The Greatest Of Finals: Argentina Go The Distance With Messi Immortalised

The Greatest Of Finals: Argentina Go The Distance With Messi Immortalised

There are some stories that are just meant to be. Stories are at the core & heart of what it means to be human; stories of heroes, and fallen foes, great battles, stories that unite us across borders & beliefs. After last night, it’s certain that households that adorn the narrow cobblestone streets of Buenos Aires, Cordoba, La Plata, & of course Rosario in Argentina or for that matter, every corner of neighbourhoods around the world, where a football is kicked, will tell the story of this fabled night in Qatar.

When they’re tucking their children into bed at bedtime, and as the children dream, people across the world will tell their children stories of this night. Football has its share of folklore, history, narratives, subplots & storylines, but none of them compare to this. None.

A boy from Rosario, in Argentina, who left home for the heart of Catalunya, Spain at the tender age of 13 with a God-given gift, and then to make the world rejoice as one 22 years later.

Imagine for a moment, that you are put on Earth just for one purpose: to play the beautiful game of football & unite a country or perhaps several countries & the people residing in them, giving them wings to dream and believe in miracles. He was put on Earth for just that. To play football; to make it seem effortless as he glides along the pitch, game after game, body swerve after body swerve, goal after goal, breaking record after record, winning over fans around the world regardless of cultural divides & differences.

This boy, now a man of 35, is equally celebrated in the fields of the African subcontinent, the winding roadways of Kolkatta, Goa & Kerala in India, the busy hustle of cities in North America, in European cafes, and coffee houses, in the Far East, the Middle East, the cold of Scandinavia, and of course in the heart of Argentina, his homeland.

In Barcelona, for the Blaugrana of his boyhood club, he’s as close to a saint that the famed cathedrals of the Catalan city sing about and pray for. For him. The scrawny boy who captured the world’s imagination.

Argentina last won the World Cup in 1986 when the mercurial Diego Maradona took center stage & led the Albiceleste to glory; it was their greatest moment. Some believed there would be none like him. But then came Messi.

The Argentine fans made the journey from South America, catching connecting flights, trains, hitchiking in buses & cars through the deserts of the Middle East and any mode of transportation they could find, to be there, to witness the grand spectacle of the World Cup’s penultimate game, the last hurdle, the chance to rewrite history, to watch their beloved Messi, captaining his side and with a chance to set the record straight after 2014.

As the night began at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar, with multitudes of Argentine fans packing the rafters, children on their father’s and mother’s shoulders, their faces freshly painted with Argentina’s colours, flags & tifos, & drums, & bugles, sweat, chants & the thickness of the air, packing the stadium to the maximum, in the boiling desert heat of Lusail. But nobody in the stadium could even fathom an ounce of what was about to contrive to occur after the whistle blew for kickoff.

It was 78 minutes of Argentina delivering a masterclass in possession & out of possession, showing energy, drive, commitment & tenacity embodied by the industrious De Paul & Mac Allister. But then there was the cerebral genius of Messi, as he drifted in and out of the pockets, breaking the lines & showing his guile and class.

Messi, to me, is almost like a Himalayan Wolf on the pitch. Himalayan wolves are a rare breed, with only 350 of them remaining in the world today. They are known for their tactfulness, cleverness & fierce & decisive attacks on their prey.

Messi, almost similarly, the leader of the Argentine pack, in the way he wanders, and stalks his opponents; his prey; not in dramatic showing or a bag of tricks, but in subtle, elegant yet brutal & effective movement.

His movement is not just trudging, he’s three steps ahead of his opponents, it’s cerebral, it’s calculated, he’s thinking all the time, he’s calculating, he’s dancing to the rhythm of the drums in the stands, with a short two-step & a sudden burst over a few yards. Few players trudge & glide across the pitch with as much effectiveness and class. Only the greatest, make it seem like a walk in the park, the greatest, Zidane, Cruyff, Maradona, Pirlo; there are just a handful.

With two goals to the good, with Messi striking from the spot & Angel Di Maria, finishing off a sweeping & breathtaking move to put the Albiceleste within reach of that World Cup trophy, 36 years after Maradona’s heroics, they were just 12 minutes plus added time away from a victory in normal time.

