Messi emulates Maradona in fairytale ending to a story like no other | World Cup 2022

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Lionel Messi completed football here, the greatest story ever told. The 26th and last match of his World Cup journey was the final to end all finals, a moment that’s never been equalled before and probably never will be again. So wild that none of it made any sense until he was standing there waving to the stands smiling, and then it all did. It was hard to comprehend what he and they had gone through – an entire career, the most accomplished of all, packed into one absurd evening – but there was closure at last.

It was done. The world had the ending it wanted – Didier Deschamps had said that even some of the French were on Messi’s side – just don’t ask how. Eventually, from somewhere up there, Messi’s mum found her way down to embrace the boy who left home, Argentina, at 13 and the man who had now taken them – or had they taken him? – to the title the most devotional of football fans desperately wanted. Together, they cried. Everyone did. Ángel Di María had spent the evening torn and in tears.

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Across the turf France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, was hugging Kylian Mbappé. If it is any consolation, this history maker should be back. Messi will not. But now, 16 years after his first attempt, it had actually happened. Argentina had won the World Cup, their first since 1986. Messi had the one thing missing. One? It felt like Argentina had to win this three times, experiencing enough emotion for a lifetime, taken to heaven and to hell and back again.

Gonzalo Montiel had just rolled in the penalty that made them world champions, dashing off as teammates crumpled to the ground. That much you knew, but it was an effort to grasp what had gone before. What mattered was coming next. It was 9.31pm when Messi approached the cup and gently kissed it. He had been called to get the golden ball, made to wait a little longer to lift the actual cup, but he couldn’t just walk past. He would be back to raise it to the sky.

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Muchachos, the soundtrack of this month, rang around: land of Messi and Maradona, we got our hope back, it runs. The hope, which is what kills you, had been snatched from them repeatedly but they pulled it back, as if some cosmic force was at play. Which in a way it was; more than one of them, in fact.

Twice Argentina led, twice France equalised, and as it went to penalties it was easy to allow fatalism in, to believe it was happening again, football cruelly refusing to return what he had given so generously for two decades; 2014, 2015, 2016, and now 2022: four finals lost after extra time, three on penalties.

Not this time. Copa América winners in 2021, this is a different Argentina. It is a different Messi too, a liberated version, the essence of everything he has been. So when the shootout came, it was not punishment so much as opportunity, Messi rolling in the first so easily Hugo Lloris almost had time to go down and get up again. For the third time in this wild, wild game he had the ball in the net.

He had scored the opener with a penalty and Argentina took a 2-0 lead that seemed secure, his old friend Di María superb, but instead they managed to make an epic of this. An outrageous shot at 2-2, a cartoon moment, had almost won it in the last minute. Just as it felt like everything was slipping away, a far less aesthetic moment arrived. Messi scrambled home late in extra time to put them on the verge of the title again, the 793rd and worst goal of his career looking likely to be the very best. Instead, they were instead taken to penalties by an extraordinary Mbappé hat-trick.

Lionel Messi lifts the World Cup as his Argentina teammates celebrate
Lionel Messi lifts the World Cup as his Argentina teammates celebrate. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

There, Dibu Martínez was the hero and Montiel ended it. This was about all of them, but it was about Messi. There was Enzo Fernández, who begged him to stay after he retired six years ago now. Julián Álvarez, the kid who waited for his autograph. Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes, who had invited him to a mate, this team in the making. The extraordinary Alexis Mac Allister, who argues with his dad that Messi is the best ever and seemed hellbent on proving it here. Even Sergio Agüero, the friend called to the squad to share a room with him like old times.

And of course Lionel Scaloni, there at the start and there now at the end. On Messi’s first international appearance, he was the teammate defending the teenager sent off inside two minutes; now, 17 years, 172 games, 98 goals and one World Cup win later, he was there again, the manager who finally made it all work, justice done. Go get the cup, you’ve earned it. We’ve earned it for you.

Emotional Argentina fans celebrate their nation’s third World Cup victory – video

On a stage shaped like infinity, they draped him in an emir’s robe and handed him the trophy. He wasn’t in a hurry to hand it on. He took it in his hands and gazed at every inch of it, turning it slowly. He held it like a child. His actual children soon joined. This was his cup; there has never been a story like this, a competition so centred around one man – although an immense challenger appeared here – everyone waiting for the finishing touch, the perfect farewell. Süddeutsche Zeitung likened it to a crowd gathering to see Michelangelo apply the final brushstroke.

He had played here like destiny called, breaking records, as he has always has. Look at those scattergraphs and so often he’s a lone dot, like some far away planet. This is the man who exhausted adjectives and invented a new category: “apart from Messi”. At 35, his two goals here took him past Pelé. Only Mbappé scored more in Qatar than his seven goals plus two penalties in shootouts and no one provided more assists.

It wasn’t just a storyline; it was him, every step. The release against Mexico and the flash of fire against Australia. His assists made Claudio Caniggia of Nahuel Molina and a complete wreck of Josko Gvardiol. No one had ever scored in the last 16, the quarter-finals, the semi‑finals and the final before. En route he saw off Robert Lewandowski and Luka Modric. Now, he had survived Mbappé. Game over, Messi wins.

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