LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi had to wait, and wait, and wait. He had to wait until he was reaching the sunset of his glittering, glorious career. He had to wait until he had already tasted the sting of defeat in a World Cup final. He had to wait even after he seemed to have inspired Argentina’s soccer team to beat France in this year’s final on Sunday, first in regulation time, then again in extra time.
He had to wait until after he scored two goals — but Kylian Mbappé of France, his heir apparent on the world stage, had gotten three, becoming the first man to score a hat trick in a World Cup final in more than half a century. Regulation time ended 2-2; extra time ended, 3-3; and then there were penalties, which Argentina won, 4-2, the last twist in the most extraordinary final in this tournament’s long history.
Only then did Messi’s wait, his agony, come to an end. Only then could he finally claim the one prize that had eluded him, the one honor he craved above all others, the one achievement that could further cement his status as the greatest player to have played the game: delivering a World Cup championship to Argentina, its third overall but first since 1986.
A wild, raw energy had swirled around Argentina throughout this tournament. It coursed through the streets of Doha, packed with tens of thousands of Argentine fans for the last month. It washed down from the stands during each of the country’s seven games here, a pulsating, urgent electricity.
The players detected it, too, their euphoria after every victory just a little more intense, just a little more desperate, the pressure of not only ending Argentina’s 36-year wait for a third World Cup but ensuring Messi’s career apotheosis driving them on and perhaps weighing them down in equal measure. The 35-year-old Messi had said this would be his last World Cup, his last chance to experience a joy that he and many of the fans had not felt in their lifetimes.
Everything Argentina did in Qatar was to an extreme. Its loss to Saudi Arabia plunged the team into despair. Each of its subsequent victories unleashed a fervent, unrestrained exhilaration.
Sunday night had teased deliverance. With only a little more than 10 minutes to play, Argentina stood on the cusp. Coach Lionel Scaloni’s team had shouldered the weight of history, the weight of expectation, admirably lightly.
Argentina had not so much as quieted Mbappé as silenced him. It had gone ahead, 1-0, in the 23rd minute, when Ángel Di María was fouled and Messi put in the penalty kick. Argentina flexed its muscle in the 36th minute with one of the most sumptuous goals the World Cup final has seen, a flowing move orchestrated by Alexis Mac Allister and finished by Di María but hinging on a pass that was a moment of characteristic Messi alchemy, a silken touch that turned the most base material into something golden.
For all that time, the 2-0 lead looked like smooth sailing; Argentina should have known it would not work like that. In the space of two minutes late in the second half, France wiped out Argentina’s advantage, all of its painstaking work crumbling in the blink of an eye: another penalty, this one converted by Mbappé in the 80th minute, followed almost immediately by a fierce volley, again by Mbappé.
Argentina’s players slumped, the breath drawn out of their lungs. They had been so close. In an instant it was 2-2; they were as far as ever.
France smelled blood; Argentina could do nothing but hang on for extra time. Messi roused himself again, driving the ball home in the 108th minute after goalkeeper Hugo Lloris made a save on Lautaro Martínez.
Once more, Messi was swamped by delirious teammates. Once more, he stood in front of Argentina’s fans, pumping his arms, an idol and his worshipers. And once more, Mbappé would not be denied, would not accept a cameo role in someone else’s story. His shot struck the outstretched arm of Argentina’s Gonzalo Montiel. Mbappé drilled home the penalty. The game would go the distance, to the sweet cruelty of penalties.
There, for once, it would not be Messi — or Mbappé — who delivered the decisive blow. They both scored. But no matter how teams try to manipulate the order, to direct destiny, penalty shootouts are, invariably, a place for unlikely heroes and unfortunate villains. Kingsley Coman and Aurélien Tchouaméni missed for France, leaving Montiel, an unheralded right back, standing with his country, and Messi’s legacy, on his shoulders.
The noise that Argentina’s fans emitted when the ball struck the net seemed to pierce the sky. Messi’s wait, at last, was over.
In the moments after he had arrived at what he has always seen as both his destiny and his duty, though, Messi seemed improbably, blissfully calm. As his teammates ran to one another, to the massed bank of Argentina’s fans behind the goal in which the final, crucial blow had been delivered, most of them could bear it no longer.
For most, all of that hope, all of that belief, all of that fear broke at once. Di María’s face was stained with tears, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Messi, on the other hand, simply smiled, a brow briefly furrowing in a manner familiar to any harried parent as he tried to work out how his wife, Antonela Roccuzzo, might bring their three children onto the field.
It was only when he embraced his mother a few minutes later that he could maintain his composure no longer, when he finally allowed his joy, his relief, to sweep him away. Messi might have learned long ago that it would not be easy to emulate Diego Maradona, to turn Argentina into a world champion; he could not, surely, have imagined it would be quite this hard.
Now it was done. He congratulated his teammates. He joined them, arms slung over their shoulders, as they danced and bounced with their fans. He found his family, clasped them tight.
And then he was summoned to the stage that had been erected in the middle of the field. FIFA likes to draw these things out; before the World Cup trophy is presented, it must run through the young player of the tournament, the top goalkeeper, the leading scorer, the best player. That final prize went, of course, to Messi. This World Cup was about him. It has always been about him.
He collected his best-player statue from Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president; shook hands with the assembled dignitaries; and walked off down the podium. The trophy he cared about was sitting there, golden and gleaming, in his sight.
There were a few minutes, yet, before he would have a medal placed around his neck, a ceremonial bisht draped over his shoulders, and the chance to hoist the trophy into the air. It was an hour or so before he would be carried around the field on his teammates’ shoulders, a vast crowd of staff members and partners and children in their wake, a homage to Maradona’s celebrations in 1986, the last time Argentina was champion of the world.
He still had all of that to come. He would have his moment, soon enough. But now he stopped next to the trophy. He looked at it. And then he leaned down, ever so slightly, caressed its smooth dome, and kissed it, once, twice. Messi had waited long enough. He did not want to wait any longer.