This was a World Cup Lionel Messi refused to lose

In the hearts of soccer fans around the world, the greatest game that any of us will see in our lives will be remembered as fated, because a tiny man from Argentina willed that trophy into his hands. 

One of greatest players in history rewards Argentine fans for their faith

Soccer player kisses a trophy.
Lionel Messi, holding the Golden Ball trophy as top player in the World Cup, kisses the championship trophy after his team's victory over France on Sunday. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

Out of all the reasons that soccer tournaments are won and lost, from all the moments that see games and destinies turn — in the grand, final accounting of the millions of choices that determines who lifts a trophy — it was impossible to watch Argentina finally triumph over France and not wonder whether Lionel Messi had made up his mind to win the World Cup in his fifth and final attempt, and so he did.

The record will show that La Albiceleste won Sunday's final on penalties, after the score was tied 2-2 at the end of a stunning regulation, and 3-3 after a frenetic extra time.

But in the hearts of soccer fans around the world, the greatest game that any of us will see in our lives will be remembered as fated, because a tiny man from Argentina willed that trophy into his hands. 

"I had a feeling that this was mine," he said after.

The 35-year-old opened the scoring — of course he did — in the 23rd minute, after Angel Di Maria earned a penalty with a vintage cut into the box. Messi, playing his record 26th men's World Cup game, stood up to take the 29th penalty of his international career.

Soccer player kicks ball into the net over goalkeeper.
Messi scores Argentina's third goal in extra time to send the game to penalties. (AFP via Getty Images)

He hesitated just enough, and French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris dived to his right, leaving Messi to pass the ball into the empty half of the net.

Thirteen minutes later, Messi made a terrific one-touch turn to feed the ball to Alexis Mac Allister, who swung it left to Di Maria. The 34-year-old had played only eight minutes in Argentina's three previous knockout-round matches, but now he was starting alongside his slightly more ancient friend, and he lifted the ball over Lloris and into the net.

Di Maria burst into tears and made his trademark heart with his hands. Then he wiped his eyes and put his fist in the air. It was all but over.

Defiant Argentina continued to hold normally lethal, opportunistic France to nothing, or close to it. The defending champions were so devoid of ideas, head coach Didier Deschamps switched out two of his biggest stars, Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembélé, before halftime.

Still, the French looked defeated, playing like men who knew they were going to lose, like they were at war with mountains.

That was before they earned their own late penalty, and everything started to turn.

In the 80th minute, Kylian Mbappé — Messi's 23-year-old foil, the youngest man to play in two World Cup finals, the next Pelé — blasted his spot kick past Emiliano Martinez.

After the restart, Messi, perhaps trying to do too much to rescue the result, was stripped of the ball at half. A gorgeous series of French passes found Mbappé with the ball in the box, and he scored again, 97 seconds after his penalty.

Everything had felt so predetermined to that point, it was almost hard to comprehend what had happened, and how quickly. The 88,966 in attendance at golden, glittering Lusail Stadium had felt as though we were watching the coronation of a king. We should have remembered that the French have some experience in dethroning.

Messi reasserted himself by scoring in the second half of extra time, which seemed certain to seal things. How else could this story end?

Then the French were awarded another penalty two minutes from time, and Mbappé finished his hat trick.

Strangers looked at each other in disbelief. Players on both teams smiled in different ways, for different reasons.

Messi and Mbappé had each held the Golden Boot, given to the tournament's top goal scorer, twice during the game. First Messi owned it, then Mbappé, before Messi took it back, before Mbappé stole it for good.

On we went, to unfathomable, inevitable penalties.

Mbappé went first for the French and scored with power. Messi went first for the Argentines and scored with cunning. 

Only then did the game's supporting players really come into frame. Argentina's — including Martinez, who had made a game-saving stop at the end of extra time — proved superior. Two French players missed their chances, and none of the Argentines missed theirs.

When Gonzalo Montiel finally finished a night never to be forgotten, Messi, watching and waiting at half, dropped to his knees on the grass. He was surrounded by his teammates, who will tell their grandchildren stories about the game they played long ago, and with whom.

"We were so close to winning this match, but it wasn't meant to be," Deschamps said after.

That's because it was meant for Messi to win it.

Nearly a month ago, after Argentina had opened its campaign with a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia, he had spoken to his country, to the world. "My message to the supporters is to have faith," he said. "We won't leave them stranded."

He and his team had been nearly perfect since. Messi played every minute of every game, accumulating highlight after highlight — a wonder strike against Mexico, a ridiculous pass against the Netherlands, a classic run against Croatia. He was joyous and close to whimsical nearly every step of the way

Messi's final victory, however, was something sterner. It was one of refusal. He could have given in to so many defeating things, so often. He said no to all of them. He ignored the perils of time. He rejected the precociousness of youth. He denied doubt and disavowed pressure. He spurned hopelessness and abandoned fear.

He decided he would win this World Cup. He also refused to lose it.

And so it came to pass, at the end of the best of everything: There stood Lionel Messi, the greatest soccer player who's ever lived, bathed in the brightest lights, with the most beautiful trophy on Earth shining in his eyes, and the last of his dreams come true.


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now