Messi upstages Mbappe by barest of margins to achieve eternal greatness
LIONEL Messi had been matched by Kylian Mbappe at every stretch, at every bend of an incredible World Cup final here at the Lusail Stadium but it was Messi at the end who was lifting the trophy that he so wanted, so craved.
In a dramatic finish, both Messi and Mbappe had scored their penalties in the shootout after a breathless title decider finished 3-3 after extra time and then hoped for their team-mates to finish the job.
Mbappe’s France team-mates wilted, Messi’s Argentina mates rose to the occasion. Argentina won the shootout 4-2, Messi ultimately winning football’s ultimate prize in his last match.
There had been so much riding on this one; built as the battle of the Paris St Germain stars, a club that is owned by Qatar’s Emir. Messi scored twice here, Mbappe bettered him with three but ultimately, it wasn’t enough for the youngster.
Eight years ago in Brazil, Messi had fallen short in his bid to win the World Cup when Argentina lost the final to Germany. But here, his moment to seize the initiative for Argentina came in the 21st minute thanks to the quick feet of his friend Angel di Maria, which won a penalty for his side.
In his last World Cup match for his country, Messi had been everywhere, first to every ball, his vision outstanding, his passing tremendous. Now was his chance to score and put Argentina on their way to their first World Cup title since 1986.
Messi wasn’t even born then but he’s been carrying that weight throughout his career; he’d been earmarked to emulate Diego Maradona and lead Argentina to glory. It’s been thankless for him; something that’s taken so much from him. Yet, he’s clung on. Here was his moment.
At the opposite end of the pitch, Emiliano Martinez couldn’t even look. But as soon as the sea of Argentine fans clad in blue and white went up in celebration, he knew. Messi had made no mistake and as the 35-year-old, who’s carried Argentina this far — singlehandedly at times, ran to the byline in celebration, his team-mates gathered and piled over him.
Some weight off his shoulders, Messi would then play his part in the buildup to Argentina’s second goal scored emphatically by Di Maria nine minutes from the second-half. It’s this Messi, the one that decides matches with these key moments, one that bursts into this creative life when he sees a chance to make something happen, that’s been so crucial to Argentina.
Argentina were closing in on victory but Mbappe had other ideas. First came his perfect penalty in the 80th that found its way under a diving Martinez and then a minute later, he levelled the scores with a sublime volley to snatch the limelight from Messi.
Messi, though, was back in it, arriving at the right time inside the box to put Argentina ahead in the 109th minute but once again, Mbappe would haul France back with a penalty in the 117th. Only then, would France go down and as Argentina’s victory confirmed Messi’s elevation alongside Maradona to iconic status.
Argentina had come into the World Cup as one of the favourites but a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening game in Qatar had sown the seed of doubt and ended their 36-game unbeaten run. But Messi then displayed the kind of relentless brilliance and fighting spirit shown by Maradona in guiding Argentina to the title 36 years ago.
It also raised the debate over whether Messi is perhaps the greatest of all time. The World Cup title has definitely pushed him ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in the long-running rivalry between the two greatest players of their generation.
Regardless of the title, this World Cup was a defining point in that rivalry too. While the 37-year-old Ronaldo exited the tournament at the quarter-finals stage, benched by Portugal and in tears in the likely recognition that his last chance had passed, Messi summoned some of his finest moments in an Argentina shirt here.
As far as debate over the best ever is concerned, it was always argued that Messi needed to win the World Cup to join Pele and Maradona in the pantheon of the greatest ever players. He has now, finally. And leaves the international stage having made Argentina both world and South American champions — Messi carried his side to the Copa America title last year; their first since 1993.
Mbappe, the game’s new superstar after years of domination by Messi and Ronaldo, finished ahead of Messi in the race for the Golden Boot but couldn’t win a second World Cup with France that would’ve made him only second to Pele to achieve the feat at the age of 23.
There had been so much talk of the baton being passed from Messi to Mbappe. It has, indeed, been passed as Mbappe is set to be the leading player of the next generation. Messi, on the other hand, has moved to another level. He’s reached eternal greatness.
Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2022