Cry for me, Argentina: The joy and sorrow of watching Lionel Messi win the Qatar World Cup

Tears, tears, tears.

Lionel Messi is in tears, falling to his knees in the grass. He holds his arms out wide, his face a portrait of pure sublimity. He has realised something nobody else knows, like he has seen the face of God, like he has touched paradise.

He disappears shortly after, buried beneath a rush of blue and white. Then something unexpected washes around the stadium. It is not the roar of 40,000 Argentinian fans driven to rapture by the final whistle of this indescribable game. Instead, it’s something quite the opposite: a kind of divine silence, a long and peaceful breath at having watched something long awaited finally arrive.

Two soccer players hold their arms widely as they prepare to hug while kneeling on the pitch.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates with Leandro Paredes after winning the World Cup.(Reuters: Dylan Martinez)

It has been three hours since the World Cup final kicked off at Lusail Stadium, though it does not feel that way. Time does not mean much in games like this, games that take everything you thought you knew and felt about football and tears it up, scattering the pieces to the wind.

We expected this to be a game of titans, a game of pasts colliding with futures, a game of legacies forgotten or fulfilled. But we did not expect it would be a game like this.

Because it was not just one game. It was games within games, histories within histories, stories within stories.

The first half’s game belonged to Argentina — or, more specifically, to Angel Di María, who was recalled to the starting team alongside Messi, one of his oldest and dearest friends. They debuted for Argentina together as boys and have been tied together ever since as if by an invisible string. You could see them plucking it here, in the muscle-memory moves they made around each other, the little smiles and gestures they flicked through the air.

Messi spent the opening half doing what Messi always does: watching, walking, thinking. He looks around, feels the strings, takes it all in. Then he moves. A scything pass opens up France’s defensive line, a shot by a teammate spinning out for the first corner.

The Albiceleste are everywhere, engulfing the navy blue of the reigning champions like a mist, shrouding and suffocating them. It is 10 minutes before we hear the name of Kylian Mbappé, and it will be 60 minutes more before he decides to force it from our mouths.

Di María is dancing down the left side, scooping the ball this way and that, twisting and nudging the spaces he needs into existence. He chops inside the scattered Ousamane Dembélé, who clips the whippety Argentine to give away the first of what will be many penalties tonight.

Two soccer players wearing white and blue hug on the grass during a game
Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria are the last ties to the old Argentina, passing the baton on to the next generation.(Getty Images: Visionhaus)

The referee’s whistle melts into the whistle of the fans as their captain shuffles forward and arcs his gold boot smoothly, shooting the ball through for the opening goal. There are Argentinians already in floods of tears. Everything is heightened here, the emotions piling up game after game, year after year, decade after decade, all coalescing into this one moment that feels like everything in an otherwise empty desert.

Fifteen minutes later, they score again. But this time it is not through the efforts of a single man. This time, it is through the ballet of an entire team. It begins in Argentina’s own defensive third and ends in France’s net — a sweeping five-pass move that is football at its purest, at its cleanest, at its most divine. Di María finishes this diamond-cut sequence of passes and is close to tears now too. He senses it — this feeling the whole universe is urging them on. We all do.

Half-time arrives and France have not registered a single shot. This has not been a contest so much as a capitulation by the reigning champions, a navy-blue carpet rolled out to welcome the guests of honour. We weren’t here to watch a contest anyway, were we? Most of us came to watch Lionel Messi’s story reach its perfect conclusion. France are simply academic, part of the paperwork, the dots and crosses to scrawl off in Messi’s final, glorious chapter.

But as the second half begins, so too does the second game. All of a sudden, the things we thought we knew begin to unravel. The momentum leans in France’s favour. The passes begin to connect, to penetrate, to threaten. They still haven’t had a shot as the hour ticks past, but every minute they seem to muscle their way closer to one.

Finally, 20 minutes from time, it begins: the Mbappé show. He cracks off the first frustrated shot, slicing in-field towards the top of the area before rifling over the crossbar, tired of waiting for his teammates to win this thing. Eight minutes later, an opening: another penalty, this time for Les Bleus — Randal Kolo Muani tugged down by Nicholas Otomendi.

Mbappé steps up, feeling the Golden Boot slipping from his foot, and converts as though it were a training-ground drill. From there, it’s like the feeling of the ball thwacking the back of the net unleashes something in him, because a minute later he has another: an outrageous volley, an unimaginable contortion of his body in the air, an impossible flick of his leg like a liquid whip to send the ball into the bottom corner. It’s 2-2 in the 80th minute and there are still so many games to play.

Mbappe strikes the ball.
Mbappe won the Golden Boot award following his hat-trick in the final.(Getty: Richard Heathcote)

Mbappé tries again and again, storming through Argentina’s midfield like a hurricane, defenders peeling and fluttering off behind him like delicate petals. Messi had faded into the background as Mbappé surged, but here he the Argentine appears again, re-emerging into the fabric of the game, picking the ball up and driving a shot just over the bar, sending a golden pass in behind as the clock winds further down, a few last desperate moments, a few last desperate pleas to the sky.

The whistle sounds, drawing the curtain on the first act of this perilous drama. The second act begins, more games pouring into extra time. The camera pans over the open mouth of the stadium as whistles and roars bellow from within. You cannot remember the last time you breathed steadily, the last time you stood to stretch or look away, sensing that any second could be the one that changes everything. Every tackle, every pass, every moment quivers with possibility, the alternate realities spinning off into the night.

This is football at its finest, at its most fragile and its most precious, where it is at its clearest and most beautiful. Messi scores again, not through some Pythagorean miracle, but by the ugly rawness of a desperate man, bundling it over the line with the collective will of the world at his back. Mbappé claws France back level through another penalty, becoming the first man to score a World Cup final hat-trick since 1966, forcing this game of games into its final fateful act.

This is the football that has rescued this shadowy tournament from itself, football as we want it to be, a kind of sporting Shakespeare, a theatre of dreams. And this final has been the magnum opus, perhaps the greatest final of all time, a final into which all our hopes for the game’s redemption have been poured.

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