As his teammates and the Argentina fans dissolved in tears around him, Lionel Messi beamed.
This wasn’t a fairytale ending. Such things don’t exist and, if they did, the World Cup final wouldn’t have gone into extra time, let alone a penalty shootout, both of which made for a more precarious, and unpredictable, outcome.
But it was about as close as it comes.
In his last World Cup game, with his older two sons at an age where they can appreciate what they witnessed, Messi finally won the only title that had eluded him while providing an emphatic answer to those who’d questioned whether he is the best to ever play the game.
The trophy in his hands, shining as bright as that smile, proves it.
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“He’s the best in history, no doubt about it, and he showed that in the game. He’s been showing it during the whole tournament,” Rodrigo De Paul told Argentina TV station TyC Sports after Messi and Argentina defeated defending champion France in a penalty shootout in Sunday’s World Cup final.
The final itself was epic, an instant classic that showed the beautiful game in all its thrilling and nerve-wracking glory. Or, as Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said, “The match was completely insane.”
With first-half goals from Messi and Angel Di Maria, Argentina was 10 minutes from a victory over a lethargic France when Kylian Mbappe single-handedly revived the defending champions. He scored twice in 90 seconds to force extra time.
Then, after Messi had knocked in a rebound goal to put Argentina back in front in the 108th, Mbappe tied it up again 10 minutes later.
That would send the game to a penalty shootout, and France would miss two of its first four shots. With Messi, Paulo Dybala and Leandro Paredes all making theirs — Messi slow-rolling his as if to give all those who’ve doubted his greatness a few extra seconds to absorb it — it came to Gonzalo Montiel, whose handball in extra time had given France a last lifeline.
Montiel buried his shot, and Messi broke into a grin that wouldn’t fade for the rest of the night.
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He greeted Argentina’s fans, who had turned Doha into a suburb of Buenos Aries all month, and was at the front of the Albiceleste dance line. He hugged sons Thiago and Mateo, who was so devastated by Argentina’s upset loss to Saudi Arabia in their group-stage opener — a game that now seems like a million years ago — he left the stadium crying.
Rather than being overcome or relieved or any of the things you’re supposed to feel when you throw a weight off your shoulders, Messi simply looked elated. As if he’d known all along what the rest of the world could only hope for.
There would be no asterisk to his career. His dazzling resume includes a World Cup title.
“We were destined to be world champions,” Messi said in his Man of the Match interview, “and we are.”
Playing with lightness and joy
This is the third World Cup title for the Albiceleste, and first since Diego Maradona’s career-defining performance in 1986. This is the first World Cup since Maradona died in 2020, adding to Argentina’s sense of destiny here in Qatar.
This World Cup is, and has always been, all about Messi, however.
Messi long ago established himself as the best player of his generation, winning seven Ballon d’Or trophies and four Champions League titles. He’s expanded the reach and appeal of this beautiful game, his iconic No 10 jersey – the light blue-and-white-striped Argentina version, in particular – found in every corner of the globe.
For all his superlatives, though, he lacked the one that would declare his greatness to fans and non-fans alike.
Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Ronaldo (the original, not the later, lesser version), Zidane – all the other greats were World Cup champions. Messi had made it to the final just once in his previous four World Cup appearances, and Argentina lost that one to Germany in 2014.
Messi said before the tournament this would “surely” be his last World Cup, a statement the 35-year-old repeated several times over the last month. Sending him out as a champion became the driving force for both him and his Argentina teammates.
“The truth is, there’s a little anxiety, saying: ‘Well, we’re here, what’s going to happen? It’s my last one, how’s it going to go?’ Messi said in an interview with ESPN before the World Cup began.
“On one hand, I can’t wait for it to arrive, but I’m also desperate for it to go well.”
He made sure it did.
Unlike in past tournaments, when Messi seemed to feel the weight of all Argentina, pressing too hard and trying to do too much, he played with lightness and joy at this World Cup.
With an absolute ruthless streak, too.
Messi won the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament. He scored seven goals — only Mbappe’s eight were more — and also had three assists. He’s the first man to score in the group stage and every game in the knockout round.
The young teammates who’d grown up idolizing him blossomed with his support, and the older ones played with renewed energy. Even when Argentina stumbled, be it against Saudi Arabia or in the quarterfinal game with the Netherlands or against France, they simply regrouped behind Messi and surged ahead.
It wasn’t a burden, this quest for the World Cup. It was a privilege to play for each other and their fans.
“It’s such a huge pleasure for us to coach him and his teammates,” Scaloni said. “Everything he transmits to his teammates is unparalleled, something I’ve never seen before. He’s a player who gives so much to his teammates.”
Now he’s brought them a World Cup title.
Messi snuck a kiss of the Jules Rimet trophy when he went to collect his Golden Ball award. When it came time to collect the prize he really wanted, he rubbed his hands in glee, looking very much like a kid about to be turned loose on his Christmas presents.
Lovingly cradling the trophy, he slowly walked in front of his bouncing teammates before stopping in the center of the group and holding the trophy high in the air. Lusail Stadium erupted in cheers that echoed from the Middle East to South America and beyond.
For the next hour, Messi and several thousand of his closest friends celebrated his triumph. He and his teammates got new jerseys featuring a shiny new third star. His teammates paraded him around the field on their shoulders while fans chanted his name.
It was a celebration of both the World Cup title and Messi’s majesty. His legacy is now complete, his greatness unparalleled.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armor on Twitter @nrarmour.