Lionel Messi cements his place among the greats after winning epic duel against Kylian Mbappe



CNN

Now there can be no complaints. Now there should be no debate.

In the most dramatic, nerve-shredding way imaginable, Lionel Messi finally got his hands on the World Cup and with it cemented his place in the pantheon of soccer greats, alongside Diego Maradona and Pele.

The final was as good as soccer gets. A match for the ages with a fairytale ending.

Messi and Kylian Mbappé, the two superstars of the game went toe-to-toe in arguably the greatest World Cup final in history. Soccer may be a team game, but this was a prize fight between two players who will be remembered as all-time greats.

Mbappé scored a remarkable hat-trick, making him only the second man in history to do so in a World Cup final, and won the Ballon d’Or – awarded to the tournament’s top scorer – but fell agonizingly short in his effort to retain the trophy. For France.

Aged 23, Mbappé’s astonishing performance further confirmed his status as the future of the sport. He has now scored four goals in World Cup finals, the most of any player in history, and is level with Pele on a total of 12 World Cup goals. He has time to surpass all World Cup scorer Miroslav Klose on 16.

But for all the history Mbappé created on an intoxicating floodlit night in Doha, this was Messi’s last. The Argentinian captain is not yet ready to hand over the torch.

Lionel Messi kisses the FIFA World Cup trophy.

The 35-year-old has been relentlessly brilliant throughout the tournament, playing with a proud poise and determination that stems from an innate belief that the trophy is his destiny, a glorious World Cup farewell written in the stars.

After Gonzalo Montiel rolled in the winning penalty, Messi sank to his knees and buried his face in his hands. The moment he always had Dreamed of is finally here.

His comrades rushed to him, sinking on their knees to embrace their captain; They wanted this less for him than for themselves.

Together, they stood and walked towards their adoring fans to join the celebrations. Around 40,000 Argentina fans are estimated to have traveled to Qatar and were vocal in their support during the tournament.

The players, with the Argentine flag draped over their shoulders and tied around their waists, jumped along with the wall of white and blue shirts in the Lusail Stadium’s main stand.

They have had to be patient and endured their share of heartbreak since last winning the World Cup in 1986, but it was worth the wait.

Messi's teammates join him in celebrating.

Messi rose within three minutes at the Lusail Stadium, picking the ball up in a pocket between France’s midfield and defense and immediately pinging a ball wide left into the path of Angel Di Maria.

That led to the first chance of the game – with Messi also involved again in the build-up, exchanging quickfire passes on the edge of the box – but last-ditch defending and the linesman’s flag prevented Julian Alvarez getting a clean sheet .

It’s no secret that winning the World Cup with Argentina has been Messi’s lifelong dream, bordering on obsession.

Although there is no doubt that at 35 years old, Messi slowed down his almost-superhuman powers began to diminish, there were still some moments in this World Cup of the wild, magical brilliance that fans are accustomed to seeing throughout. The years.

His goal against Mexico and the assists against the Netherlands and Croatia are undoubtedly his most memorable in an Argentina shirt and helped drag the team to the final, giving the little magician one last chance to win the trophy he craves the most.

Messi's teammates celebrate with him after scoring the opening goal.

In the 23rd minute, Messi got the chance to cement his name in history with another career-defining moment, after Ousmane Dembélé’s clumsy foul brought Di María down in the penalty area.

Messi then stepped up to take the spot kick, becoming the only man to score in the group stage, round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and final of a single World Cup, according to Opta. Just when you think there can be no more records for him to break, Messi finds another.

He is also the second-oldest player to score in a final and with this, his 26th World Cup appearance, no male player has played in as many World Cup games. His performances also earned him the Golden Boot, the prize for the best player of the tournament.

For all his remarkable, ridiculous abilities, penalties are perhaps the main part of the game that Messi has struggled with over the years, missing several on huge occasions.

It didn’t affect his confidence though, as he stepped up and nonchalantly rolled the ball into the corner, sending Hugo Lloris the wrong way.

He also played a part in Argentina’s exquisite second, sparking the counterattack that led to María’s goal with a delightful little flick around the corner to Julián Álvarez.

Messi even joined in with Argentina’s defensive duties, tracking back and picking the pocket of Randal Kolo Muani, who was brought on by Dider Deschamps in a shockingly early double substitution before half-time.

Even the most ardent, optimistic Argentina fan couldn’t possibly have dreamed of a first half as good – and straightforward – as that from Messi and his teammates.

It was impossible that this was the same team that had been stunned by Saudi Arabia in the opening group game – a performance so devoid of character and heart that it left many wondering whether Argentina would even make it out of the group.

Messi takes in the adulation of the crowd after scoring his penalty.

But as the tournament progressed, Argentina and Messi improved.

With each passing performance, each moment of Messi magic, fans began to believe that the script had already been written, that the boy from Rosario would end his World Cup career – he said it would be his last – in the greatest way imaginable . Few, however, could have predicted such an exciting finale.

In the second half, Argentina fans in the stadium, and the tens of millions more watching around the world, would have been more and more sure that this was really going to be a routine victory, the culmination of a lifelong dream.

As brilliant as Argentina was, however, France was equally as disappointing. According to Opta, it was the first time since 1966, when stats began to be collected, that a team had failed to register a shot on goal in the first half of a final.

Lionel Messi and Leandro Paredes celebrate after winning the penalty shootout.

It was a historically bad performance from France and Mbappé. Until it wasn’t, that is.

In the space of 90 improbable seconds, France came from 2-0 down to tie the game and, in perhaps the most predictable twist ever, it was Mbappé who struck twice.

The first was a low penalty, drilled with just enough power to nestle into the bottom corner despite a handball from Amy Martinez, and the second a stunning volleyed finish after receiving a return pass from Marcus Thuram.

It was a cruel turn of fate for Messi as he was responsible for giving the ball away which led to France’s equaliser. After dragging his team to the brink of immortality, Messi’s mistake proved that he is indeed mortal.

However, there was more to come.

Messi got his moment, his second goal, after Lloris saved from Lautaro Martínez’s strike – it was Messi’s 98th goal in an Argentina shirt, and it was without question his biggest yet.

But still France, and more specifically Mbappé, are not done.

Messi secured the one trophy that had eluded him in his career.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward stepped up after Montiel blocked his arm and buried his second-placed kick to take the rather remarkable final to penalties.

It was fitting that Messi and Mbappé scored their penalties after producing one of the best duels this sport has seen, but more heroics from Martinez in the Argentina goal ensured it was Messi who lifted the trophy.

From the moment he was old enough to kick a ball, Messi’s greatest desire was to win the World Cup with Argentina. It was never going to be straightforward, but through sheer force of will he finally realized his lifelong dream.

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