Messi writes glorious final chapter to World Cup career

Lionel Messi fell to his knees inside the center circle at Lusail stadium, elation stamped on his face as his Argentina teammates ran towards him and then piled on top of him in gleeful celebration.

Gonzalo Montiel had just rolled the decisive spot-kick past Hugo Lloris to give the Albiceleste a dramatic penalty-shootout victory over France in a World Cup final for the ages.

This was the crowning glory of a career that already had everything. Everything except for a World Cup winners’ medal.

Qatar 2022 was, in the 35-year-old’s own words, a last chance to win international football’s most coveted prize.

This was Messi’s fifth World Cup, having first appeared on the grandest stage at the 2006 tournament in Germany.

Before Sunday, the nearest he had come to winning it was in 2014, when Argentina lost the final against Germany following an extra-time goal from Mario Gotze.

According to his former agent Fabian Soldini, Messi confessed that he was unable to sleep for months afterwards because the final was “replaying in his mind”.

Those close to him noted a difference in the diminutive forward’s mindset in recent months. He has shown an almost obsessive desire to sign off from international duty with a storybook ending in Qatar.

So what does Argentina’s triumph mean for Messi’s legacy?

Many, including former Germany striker Jurgen Klinsmann and Mauricio Pochettino – Messi’s former manager at Paris Saint-Germain – have said the Argentina No. 10 could not be uttered in the same breath as his compatriot Diego Maradona or Brazil’s Pele without a World Cup title.

That argument has been laid to rest. At the very least, Messi now deserves to be in the “best-ever” debate. And if his achievements at club level are to be considered – he has won four Champions League medals – there is a case to be made that he might even edge out Pele and Maradona. But that is an argument for another day.

Now is the time to reflect on the brilliance of Messi and the collective accomplishment of Lionel Scaloni’s men in Qatar.

Messi was much more than just the captain of the Albiceleste side that secured Argentina’s third World Cup trophy and first in 36 years.

He carried the team on his own shoulders for much of the tournament and scored twice in the final to finish the campaign with seven goals and three assists, a performance comparable to that of Maradona in 1986.

He was recognized for his astonishing exploits by winning the Golden Ball, awarded to the World Cup’s best player. It was nothing less than he deserved.

Argentina are champions of the world and Messi finally has the trophy he has so desperately craved. ■

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