AP – Lionel Messi’s once-in-a-generation career is complete. The Argentina superstar is finally a World Cup champion.
Messi scored two goals and then another in a shootout as Argentina beat France 4-2 on penalties after a 3-3 draw Sunday to claim a third World Cup title despite Kylian Mbappé scoring the first hat trick in a final in 56 years.
Now there’s no debate. Messi is definitively in the pantheon of soccer’s greatest ever players, alongside Pelé — a record three-time World Cup champion from Brazil — and Diego Maradona, the late Argentina great with whom Messi was so often compared.
Messi achieved what Maradona did in 1986 and dominated a World Cup for Argentina. The torch will one day pass to Mbappé, whose late goals lit up one of the most dramatic finals in the tournament’s 92-year history and emulated Geoff Hurst’s hat trick for England in 1966, but not just yet.
“Let’s go, Argentina!” Messi roared into a microphone on the field in the post-match celebrations after playing in a record 26th World Cup match.
Messi was in scintillating form from the start, putting Argentina ahead from the penalty spot and playing a part in Angel Di Maria’s goal that made it 2-0 after 36 minutes.
Mbappé, on the other hand, was anonymous until scoring two goals in a 97-second span — one a penalty, the other a volley from just inside the area — to take the game to extra time.
Messi tapped in his second goal in the 108th minute, leaving Argentina on the brink of the title once again, but there was still time for another penalty from Mbappé to take the thrilling game to a shootout.
Gonzalo Montiel scored the clinching penalty kick after Kingsley Coman had an attempt saved by Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez and Aurelien Tchouameni missed for France.
“This is my dream,” Martinez said.
Europe’s run of four straight World Cup winners came to an end. The last South American champion was Brazil, and that was also in Asia — when Japan and South Korea hosted the tournament in 2002.
Argentina won its previous World Cup titles in 1978 and 1986. In Qatar, the country backed up its victory from last year’s Copa America, its first major trophy since 1993.
It’s quite the climax to Messi’s international career, which might not yet be over at the age of 35 because he is playing as well as ever. After all, he finished the World Cup with seven goals, one behind Mbappé’s tournament leading eight.
It was quite the finale, too, for a unique World Cup — the first to be played in the Middle East and the Arab world.
For FIFA and the Qatari organisers, a final between two major soccer nations and the world’s two best players represented a perfect way to cap a tournament laced in controversy ever since the scandal-shrouded vote in 2010 to give the event to a tiny Arab emirate.
The years-long scrutiny since has focused on the switch of dates from the traditional June-July period to November-December, strong criticism of how migrant workers have been treated, and then unease about taking soccer’s biggest event to a nation where homosexual acts are illegal.
On Sunday, there was one narrative at play for most people: Could Messi do it?
He could, despite the 23-year-old Mbappé — Messi’s teammate at Paris Saint-Germain — doing all he could to emulate Pelé by winning his first two World Cups.
Messi became the first player to score in the group stage and each of the knockout rounds at a single World Cup.
Ever since Argentina’s unthinkable 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening group game, Messi has been a man on a mission — embracing the responsibility of leading his national team at his final World Cup and playing in the spirit of Maradona by coupling his dazzling skills with rarely seen aggression.
Maradona never scored in a final, though. Messi has, allowing him to erase memories of his only other World Cup final — in 2014 when Argentina lost to Germany 1-0 and Messi squandered a great chance in the second half.
On that night at the Maracanã Stadium, Messi stared down at the golden World Cup trophy that escaped him.
Eight years later, he will raise it aloft in the biggest moment of a career like no other.
Photo: Argentinian players celebrate after winning the penalty shootout during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)