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Lionel Messi earns World Cup glory as Argentina tops France in a captivating final

With Sunday's win, Argentina's Lionel Messi could finally add the last piece of glory to his extraordinary career. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
8 min

LUSAIL, Qatar — A World Cup final of preposterous goals and unfathomable turns, of sure victory torn on two occasions from a country starved for the trophy, of an unfazed foe seeking to become the first back-to-back champion since Pelé’s Brazil 60 years ago, of two cosmic stars trading goals and genius over 120 captivating minutes was decided at its simplest form.

It seemed unfair, after waves of pulsating if imperfect soccer Sunday produced the greatest championship game theater this tournament has ever seen, that a penalty kick shootout would have to settle the winner.

But when Gonzalo Montiel planted his attempt into the left corner, clinching a 4-2 tiebreaking victory following a dizzying 3-3 draw, Argentina did not care what means were necessary. For the first time since 1986, La Albiceleste were world champions — and their immaculate attacker, Lionel Messi, could finally add the last piece of glory to his extraordinary career.

“It’s just crazy that it became a reality this way,” Messi said. “I craved for this so much. … I had the feeling that this [World Cup] was the one.”

Messi, 35, scored twice and played a role in another goal, but the player on the path to succeed him as the world’s best, France’s Kylian Mbappé, recorded a hat trick before a sellout crowd of 88,966 at Lusail Stadium. He became the first men’s player to do so in a World Cup final since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.

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Two days short of his 24th birthday — and 4½ years after he helped France win the trophy in Russia — Mbappé won the Golden Boot as the tournament scoring champion with eight goals. Messi finished with seven.

On Dec. 18, after a three-hour match, fans celebrated Argentina winning the World Cup. (Video: The Washington Post)

It was an astonishing match. France recovered from a two-goal deficit late in regulation, Messi and Mbappé scored in the second half of extra time, and Argentina’s Emiliano Martínez made a remarkable save to force the shootout.

“The match was completely insane,” Argentine Coach Lionel Scaloni said.

In the shootout — the first in a World Cup final since 2006 — Martínez made one save and his teammates converted all four attempts. Martínez was also the hero in the quarterfinal against Netherlands, a penalty kick shootout necessitated by Argentina’s failure to lock down a two-goal lead late in regular time.

Argentina’s previous World Cup triumph came in June 1986 at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca — a year before Messi was born.

“These players played for their people, for their Argentine fans,” said Scaloni, who, at 44, is the youngest winning coach since 1978. “Everyone was pulling in the same direction. It is the greatest feeling to play for your country. The players understood what they had to do. We are very happy and very proud. Today we are champions.”

For Messi, the championship capped a frustrating journey after four unsuccessful bids. It had been eight years since Messi’s first appearance in a World Cup final ended in defeat to Germany. It had been six since a short-lived retirement, sparked by another Argentina shortfall in a major tournament — Copa América, the South American championship — after which he declared: “I’ve tried very hard to be champion with Argentina. It hasn’t happened. I am not able to do it.”

Fans celebrate Argentina's win against France in the World Cup on Dec. 18. (Video: AP)

With a World Cup title, Messi will finally join Argentine icon Diego Maradona as a global champion and put to rest criticism that he could not possibly be considered the greatest player of all time because he had not won the sport’s most prestigious trophy.

Messi’s fortunes began to turn last year when, for the first time, he won Copa América. He entered this tournament saying it would be his final World Cup. However, “if he wants to keep playing, he will be with us,” Scaloni said.

Argentina roared into the World Cup on a 36-game unbeaten streak — only to lose the group opener to unheralded Saudi Arabia. Since that setback, Argentina went unbeaten and led 2-0 in each match.

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France was attempting to win consecutive titles for the first time since Pelé and Brazil in 1958 and ’62. With three key starters lost to injury before the tournament, Les Bleus figured to fall into the second tier of contenders and only dream about another trophy. Yet here they were after defeating England in the quarterfinals and warding off Morocco’s upset bid in the semifinals.

