For Messi and Argentina, the (extra) wait is worth it

LUSAIL, Qatar – Lionel Messi had to wait and wait and wait. He had to wait until he was 35. He had to wait until he had already lost a World Cup final. He had to wait after appearing to have won for Argentina in regulation time and he had to wait after believing he had beaten France again in extra time.

He had to wait until the end of the most extraordinary final in the tournament’s history, in which Messi produced a career-defining performance and yet was somehow surpassed by Kylian Mbappé, the top-scorer of the first hat-trick in the biggest game in more than half a century.

Only then, finally, was his waiting, his agony, over. Only then did he hand over the World Cup, that precious third star, to Argentina, cementing his claim to be the best player to ever play the game.

The emotions that accompanied Argentina on their way to the final were so raw, so fickle, that it seemed inevitable that the final step along the way would be tense and frenetic and filled with fear. After all, around 36 years of history and the crucial legacy of Messi’s career were at stake. That carries enormous weight.

But when the time came, Argentina seemed to shoulder the burden lightly. Where France looked careless and uncertain, Lionel Scaloni’s team were crisp and purposeful. Ángel Di María, back in the team, tormented Jules Koundé on Argentina’s left; Messi was lurking around, lured by a radar he’s honed over the past two decades to be where he could cause the most trouble.

Argentina’s supremacy was established and then consolidated by half-time. Di María, the game’s outstanding offensive player, drew a very soft penalty after a foul by Ousmane Dembélé; Messi duly transformed, his team-mates swamped him while Argentina’s fans melted with joy.

What followed was that team’s masterpiece: five quick passes that swept Argentina from one end of the field to the next, culminating in a goal equal to at least any goal scored in a World Cup final in the past half-century.

Di María finished it, and there were supporting roles for Alexis Mac Allister and Julián Álvarez, but it depended on a single, silky touch from Messi, who stood on the halfway line, a moment of alchemy that took the most ordinary of materials and twisted them into something golden.

And that seemed to be it then. This was an oddly passive French team for much of the tournament, outplayed by England in the quarter-finals and by Morocco for significant parts of the semi-finals. The control that was the hallmark of his victory in Russia four years ago was notably absent; This seemed like a team living uncomfortably close to the edge.

Deschamps did what he could to get his team back in the game, knocking out both Dembélé and Olivier Giroud before half-time, equal parts brave, determined and sheer, blind panic. It made little difference. France barely dealt a blow to Argentina. As a world champion, time seemed to fly by.

It took exactly two minutes for everything to change, for all Argentina’s painstaking work in this game, in this tournament, to collapse. Nicólas Otamendi, the grizzled centre-back, misjudged a fairly direct pass and let one of France’s substitutes Randal Kolo Muani escape; As he recovered, he re-bundled the striker. The French had a penalty converted by Mbappé and a glimmer of hope.

Argentina were still recovering their composure when the hammer hit: Messi himself was caught dallying the ball, a clever touch from Marcus Thuram and a fierce first-time volley from Mbappé that whizzed past Emiliano Martínez’s desperate grip. Argentina’s players slumped, gasping for breath. They had been so close, and in an instant they were as far as ever.

For a while it seemed Argentina’s hopes could go no further than going into extra time and then waiting for penalties. However, Messi intervened again and was unwilling to accept an ending he didn’t write. When Hugo Lloris blocked a Lautaro Martínez shot, Messi had to drive the ball home.

He then celebrated as if he knew how close he was to his team; he had not reckoned with Mbappé’s own determination to be the master of his own destiny. His shot was handled by Gonzalo Montiel; He stepped up after 117 minutes to take the penalty, completing his hat-trick in a World Cup final to ensure the game went the distance, to the sweetest, cruelest conclusion imaginable.

met Mbappe. Messi met. But Kingsley Coman and Aurelién Tchouámeni didn’t, leaving right-back Montiel for the shot that would echo through the ages. The roar of the Argentine fans as the ball hit the back of the net seemed to pierce the sky. Messi dropped to his knees, hugged his teammates, his wait was finally over. For Messi and Argentina, the (extra) wait is worth it

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