This surely was the last chance. Lionel Messi at 35 had been on a mission, compelling his ageing legs to produce moments of balletic grace to sprinkle some of his stardust on this World Cup. Here again, the stands were blue-and-white, his followers waiting in anticipation for the glory that Messi and the world have yearned for from June 16, 2006, when he made his World Cup debut against Serbia and Montenegro.
And 6029 days, 120 gruelling minutes, and a shootout later, the agony was finally over as Argentina trumped France to make it a momentous, beautiful night at the Lusail Stadium.
Early in the final Messi chased and harassed Theo Hernandez from the right flank to the centre circle, showing the opponents and his team that he was not shying away from any fight. It almost looked like he would be left with more pain, a career without the final touch of perfection.
But he and his Argentina hung on, refusing to be beaten every time the French and its resplendent star Kylian Mbappe threatened to gate-crash their party.
When Angel Di Maria ran past Ousmane Dembele inside the box, the push from the French winger was light but illegal enough for the Argentine to tumble down and for Polish referee Szymon Marciniak to award a penalty. Messi paused for Hugo Lloris to commit to his right, and the French skipper, in mid-dive, watched in anguish as the ball sailed past.
Transitions the key
Transitions had been France’s key to unlocking opponents earlier, but here Messi played the ball to Julian Alvarez on his right, who sent Alex Mac Allister on a dash behind enemy lines, with Aurelien Tchouameni and Jules Kounde chasing like out-of-shape cops running after teenage punks.
And when Di Maria was found on the left of the box the result looked ominous as France had no one to track back. Lloris rushed out but Di Maria was too experienced to be troubled by that and lifted it over the French skipper.
But just when you thought there would be no late drama, Nicolas Otamendi pushed Kolo Muani Randal down when he was no match for the pace of the younger man.
Mbappe converted despite Emiliano Martinez jumping the right way, and the France striker, the star of the show in Russia four years ago, soon got the French president Emmanuel Macron on his feet when he equalised with a powerful shot to the bottom-right.
Argentina had lost a similar lead in the 1986 final against West Germany, and the triumph came only when Diego Maradona escaped his markers to play the decisive pass to Jorge Burruchaga in the 84th minute.
Messi thought he finally had the Cup in his grasp when he was there to tap in Argentina’s third after Lloris had sharply saved the first shot from Lautaro Martinez. Hernandez’s attempted clearance came after the ball had crossed the line and VAR confirmed the same.
But it was not the end yet. Mbappe converted a penalty with minutes left after Gonzalo Montiel was adjudged to have handled the ball.
Martinez rushed out to thwart Kolo Muani in the dying seconds with a miraculous block to take it to penalties, and there he continued his heroics and blocked France’s second shot from Kinsley Coman after Mbappe had converted his third penalty of the night. Messi looked lost in his thoughts as he walked to the box, but he caressed his shot in, not feeling the pressure that was coursing through all of us.
Martinez dived to his right to stop Coman and jumped for joy. Paolo Dybala, too, converted with aplomb, hitting it through the middle after Lloris had picked the left side to dive.
When Tchouameni’s effort harmlessly sailed wide, Martinez was jiving. Leandro Paredes blasted in the next and ran to the ‘keeper.
The celebrations were on. Though Kolo Muani converted for France, Montiel scored, and pandemonium engulfed the night.
The result (final): Argentina 3 (Messi 23-pen & 108, Di Maria 36) drew with France 3 (Mbappe 80-pen, 81 & 118-pen) till extra-time.
The penalty shootout:
Mbappe scores, Messi equalises
Coman misses, Dybala strikes
Tchouameni off target, Paredes scores
Muani gets past Martinez, Montiel seals it.
Argentina wins 4-2 to clinch the World Cup.