World Cup final: Lionel Messi leads Argentina to glory – is he now football’s greatest?

Lionel Messi strode alone into a single spotlight amid the darkness at Lusail Stadium to finally take possession of the one prize that has remained painfully out of reach throughout his silver-lined career.

The 35-year-old Argentina maestro rubbed his hands together in glorious anticipation of his crowning glory, donning the traditional Arab robe known as a bisht, before finally lifting the World Cup to the sky amid an explosion of flashlights and pyrotechnics.

Messi had achieved his dream. The gap in his glittering collection had been filled – the set complete after arguably the most spectacular World Cup final in history, a game for the ages that tore at the emotions and played havoc with the pulse rates before Argentina’s icon reached his summit.

He can now add the World Cup to seven Ballons d’Or, four Champions Leagues, one Copa America, 10 La Liga titles with Barcelona and a Ligue 1 crown in France with Paris St-Germain.

This was the one. This was the trophy that Messi’s millions of advocates will now use as ‘Exhibit A’ in their argument that he is the greatest to have played the game.

This is a trophy, almost 15 inches of solid gold, that will now have many saying Messi is the greatest – and those with a counter-argument will have an added degree of difficulty presenting their case.

Comparisons are expanded over generations, which adds a different frame to all the arguments, but no-one can now deny Messi belongs in the same pantheon as Pele and another whose image was across many Argentina banners at Lusail Stadium on Sunday.

Inevitably, Diego Maradona, his legendary predecessor in Argentina’s number 10 shirt, had a forceful case for the best. The point of difference was always his World Cup triumph in Mexico 36 years ago – a triumph Messi did not have. It has now been removed.

Messi will always be in any conversation about the greatest, and the fact he now has the biggest honour the global game has to offer makes for a more powerful discussion as to his merits.

How do you even begin to tell the tale of how Messi reached his pinnacle? How do you recount events that eventually led to Argentina’s World Cup win and the climax of a tournament that will have the name Lionel Messi attached to it forever?

Messi should have known, given his history of World Cup heartache and disappointment stretching back to 2006 and including a losing final to Germany at Rio’s Maracana in 2014, that this was an honour which would not be won easily.

The fact that this spectacular night at Lusail Stadium contained so much suffering before Argentina and Messi hit the heights of their third World Cup win may make it even sweeter.

And it was all done in the face of brilliance from the 23-year-old who will, if he is not there already, join Messi in any debate about the sport’s true elite in years to come: France’s Kylian Mbappe.

France appeared to be rolling out the red carpet for Messi’s coronation as they barely threatened for 80 minutes. Lusail was Messi’s playground as he scored Argentina’s opener from the penalty spot, making him the first player in World Cup history to score in the group stage, round of 16, quarter-final, semi-final and final in a single tournament.

Messi then helped to create Angel di Maria’s second, the game taking a routine course with celebrations started among Argentina fans until the much-anticipated battle with Mbappe was joined in stunning fashion.

Mbappe pulled one back from the spot with 10 minutes left, then fired in a brilliant volley seconds later. Messi’s smile that stretched across the giant screens in each corner of the stadium was one of “not again” disbelief.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni pulled off a masterstroke of selection with the inclusion of 34-year-old Di Maria, who ran Jules Kounde ragged, but then appeared to give way to fatal conservatism by taking him off with his side on top after 64 minutes for the workmanlike Marcos Acuna.

Messi, of course, pulled Argentina round with his second in extra time but France, revived from the earlier mediocrity, were level again through Mbappe’s penalty.

In an atmosphere of near hysteria, Argentina keeper Emiliano Martinez saved with his foot from Randal Kolo Muani with the World Cup at his mercy in the closing seconds, although there was still time for Lautaro Martinez to head wide of an unguarded goal at the other end.

To say extra time was highly charged would be an understatement, with some fans even tearing their gaze away from the action, such was the unbearable tension.

Magnificently stressful, it went to penalties which Argentina won 4-2, a painful way to settle a game that will now be talked about whenever the World Cup is discussed.

When Gonzalo Montiel scored the decisive kick, Messi slumped to his knees in tears in the centre circle, arms raised to the heavens before he was buried under an avalanche of light blue and white striped shirts.

He then claimed a microphone to address Argentina’s supporters amid scenes of celebratory mayhem.

Messi picked up the Golden Ball for player of the tournament, the first player to win it twice since it was introduced in 1982, after also winning the honour in 2014.

He has now been involved in 21 goals for Argentina at World Cups – 13 goals and eight assists, the most by any player for any nation. The goals in this World Cup final give him 793 in his career. He was also the first player to score in every round in the same men’s World Cup tournament.

There was one statistic that mattered above all others on this night: Messi was a World Cup winner – at last.

He sat astride the figure-of-eight stage on which he had received the World Cup with his team, basking in the fact he can at last fill that one space in his trophy cabinet. It was a stage later filled with friends and family of the Argentina squad, their country now back on top of the football world for the first time since 1986.

Argentina’s supporters stayed in their seats for well over an hour, going through the songbook that has been the soundtrack to their World Cup campaign, paying homage to the man they counted on. The man who had delivered.

The seismic shock of that opening loss to Saudi Arabia seemed an age away. It was Messi who got Argentina’s World Cup into gear with a brilliant goal against Mexico and he was unstoppable as he carried it through to the finish.

Messi had the golden trophy in his hands. It was mission accomplished – a mission stretching back more than 16 years to when he came on as a scoring substitute in a 6-0 win over Serbia and Montenegro in Germany.

The final chapter of Messi’s World Cup story was a thriller from first to last against France, with the plot taking so many twists. It delivered the perfect ending on a never to be forgotten night in Qatar.

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