Sporting greats can at times impose their will on the game. On a delirious Sunday night at Doha’s Lusail Stadium, it was Lionel Messi’s turn to dominate and clinch the FIFA World Cup for Argentina. This was a summit clash for the ages as France twice reversed the deficit to draw level at 3-3 before Argentina prevailed at 4-2 in the penalties. Having seen 35 summers and multiple heart-breaks in his previous four World Cups, the latest final offered Messi one last chance at wresting the cup that was previously secured for Argentina by the great Diego Maradona in the 1986 Mexico edition. A nation’s expectations, the world’s gaze and his teammates yearning for the greatest trophy, all rested on Messi’s magical feet. It is always difficult for an individual to flourish within a team-sport. It needs synergy, a common desire and an equitable distribution of skill sets. Messi prospered in his previous stint with FC Barcelona, has won four Champions League titles, seven Ballon d’Or awards, led Argentina to a Copa America triumph and yet the World Cup remained elusive until Sunday’s pulsating final against a doughty rival thriving on Kylian Mbappe’s exploits. Through this World Cup and despite the shock loss to Saudi Arabia in its first match, Argentina found a throbbing spine in Messi.
The captain was the indulgent patriarch, scoring goals but more importantly setting up assists that were soaked in magic realism. The pass to Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands and the way he sold a dummy to Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol before setting up Julian Alvarez, were incredible efforts that took the mesmerised opposition by surprise and fed the adulatory anticipation of his teammates. In the final, Messi was in the thick of action luring the defenders before blessing his fellow strikers with quick crosses. Di Maria, like Alvarez in the previous games, could weave in. Yet, in a match that witnessed Argentina’s possessional superiority, France deserves credit for the way a comeback was executed. Mbappe and Messi, who turn out for Paris Saint-Germain FC, as expected dictated the flow of the game. Maradona, who died two years ago, and an ailing Pele have ideal successors in Messi and Mbappe. In a World Cup lit up by the exploits of African and Asian countries with an upset always around the corner, Argentina and France showed that pedigreed teams can last the distance through resilience and a hint of magic, like the one that shimmered from the boots of Messi and Mbappe.
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