Argentina and Lionel Messi celebrate their World Cup championship. Photo: twitter.com/MundoAlbicelest/

By MARK LORENZANA

In close to two decades as the face of international soccer, Argentinian legend Lionel Messi has won it all: He has dominated at the club level, and has been the consensus best soccer player (he has been awarded the Ballon d’Or, or Golden Ball, an annual soccer award, seven times).

He was still, however, missing a piece of hardware in his trophy case and, perhaps, the most important: a World Cup championship.

Until now, that is.

Messi has finally claimed a World Cup trophy, in one of the most exciting finals in international soccer history, beating France via penalty shootout on Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar.

Messi, his teammates, Parisian superstar Kylian Mbappé and the French National Team had to dig deep physically and mentally to give soccer fans in Qatar — and all over the world — a thrilling finals match that had everyone guessing right until the nail-biting shootout. Argentina drew first blood, with Messi scoring in the 23rd minute via penalty kick, after French winger Ousmane Dembélé fouled attacking midfielder Ángel Di María.

Even before Argentina officially won the match, Messi broke another record in that same minute when he scored the opening goal. He became the first player to have played the most minutes in a World Cup, at 2,216 minutes. Messi, in that same match, likewise became the player with most World Cup appearances.

Di María would add to the French fans’ anguish shortly, as he scored the second goal for Argentina in the 36th minute — perhaps the most impressive goal of the match — that featured superb teamwork by Argentina before the goal itself, around five passes before the ball reached Di María, who booted it home.

Things seemed bleak for France, with the game at 2-0 in favor of Argentina, going into the half. But if the Argentinians have Messi, the French have Mbappé.

The 23-year-old Mbappé, Messi’s teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, wouldn’t be outdone: He goaled in the 80th minute, and then again in the 81st, scoring two goals in under two minutes. Suddenly, the game was tied, and suddenly the anguish-stricken faces were those from the Argentinian fans in the crowd, with the French fans suddenly finding hope that their team could escape with a win in extra time, after being down two points early in the match.

Again, Messi stepped up in extra time: He scored his second goal, in the 108th minute, to give his team the lead, 3-2. But again, Mbappé responded: He found the net 10 minutes later, in the 118th minute, to tie the game at 3-3. Such was the ebb and flow of the match, but regulation and extra time wouldn’t be enough; it would just have to be decided through a penalty shootout.

In the shootout, Messi and Mbappé took care of business, scoring one goal each for their respective teams. France, however, missed two attempts, giving Argentina the title — their third overall (1978, 1986 and 2022).

“I’m less excited than on other days, but today I am liberated,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, after ending the country’s 36-year World Cup drought. “This team only gives me pride, this win is all theirs.”

For his part, France coach Didier Deschamps was proud of his superstar, Mbappé, who already has a World Cup trophy at such a young age, when France won the tournament in 2018. Mbappé was also the youngest French player at that time — at age 18 — to have scored at a World Cup.

“Kylian left his mark on this final,” Deschamps said after the match. “Just not in the way he hoped.”

This World Cup, though, belongs to the Argentinians — and Messi.

“Let’s go! We are world champions,” Messi said, after being named player of the tournament, and holding the trophy that he and his teammates worked so hard to win.

“It’s crazy that it has happened this way. I wanted it very much. I knew God was going to give it to me. I sensed it was going to be this. Now it’s time to enjoy.”

One of the greatest soccer players to have ever laced on cleats can finally enjoy his hard-earned World Cup victory. A beautiful game indeed.

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