On Sunday, their title hopes were fading when Mbappé scored in the 80th and 81st minutes, about 90 seconds apart.

“We managed to come back from the dead,” French Coach Didier Deschamps said.

From the start, Argentina was fresher and hungrier. France couldn’t keep up. Argentina was curious in the attack, probing for the opportunity to pierce France’s flat resistance and put its stamp on the match.

“We just didn’t show the same energy” as in previous matches, Deschamps said, “and that’s why for the first hour or so, we weren’t in the match.”

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Mbappé was left obsolete. He rarely touched the ball, and it was even rarer when he possessed it in a dangerous position. As 20 minutes passed, the match remained scoreless, but the reigning champions were growing increasingly troubled.

Argentina’s breakthrough came in the 23rd minute on Messi’s penalty. What led to it was simple sloppiness and lax defending by France’s Ousmane Dembélé. Ángel Di María cut the ball back so sharply near the end line, Dembélé was left in the dust. A nudge, followed by a slight clip of Di María’s heels, sent the Argentine winger sprawling.

Messi’s conversion rate is below world-class standard, but in this moment, he took care of business by skipping his 12-yard shot into the right side as Hugo Lloris committed the other way.

Argentina’s second goal was elegant, sophisticated and rollicking — a counterattack executed to perfection that flowed from one end to the other in a matter of seconds and with economical touches on the ball.

In the 36th minute, it began with Rodrigo De Paul winning the ball and supplying Alexis Mac Allister, who set up Messi for a clever touch wide to Julián Álvarez at midfield. All the while, Mac Allister continued to make a run. Álvarez one-touched the ball ahead to Mac Allister rushing into green space.

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He made note of Di María running free on the other side, and as he caught up to Alvarez’s pass at the top of the penalty area, he curled a cross that met Di María in stride for a one-time finish.

Deschamps and France were in a tight spot. In the 41st minute, he made the highly unusual decision of substituting not one but two players before intermission. Off came Dembélé and striker Olivier Giroud (four goals).

In the second half, France played with greater urgency and risk, but Argentina was up to the task. As the championship seemed to draw near, the crowd chanted: “Mess-i! Mess-i!”

France was not ready to concede. Argentina’s Nicolás Otamendi dragged down substitute Randal Kolo Muani in the box, and with Mbappé’s penalty kick slipping under Martinez’s glove, France was back in it.

Everything was flowing France’s way. In control most of the night, Argentina was now the one in enormous trouble.

Adrien Rabiot lifted the ball to Mbappé, who headed it down to substitute Marcus Thuram at the top of the box. Mbappé left Nahuel Molina in his wake. Thuram flicked it back to him. With a swivel of his torso, Mbappé got full power behind a 15-yard volley that beat Martínez to the far lower corner.

Remarkably, the match was tied.

“We had the game under control,” Martínez said, “but we were destined to suffer.”

Argentina was fortunate not to lose in regulation. Mbappé loomed over every foray. Deep in stoppage time, Lloris was called on to make a leaping save on Messi’s 25-yard rocket. For the fourth time in five World Cup finals, extra time awaited.

Argentina had three chances late in the first 15-minute period, but in each case, French defenders intervened. There was no stopping Messi at the start of the next session.

Lloris made an outstanding reflex save on Lautaro Martínez’s angled bid, but Messi was in place to push the rebound over the goal line in the 108th minute, an instant before Jules Koundé’s clearance. He became the oldest player to score twice in a final.

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France was not finished, and after Montiel used his arm to block a shot, Mbappé stepped to the penalty spot again in the 118th minute and converted the penalty kick.

Kolo Muani could have won it in stoppage time, but Emiliano Martínez made a brilliant one-on-one save.

“He really left his mark on this final,” Deschamps said of Mbappé. “Unfortunately he didn’t leave it the way he would have liked.”

Mbappé will undoubtedly enjoy many more unforgettable moments on soccer’s greatest stage. On Sunday, he ceded it to Messi.

“So many times I dreamt it,” Messi said. “So much I wanted it. I can’t believe it.”

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.