World Cup: Lionel Messi gets his fairy-tale ending

Messi scored Argentina’s first and third goals, and produced a sublime touch to slice the French defence apart in the build-up to their second.

Sazali Abdul Aziz

Sazali Abdul Aziz

The Straits Times


December 19, 2022

QATAR – The World Cup in Qatar was many things: The first in the Middle East, the first held during a European winter, the last to feature 32 teams. But after Argentina’s penalty shoot-out win over France in the final on Sunday night, it will ultimately be remembered as The Lionel Messi World Cup.

Draped in a bisht (traditional Arabic cloak) by the Emir of Qatar, Messi, the greatest footballer of his generation and owner of seven Ballon d’Ors, held the Cup aloft at the Lusail Stadium, capping his fifth and final appearance on the sport’s grandest stage with the sweetest prize.

That was the second time he had touched the trophy that night – just minutes earlier, he could not resist planting a little kiss on the dome of the 18-carat gold trophy as he collected his award as the tournament’s best player.

Naturally, the 35-year-old played a major role in an epic final for the ages, one that matched the astounding drama produced throughout this tournament in Qatar. Argentina had led 2-0 up to the 79th minute only to concede twice. They regained the lead in extra time before conceding a third goal, which meant a shoot-out had to separate the teams.

Messi scored Argentina’s first and third goals, and produced a sublime touch to slice the French defence apart in the build-up to their second. It was the latest exhibition of brilliance from the South American footballing savant, having also littered the previous rounds with moments of genius.

The French also had their own mercurial talent in striker Kylian Mbappe, who, despite being quiet for long spells, made his impact in typically explosive fashion. He scored from the penalty spot in the 80th minute and then a beautiful volley a minute later to turn the tie on its head. The 23-year-old also scored the third French goal through a penalty, which made him just the second player to complete a hat-trick in a World Cup final, after England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.

Sunday night’s win helped Argentina secure their third World Cup, following triumphs in 1978 and 1986. France had also been seeking a third crown, and a place in history: the winners in 1998 and 2018 were aiming to become the first team in 60 years to win back-to-back tournaments.

An overjoyed Argentina midfielder Rodrigo de Paul was quoted by Reuters as saying: “We had to suffer but we deserved to win. We’ve beaten the last champions, it’s a joy I cannot put into words.

“I’m proud of being born in Argentina and today we are on top of the world.”

There was an air of anticipation – and expectation – for a fairy-tale ending for Messi, largely generated by the Argentinian supporters, who made up most of the 88,966 who packed the stands to full capacity, as well as neutrals. Their singing even drowned out the music that blasted around the stadium during the elaborate pyrotechnic and light show before kick-off.

Messi did require some help in writing history and it came in the unexpected form of winger Angel di Maria, drafted into the starting XI for the first time since their 2-0 group-stage win over Poland. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni’s joker made a telling contribution.

In the 21st minute, di Maria cut in behind France’s Ousmane Dembele and earned a penalty after drawing a foul in the box. With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, Messi stroked the ball into the back of the net, sending Hugo Lloris the wrong way, to lift the decibel levels inside the stadium even higher.

Then in the 36th minute, Messi’s dainty touch released Julian Alvarez, who then freed Alexis Mac Allister to tee up di Maria to make it 2-0.

Angel di Maria (right) scores the 2-0 lead against France. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Angel di Maria (right) scores the 2-0 lead against France. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The Argentina fans serenaded their heroes with Muchachos Ahora Nos Volvimos a Ilusionar, the tune written by a fan in September 2021, which has become the team’s anthem in Qatar. They kept singing, roaring and whistling, and as the noise tumbled from the stands onto the pitch, France looked rattled.

Les Bleus had reached the final by relying on effective performances and a dash of cut-and-thrust provided by Mbappe, but appeared to be found out. They produced an off-colour display in the first half and did not muster a single shot – on or off target – in the opening 45 minutes. Olivier Giroud and Dembele were replaced by Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani before half-time.

But then two incredible minutes involving Mbappe, who is poised to take the mantle of the game’s pre-eminent player from Messi, rewrote the script.

First, after Kolo Muani was fouled in the box, Mbappe fired home a stiff penalty in the 80th minute to halve the deficit and give his side a glimmer of hope. A minute later, he silenced the Argentinians and the crowd with a fine volley from inside the box. Suddenly, the French had their tails up.

But Argentina ended the game stronger and by the end of the first period of extra time, their fans had rediscovered their voice. They erupted once again when Messi bundled the ball home from close range in the 108th minute, scoring what appeared to be the winning goal.

But Mbappe emerged once again at the other end, firing a shot that came off Gonzalo Montiel’s arm to earn France another penalty, which he converted coolly again.

In the shoot-out, Messi and Mbappe scored their penalties but France would rue misses by Kingsley Coman and Aurelien Tchouameni.

France captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris likened the proceedings to a boxing match and lamented that their exit on penalties was cruel. “We are empty,” he added.

But the drama was a fitting climax, that took place on Qatar’s National Day, for a World Cup like no other.

In addition to its timing – in the middle of the established club football calendar – this edition was the most expensive, with spending reportedly reaching US$220 billion (S$302 billion) and arguably the most controversial.

Teething pains for Qatar, the small Gulf nation with a population of under three million, were no surprise, as its organisational capabilities were stretched early on in the tournament. Organisers’ decisions, including an 11th-hour U-turn on allowing alcohol to be consumed in stadiums, were also widely panned by detractors.

Critics also turned the spotlight on Qatar’s human rights record, its laws criminalising homosexuality and treatment of migrant workers well before the tournament began on Nov 20, and persisted throughout the month.

Yet the action on the pitch, aided by the star power from the likes of Messi, Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, generated plenty of top-class distractions.

It was also a World Cup of upsets, with Morocco’s dream run to the semi-finals – a milestone for an African nation – plus Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea stunning more illustrious teams remain the pick of the giant-killing highlights.

That a representative from every continent made the knockout rounds – the first time this has happened – also enhanced the impression of a growing democracy in international football, a narrative no doubt useful for Fifa as it prepares for a record 48 teams at the next edition.

For now, however, the football world bows down in deference to King – or should that be Emir? – Lionel.

Before kick-off, Fifa played a tribute on the stadium’s four big screens to World Cup winners who had died since the last tournament in Russia four years ago, and a raucous applause was reserved for Diego Maradona, the incomparable star who led Argentina to their last World Cup win with a brilliant individual tournament. Perhaps it was written in the stars above in the desert sky that Messi would achieve the same.

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