Lionel Messi celebrates winning the World Cup. (Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
After 18 seasons, hundreds of goals, several UEFA Champions League championships, countless league titles and five World Cups, Lionel Messi finally landed his object of desire on Sunday.
The Argentinian had an opportunity to parade around a stadium with his teammates with the World Cup in his hands.
That’s because of magic that he performed with his feet.
Getting there, however, was much easier said than done.
In a World Cup final for the ages, the match that had numerous twists and turns, ebbs and flows and plenty of drama provided by both sides, Messi, quite fittingly, took center stage. The 35-yeyar-old soccer icon scored two goals during the run of play and added a penalty kick in the shootout as Argentina won the penalty-kick tie-breaker 4-2, against France after playing to a wild and crazy 3-3 draw over 120 minutes.
Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez saved Kingsley Coman’s PK, diving to his left, and forced Aurelien Tchouameni’s attempt wide left.
Kylian Mbappe, who converted a PK in the shootout, became the second man and third player overall to register a hat-trick in a World Cup final. Gonzalo Montiel ripped his try down the middle and Argentina had its third world championship (1978, 1986 were the others) and Messi had his first.
Messi dropped to his knees in celebration before 89,966 spectators at Lusail Iconic Stadium in Lusail, Qatar.
The Argentines became only the second team to win a World Cup after losing its first game, a 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia. They duplicated the feat first accomplished by Spain in 2010.
Argentina owned the first half, thanks to its midfield stifling and dominating its French counterparts.
It allowed the South Americans much more movement on the attack and keep the ball for long stretches of time and create more chaos in the back. It also rendered Mbappe, who entered the match with five goals, useless as he rarely touched the ball.
That certainly wasn’t the case with Messi, who masterminded the Argentine attack.
Five minutes into the match, Alexis MacAlister gave notice to France on what type of half it was going to be as he fired a shot that goalkeeper Hugo Lloris saved.
Ousmane Dembeke pushed Angel DiMaria to the ground in the 21st minute, and referee Szymon Marciniak awarded Argentina a penalty kick.
Two minutes later, a serious looking Messi stepped up to take the kick and drilled a left-footed shot into the lower right corner as Lloris dove the other way. Messi, who had never scored in the knockout of a World Cup before this tournament, tallied 12th in his five World Cups and 97th of his international career.
Messi, who is rumored to be heading to Inter Miami FC in Major League Soccer next summer, became the first player to score in all four knockout-round matches as he also won the Golden Boot title as the top goal-scorer (six).
While France tried to figure out how to get its midfield back on track, the Argentines struck yet again in the 36th minute on a counterattack. Messi started the counter with a quick outlet pass. MacAllister and DiMaria found themselves on a 2-on-1 break as the former slotted home a shot from seven yards on the left side for a stunning 2-0 advantage.
It was so bad for France that head coach Didier Deschamps was forced to pull two starters off in the 41st minute, replacing Olivier Giroud and Dembele with Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani, respectively.
At the onset of the second half, the French showed little or no urgency to make a game of it as Argentina had the better possession and opportunities.
How dominating was the Argentine defense? Mbappe took his first shot of the game in the 71st minute, an effort that he powered over the crossbar.
Down and out for most of the match, France pulled off a comeback for the ages on Sunday.
The French got a lifeline in the 79th minute when they were awarded a penalty kick. A minute later, Mbappe converted, driving his attempt into the lower left corner as Martinez got his fingertips on the shot.
They equalized in the 81st minute, when Mbappe finished a quick counterattack off a Marcus Thuram feed, from the left side of the box for a 2-2 deadlock. It was his tournament-best seventh goal.
France dominated the rest of regulation, coming at the Argentine goal in waves. Adrien Rabiot forced Martinez to make a save five minutes into second-half stoppage time.
In the seventh minute of added time, it was Messi’s turn, as Lloris parried away his shot from distance to force a corner kick.
There was plenty of drama and heroics by both sides in extratime.
Messi had given Argentina the lead by burying a rebound of a Lautaro Martínez shot that was saved in the 107th minute in a World Cup final for the ages.
The French, however, equalized in the 118th minute after a handball was called on Argentina. Mbappe then put away his PK for his hat-trick, joining Geoff Hurst (1966, men) and Carli Lloyd (2015, women) as the only players to tally three goals in a World Cup final, to force penalties.