across the pitch, confronted with the absurdity that his quest is going to come down to a penalty shoot-out.
“For me, the national team is over. I’ve done all I can. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it.”
At the Copa America final against Chile in 2016, Messi took his team’s first penalty and he missed in what was to prove a traumatic defeat. It was his fourth final for Argentina and his fourth loss. Broken, it seemed, by the pressure of having to shoulder the febrile hopes of a nation, he announced his Argentina career was over.
But he soon changed his mind, believing he owed to himself and his nation to carry on. That decision was vindicated not by the chastening experience at the 2018 World Cup, but by the Copa America triumph that followed in Brazil last year, Argentina’s first title since 1993.
Now it is penalties again, this time with the World Cup at stake.
Messi, undeterred by his bitter experience against Chile at the Copa America final in 2016, prefers to go first. He believes that, by taking the responsibility, whether he scores or misses, he has set as an example for his team-mates to follow. It worked against the Netherlands in the quarter-final and he opts to do the same again here — as indeed does Mbappe, whose successful conversion increases the pressure on his PSG team-mate.
It is Argentina’s first penalty, but it is also the last ball Messi will ever kick at a World Cup. He needs to make it count.
This time he takes longer over his run-up. He stutters and slows down as he approaches the ball, as if expecting Lloris to move first, but the goalkeeper doesn’t commit himself. It is an awkward-looking penalty, not unlike one that Maradona had saved in the quarter-final against Yugoslavia in 1990, but Lloris can’t quite get to it. Argentina are level and Messi walks back to the halfway line, his job done. Now it is all down to his team-mates, particularly Martinez.
Martinez does the business, pulling off a great save to deny Kingsley Coman. All of Argentina’s players on the halfway line celebrate, but none more than Messi. The same applies when Paulo Dybala converts their second kick. When Leandro Paredes scores their third, Messi walks 25 yards to meet and congratulate his team-mate.
Argentina scored their first three penalties, France just two of their first four. If Montiel scores, the trophy is heading back to South America.
As Montiel strokes the ball past Lloris, winning the World Cup for Argentina, the crowd lets out the most enormous roar and Messi, on the halfway line, falls to his knees. The quest is over.
“I wanted to close my career with this. I can no longer ask for anything else. Thank God, he gave me everything.”
The scenes at the final whistle — and for at least a couple of hours afterwards — will live long in the memory.
From being mobbed by a handful of team-mates on the halfway line, Messi eventually emerges from the scrum and walks towards where his family are sitting in the stands and he waves to them, grinning from ear to ear. He looks drained, but he also has the air of someone experiencing a sense of weightlessness, that burden lifted at last.
Every team-mate and every staff member embrace him. In those moments you are reminded of the unusual dynamic of this Argentina set-up. In an age when every coach wants to build his team around a system rather than around individuals, it is rare to see a team — every player, every staff member, the coach Lionel Scaloni — regard one individual with such a visible sense of awe and adulation.
They hoist him on their shoulders. Whether or not they are consciously replicating the image of Maradona on his team-mates’ shoulders in the Aztec Stadium in Mexico 36 years ago, it is hard to say, but the image is equally evocative.
Likewise the images of Messi and his team-mates singing and dancing in front of their supporters, joining in with their chants, demonstrating that they share the same passion and fervour for the Argentinian cause.
Afterwards Messi confirms he will carry on. He had said this was his last World Cup, but he adds, “I love what I do, being in the national team, and I want to continue living a few more games being world champion.”
“It was never my goal to be the best. I don’t think about trying to be the best in history. Because that doesn’t change anything.”
These arguments should never be allowed to come down to success or otherwise in a knockout tournament in a low-scoring team sport. Evaluations of Messi’s greatness should not come down to which team held its nerve in a penalty shoot-out in his 36th year.
Messi is, quite simply, astonishing. To call him a once-in-a-generation talent probably does him a disservice. In future, there might be players — potentially Mbappe — who score more goals than Messi, score more spectacular goals than Messi, spot a pass better than Messi, weigh a pass better than Messi, dribble better than Messi, understand space and time better than Messi, but … surely we will be waiting a long, long time to see another player who does all of things as well as Messi and performs as consistently, relentlessly brilliant for long as he has done.
It has been an extraordinary career. This was not the greatest performance of his life, but it was his crowning glory, the one that will secures his legacy not only as one of the greatest players of all time but one who led his nation to the World Cup — and who, like Maradona, did so by leading a group of largely unheralded players.
There have been times in his international career when Messi’s greatness has cast a shadow over others in the Argentina team. His greatest success in the twilight of his career has been to illuminate the team in a way that has lit the path. Finally his odyssey is over.
(Top image: Getty Images)