Lionel Messi on Sunday evening, December 18, cemented his legacy as one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen by inspiring Argentina to dethrone world champions France.
The curtain was drawn on the Qatar 2022 World Cup in spectacular fashion, with Messi opening scores and having a hand in the second goal netted by final specialist Angel di Maria at the Lusail Stadium in Doha. He then completed a hat-trick by netting first for the Argentines during the shootouts that followed a stalemated full and extra time.
The Argentines, obviously the hungrier of the two sides, dominated proceedings from the outset. Angel di Maria plotted the curtain raiser in 22 minutes when he waltzed down the left flank, beat defender Ousmane Dembele near the line and charged towards goal but was brought down by the man he just outsmarted. Referee Szymon Marciniak promptly pointed to the penalty spot. Messi, calm as a cucumber, stepped forward, sent goalie Hugo Lloris to the right and coolly slotted into the opposite side.
With that, Messi, who ended up with eight goals, became 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 edition of the tournament.
French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte who have arrived in Doha earlier in the day to cheer on the Les Bleus watched in disappointment as the Argentines effectively neutralised Kylian Mbappe and his fellow attackers, pinning the defending champions to their half of the pitch for much of the first half.
It went from bad to worse in the 36th minute when Messi flicked the ball to his right for Julian Alvarez, who sent Alexis Mac Allister away and laid the ball towards the goal mouth for on-rushing Angel di Maria to stab past Lloris for the second goal.
The French woke up in the second stanza of the game but a resolute Argentine army ensured that goalie Emiliano Martínez was hardly troubled for a log spell.
However, Mbappe suddenly turned the match on its head 10 minutes from time when he erased the two Argentine goals within two minutes. First, Kolo Muani was dragged down by Nicolas Otamendi in the 18-yard box and Mbappe stepped forward to whip the ball past Martinez from the penalty spot and hand France a lifeline.
The very next minute the French were on level terms after Mbappe volleyed home a Marcus Thuram cross to net his seventh goal of the tournament.
That happened to be the last goal of regulation time, thus forcing the gritty match into extra time.
The Argentines appeared destined for glory when Messi kneed a parried ball past Lloris in the 108th minute to make it 3-2 but Mbappe, the tournament’s highest scorer with nine goals, once more drew the French level in the 118th minute from the penalty spot after an opposing defender handled the ball in the vital area.
In the ensuing penalty shootouts, Martinez proved to be the hero as he saved two of the French kicks.
For the Argentines, it was yet another successful hunt for football’s most prized trophy since 1986, effectively ending France’s ambition to become third side to win back-to-back World Cups.