Lionel Messi, the Messiah of football from Argentina, may have waited nearly as long as Prince Charles to become king. When the time for coronation came to anoint him as the Greatest of All Time, no occasion could have been greater than the coruscating final of an absorbing football World Cup that held most of the eight billion people of the planet in its thrall.
The Messi era may not quite have ended as Argentina’s first victory since 1986, inspired by Diego Maradona, may spur an ambition in him to play on in Copa 2024 and the 2026 World Cup in USA, Canada and Mexico. But another era has begun already, that of Kylian Mbappe, the scorer of a hat-trick making the rollercoaster final the greatest in memory and the winner, to boot, of the Golden Boot, with 8 goals and 12 in all to equal Pele’s dozen.
The World Cup may be remembered for many things — fondly for being hosted in an unlikely part of the world in fossil energy-rich Qatar and bitterly for other reasons. But which script writer could have envisaged a scenario of two such champions going head-to-head and dominating the final with their magical footballing prowess — Messi from the start with the energy of an enthusiastic schoolboy and Mbappe firing towards the business end to produce electrifying moves as he brought defending champion France back from the brink.
In 97 seconds flat, Mbappe had changed the course of the match dominated by Argentina and Latin America’s artistry, Messi and di Maria’s drive as opposed to French diffidence in attack. France dug deep into energy reserves to equalise from 0-2 down and may even have won in extra time if not the showman Argentinian goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez’s reflex action in staving off a shot from close range by Kolo MUani.
The dreaded penalties saw France missing seasoned players like Giroud, Griezmann and Rabiot who Deschamps, recognising their exhaustion, had substituted. The lottery of a penalty shootout may be a less than perfect way to settle an argument after well over two hours of exhilarating sporting combat, but heartbreaks there must be if the tied teams are to be separated, as much as ecstasy must belong to the winners. However mightily France fought back, the verdict was universally popular for a great champion was in possession, at last, of the holy grail symbolised in the golden Jules Rimet trophy.
Besides a final for the ages, there was plenty of football action of the modern kind in a more open and positive game that many countries play. There were upsets galore, beginning with the humble Saudis downing the title aspirant Argentina in their opening game. And then there was Morocco capturing hearts in a scintillating run past Belgium, Spain, and Portugal to become the first African-Arab-Muslim nation to get to the last four and getting global support though finishing fourth.
The hosts Qatar, owners of Paris St Germain for whom both Messi and Mbappe turn out, could not have been happier for spending around $200 bn dollars of their oil money to stage such a modern extravaganza. Criticism pointed at their labour practices in building the infrastructure was credible, if too elaborate, and their cultural moorings may have been instrumental in abandoning alcohol sales at the arenas.
The pinpricks were nothing compared to what was proved in spotless conduct. It was their good fortune that the referee in the final supervised the game well enough to allow such a flowing game right into the final whistle. It was finally a victory for the beautiful game and for Messi, of course.