But with as much power as a runaway locomotive, with a brash violence to his running, and determined to do some damage with only the Argentine goal in mind, France’s boy wonder Kylian Mbappe had other ideas. Emerging from the shadows, after a relatively quiet 80 minutes, Mbappe sprang into life late on in normal time on the night.

With a fiercely struck penalty & a sumptuous volley that traveled like a bullet, within a frenzy of a couple of minutes, where nobody could comprehend what was happening, Mbappe drew the game level as Argentina’s defence succumbed & fell apart under the pressure of the last ten minutes yet again, just like they did against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals.

To his credit, France manager Didier Deschamps made some bold moves with his substitutions in the final bringing on Kolo Muani & Marcus Thuram & later Kingsley Coman & Eduardo Camavinga, in extra time and playing more direct & the results were starkly visible.

Unbridled joy turned to depths of despair for the Argentine fans. France’s prime minister Emmanuel Macron thumped the air, as the cameras cut to him after Mbappe’s full-tilt, rocket-powered brace drew the game sending it into extra time.

But in extra time Messi would resurface from a relatively short spell of hibernation, as he reacted quickest to the ball dropping to him by scoring again. Argentine fans rejoiced again, with loud roars of “Messi”. But yet again Mbappe stood in Argentina’s way, converting another penalty, as France’s remontada was complete. 3-3 after 120 minutes. An incomprehensible, & unbelievable final of the World Cup. You had to watch it.

As penalties loomed and began, Emiliano Martinez would turn hero for the Albiceleste again, which Barney Ronay in the Guardian referred to as a “good old fashioned malandro“, which roughly translates to ‘rascal’ or ‘scoundrel’. His antics were reminiscent of exactly that; pumping his chest, flinging himself across the goal, running at the unsuccessful French penalty takers; being a nuisance. And later, during the award distribution ceremony, placing the golden glove trophy between his crotch & making a strange face in front of the watching world; malandro indeed.

Gonzalo Montiel would have the final say and finish the night off giving Argentina the coveted World Cup trophy with his penalty that won it for the South Americans and the world rejoiced in unison.

As Angel Di Maria bled tears right from the end of normal time into extra time & then penalties, his emotions portrayed exactly what the Argentina fans felt in the stadium on the night, in an absolutely crazy, bizarre, unprecedented & frenetic final. A rollercoaster of emotions, but fate & the footballing gods smiled on Messi & Argentina; it was written, and this was the most unbelievable script ever conceived.

Messi fell to his knees in the center circle after the shootout as Peter Drury in the commentator’s box wove another poetic hymn,

“Lionel Messi has conquered his final peak. Lionel Messi has shaken hands with paradise. Lionel Messi, a man, who has more than any other, decorated our beautiful game…to receive from that game now, its most beautiful decoration. Messi’s meant-to-be moment. His fulfilment. His completion. It is done.” he said.

And it truly was done. The greatest player to have graced the game, in befitting fashion; the last feather in his cap, the final piece of the jigsaw, the final touch to the painted masterpiece that has been his career, the only thing left for him to do, to lead Argentina to win the World Cup, and he did, in extraordinary fashion.

On the other hand, for Kylian Mbappe, who walked away with the golden boot, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Scoring a hat trick in the World Cup final and still losing; it’s cruel & ridiculous if you think about it. But he had his day in Russia in 2018. This time, it was for the storyline that football fans around the globe wanted to be fulfilled. The story of the golden boy from Rosario; the now 35-year-old Messi who turned back the clock & lit up this World Cup with his performances.

While on the other side of the spectrum, his Portuguese counterpart, Cristiano Ronaldo, with whom comparisons are rampant in this era of football, had a sour & tragic end to his final World Cup appearance. The debate may continue, but I think it’s safe to say that it is now finally settled. The boy from Rosario has outshone the boy from Madeira, both in their final World Cups, and perhaps, revealing the kind of attitude they have & the people they are. But that scrutiny is for another day.

Messi scored 7 goals in Qatar, with his brace in the final, on the road to lifting the trophy, and in the process also collected the Golden Ball for the player of the tournament.

But this was more than all of that. This was Messi coming of age. This was destiny. This was immaculate. This is a story that will live on & be told forever into the far reaches of the future. This tournament. This night. This player. This was for Argentina. This was for the world. This was Messi, becoming immortal.

Also read: Messi And Argentina Brush Past Croatia Hoping For One Last Dance

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