Argentina’s chances at the 2022 World Cup rested on the shoulders of one man, Lionel Messi, with the 35-year-old legend delivering in the final against France in Qatar.
In Lionel Messi’s fifth World Cup appearance, he got his hands on his first Jules Rimet Trophy. Celebrating with his teammates with tears and hugs, a jubilant Leo Messi established himself as the hero of the Cup.
But it was never easy
It took five tries at the World Cup, including a demoralizing defeat at the Maracana in Brazil in 2014. That loss to Germany was the monkey on his back that he had to shake. Another gut-wrenching loss at the 2016 Copa America final had the soccer player questioning his future in the game and his role in Argentina’s national team. But love for both helped him dispel his doubts, saying in a statement, “I seriously thought of leaving. But I love this country and this shirt too much.”
His carefree and confident play at this year’s World Cup gave us a Lionel Messi who was not plagued by past demons or uncertainties. If he was going to win this time, he seemed determined to do it on his own terms. Messi played with the heart of a lion throughout the entire tournament, having spirited his team’s place in the final with decisive goals in the last four pivotal matches. He didn’t rest on the shoulders of his teammates and make guest appearances, he was the reason for each success along the way. If he was going to achieve his first Jules Rimet, he was going to earn it match by match.
And then the final came and the Argentine lion set the tone of the match with a penalty kick that secured the lead from the outset.
After a sublime counterattack by teammate Angel Di Maria, the Argentinians had a decisive lead, with the Fox Sports commentators all but writing off the French opponents. It looked like Leo Messi was securing his place in history. The 2-0 score remained unchanged until just a few minutes were left in the game. The Argentine team seemed tired, but secure in their quest.
But Messi’s path to victory was never going to be easy. French star forward player Kylian MBappe had yet to make a mark on the scoreboard, but the Paris native—in front of his country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who flew in just for the occasion—saved the best for last, scoring two spellbinding goals at the eleventh hour to make it an extraordinary final.
Not to be outdone, Leo Messi saw his chance in the closing seconds, kicking what would have been the winning point in any other match, only to be felled by the magic hands of the greatest goalkeeper in the game, France’s secret weapon, Hugo Lloris (I mean, that man doesn’t get enough credit for getting France to the final!). Talk about “hand of God!”
So over time, the game went and so did Messi’s hopes for an authoritative victory. The Argentine team frankly looked spent and demoralized but managed to tie things up at 3-3 thanks to a messy Messi goal that went over the goal line by a hair’s breadth in the culminating minutes of first overtime.
That forced the World Cup to go into a second penalty goal overtime session for just the third time in its history of 22 final matches. Both marquee players Messi and MBappe scored laser-precision goals to keep up the stiff competitiveness of the intense match. But it was Argentina’s goalie Emiliano Martinez’s save of Kolo Muani’s kick that gave his country hope that a third trophy would be possible.
Gonzalo Montiel may have missed the semifinal due to suspension, but made the most of his opportunity in the final, clinching the penultimate penalty goal with all the eyes of his country on him.
But at the end of the day, Argentina’s victory will be talked about mostly for Messi’s historic victory. No longer in the shadow of the great icon Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi has established himself as the face of Argentine soccer and a leading contender for the greatest of all time (GOAT). He is the highest scoring Argentine, both the oldest and youngest player to assist in a World Cup game, has the most minutes in World Cup history (breaking Italy’s Paolo Maldini’s record), and most appearances in World Cup history.
But most of all, Messi redefined greatness at this year’s World Cup.