Football’s greatest night, and greatest warrior, will live long in memory
DOHA - The streets of Msheireb in downtown Doha were eerily quiet on Monday morning. Barricades that had been in place for a month were gone, as were the TV trucks and security presence.
After 29 days and a record 172 goals across 64 matches, the World Cup in Qatar was finally over. But the epic spectacle that played out the night before, which culminated in Argentina lifting the Cup after beating defending champions France on penalties, will continue to live long in the memory.
In the end, it was all about Lionel Messi, of course.
How could it not be? He finally fulfilled a 16-year quest as the heir to the best player Argentina – and some say the world – had ever seen, Diego Maradona.
A journey that left those alongside him, like Angel di Maria – who had lost World Cup and Copa America finals next to him – emotional wrecks on the Lusail Stadium pitch at the end of an eventful, chaotic, enthralling match.
Tears soon made way for an outpouring of joy for others.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, a mess at first, was later seen bopping up and down on the pitch with his two sons. The team’s adoring horde of supporters serenaded them with Muchachos, Ahora Nos Volvimos a Ilusionar – their unofficial anthem in Qatar – from the stands.
These wonderfully passionate fans had played their part in the final, masterfully.
Some had dyed their hair blue for the occasion. Others stripped off their shirts and twirled it in the air in delirium after Messi scored in extra time.
For two-and-a-half hours, they sang, they cried, they embraced each other.
As did four billion people all over the world, from Buenos Aires to Bangladesh, to bars, coffee shops and lawns in Singapore. Even the world’s second-richest man, Elon Musk, tweeted from inside the Lusail.
The final made all of them, temporarily at least, forget about the controversy that plagued Qatar’s hosting of the tournament, politics, the pandemic and recession. They gave themselves fully to what was unfolding in front of them or their screens.
There had been 21 finals before Sunday night and plenty were memorable. For all its woes and issues, the drama and entertainment Sunday’s final delivered was the perfect advertisement for the brand of football.
The climax of the 1930 edition, featuring a one-armed goalscorer from a Uruguay side who beat Argentina, was said to be thrilling, as was 1954’s Miracle of Bern, when West Germany defeated the Mighty Magyars of Hungary.
There have been stunning individual performances, from Pele in 1958, to Mario Kempes in 1978, Maradona in 1986 to Ronaldo in 2002.
But there has been nothing quite like the encounter that capped this edition, which featured two star turns: One from Messi and the other from his heir apparent as football’s pre-eminent player, Kylian Mbappe.
The electric French forward scored a hat-trick to drag his side to the very end – goals which made him the tournament’s top scorer, the all-time record scorer in World Cup finals with four goals, and just the second man to score three goals in a final after England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.
But, as he stood on the stage at the Lusail with the Golden Boot and a glum expression, it seemed the only personal accolade Mbappe had wanted had eluded him. He failed to become only the second player to lift two World Cups before the age of 24 – Pele stands alone.
Perhaps the mercurial young striker can take solace in knowing his contributions helped give the world a match for the ages.
“Head held high”, blared the headline of French sports newspaper L’Equipe, the text imposed on a photo of Mbappe clutching the Golden Boot as he trudged past the World Cup trophy.
Messi and his band had won “the greatest final in history”, said Argentinian daily La Nacion, while Clarin described it as an “unforgettable” match.
In Britain, The Times proclaimed on its front page that Messi had triumphed in the “battle of modern maestros in greatest final”. On the cover of its sports section, it dubbed him succinctly as “The Greatest”.
The Sun opted for a cheeky reference to Maradona’s infamous wondergoal against England at the 1986 edition, with the headline “In the Hand of God”. In Germany, Suddeutsche Zeitung also played on that via the headline “The foot of God” for Messi.
Even in Argentina’s fiercest rivals, Brazil, the O Globo outlet paid homage to Messi, saying football had “paid its debt” to its brightest star.
In the United States, the co-hosts of the next showpiece along with Canada and Mexico, The Washington Post claimed Messi was finally rewarded in an “immortal” final.
And in Asia, where Messi has hordes of supporters, Indian newspaper The Hindu said his La Albiceleste side had kept their “date with destiny”, while South Korean publication Hankook Ilbo anointed him a “god of football”.
It was interesting that throughout the madness and emotions around him, as press all over the world scrambled to deify him, fans on social media declared him the best ever, and as the Emir of Qatar draped a bisht (traditional Arab cloak) over his shoulders, Messi remained a constant picture of cool.
It was as though it had always been his destiny to lift the Cup.
With the way things ended on Sunday night, maybe it was.
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