Messi 10: Perfect end to the career of the perfect footballer

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On Sunday, Argentina’s heroes were several. Messi, of course, with his double, the perfect end to the career of the perfect footballer.

AT THE centre of the half-line stood Lionel Messi, hands aloft, looking up into the distant skies, the tears rolling down his face. Beside him, his teammates danced and heaved and ran in circles like children in a park, faces lit up with glee, undecided on where to run or what to do. This was their destination, the destiny, their summit, right on the top of the world.

On Sunday, Argentina’s heroes were several.

Messi, of course, with his double, the perfect end to the career of the perfect footballer. Emiliano Martinez, whose gloves would be forever preserved in the national museum at Buenos Aires — he had pulled off two stunning saves to lift his team to a 4-2 win in the tiebreakers after the game had ended 3-3. And, Angel di Maria, who scored and assisted a goal.

It was the most astonishing 120 minutes — at least the last 45 of it — ever played in a World Cup final. A comeback, a hat-trick, a brace, drama and daring, every human emotion drained to a state of emotionlessness. There, perhaps, would not be a more perfect, a more emotional, and a more draining final as this.

None of these seemed lurking when Argentina, fittingly, opened up a two-goal lead. The first goal was inevitable. In the opening minutes, dispelling fears of a restrained contest, where teams would weigh and measure each other, inject tempo and tenor incrementally, Argentina buzzed, testing French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris twice in the first four minutes.

The final products were weak, but Argentina furnished a portent of what was to come. In the 17th minute, the crowd leapt off their seats in breathless hope when the ball rolled onto the left foot of Messi in open space, but anti-climatically, his swing merely cut the chilly air. The stadium burst with a collective gasp.

Was it not to be his day? Memories would have rolled back to that tragic evening in Maracana when he fluffed his shot wide from a similar angle and passage of play against Germany in the 2014 World Cup final. There were sweaty fingers and anxious faces in the crowd, wondering whether history would cruelly repeat it itself. The fears, the accumulated agony of the Messi generation, lasted just six minutes. Six long minutes.

When the un-swaying focus was on Messi, his comrade through the peaks and troughs they have journeyed together, Angel di Maria slipped away, ratting blurry pace through the left-flank, out-running the pacy Ousmane Dembele. It’s his fate that his gifts would not be fully admired or extolled because he was Messi’s contemporary.

But Di Maria never complains, he is content being Messi’s sidekick, or shadow. And here, he induced a panic-nudge from Dembele. The French winger could have left him untouched, but in the scorching heat of the final, when footballers more experienced and level-headed stooped to folly, he stuck his leg and Di Maria stumbled. And the stadium erupted so rapturously that the massive structure shivered.

They were gathering the senses to soak the moment of history. They flung their smartphones away, they stood and craned their necks to the five-feet-seven-inch pillar of hope. This was a moment they wanted to record with their naked eyes, store in the heart forever, recollect for posterity in fine graphic detail, clearer and more vivid than any camera could soak. A generation’s eternal ‘I watched it’ moment.

And so it began, the most nervously anxious seconds of the 90-minute game. Eighty-eight thousand pairs of eyes inside the stadium converged on Messi. A moment when everything stood still. Two yards from the ball, Messi closed his eyes, mumbled a prayer and with three steps, rather than strides, gave Lloris the eyes, a naughty wink rather, and rolled the ball goal-wards.

He casually strode to the corner flag, slid and slipped onto the ground, arms aloft for the teammates to pile onto him. In that moment would have sunk all their despair and pain, all their joy and ecstasy, a moment Argentina fans would feel like a blur, or a dream or an illusion. Messi’s destiny and dream were half fulfilled.

But it was merely 23 minutes into the game. There was time yet for Didier Deschamps’ plucky warriors to come back. There could be twists and turns yet. But again, Argentina had Messi; Messi had Di Maria. Just 13 minutes on — a period Argentina totally dominated and shut out France’s intrusions — Di Maria doubled the lead and sobbed and sobbed. In the 2014 final, an injury had confined him to the dugout, and how Messi missed him. Today, he was to Messi what Jorge Burruchaga was to Diego Maradona. The executor of a majestic vision.

It began with a pass from Alexis Mac Allister to Messi. Messi, with his peripheral vision, slipped the ball with a delicious outside of his left-foot flick to set Julian Alvarez free. The latter slipped it back to Mac Allister, who released a wind-racing Di Maria, who sweet-spotted a glorious shot onto the goal.

The match then strolled away languorously, with Argentina and Messi moving closer to destiny. France’s hopes seemed to dissipate. Even the ever-composed Deschamps lost his composure, kicking a bottle of water into the distance. The dugout was a picture of despair, heads slumped, eyes blank, brows still, as though they were slowly resigning themselves to the inevitability of the game, as though they were readying to part with something held closest to the heart.

And then those mad 97 seconds kicked in, when Kylian Mbappe decided to twist the fate of the game. The first was a coolly essayed penalty, when Nicolas Otamendi dragged the slippery Kolo Muani down.

After slotting the ball in, Mbappe tore away to pick the ball from the net and place it at half-line all on his own. The clock was running down. Just 11 minutes remained. But Mbappe always has time, as if he controls it. And for all the urgency, he took just 97 seconds to pinch his second and infuse life into the game. How cruel it was for Messi as Kingsley Coman stole the ball off his feet and thumped it to Mbappe. He one-twoed with Marcus Thuram and then belted a first-time shot past Emiliano Martinez.

Until the game-changing burst, Mbappe was barely involved in the game. He cut a frustrating figure, hardly got any service, sparingly tested Argentina’s defence or goalkeeper. But Mbappe does not need much time on the ball to define the game, or tear the script and throw it into the dustbin. He has the supreme ability and belief to put the forgettable moments of a game behind him to produce something unforgettable, something imperishable. And when the chances arrived, he seized those.

The changes that Deschamps rang in seemed out of panic. But ever the shrewd tactician, he was altering his plans, adding pace and energy into the team, even if it meant forsaking experience. With Coman on the wings, Mulani and Thuram upfield, the French suddenly turned incisive, rattling the ageing and tiring Argentina legs. And the openings opened up.

But the comeback seemed cruelly snapped when Messi tapped in from close range at the 109th minute. Then France equalised once again, on 118 minutes. And inevitably, the tiebreaker decided the match — a match that would remain immortal in the minds of fans.

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