Ken Early: You couldn’t make up the madness of this World Cup final and Messi’s Hollywood ending

Final for the ages is crowning glory that puts Messi on a par with Maradona’s effort in 1986

You couldn’t make it up. Really, you couldn’t. People talk about Hollywood endings but only football can give you endings like this. A fictional match with the plot of this game could never be filmed, it would be too ridiculous. A fictional film with the plot of this Argentina World Cup campaign would simply be too corny.

But this is real life and here we are. On a night of stunning drama and wild emotion at the Lusail Stadium, Lionel Messi, a hero to billions and the best footballer ever to kick a ball, won the World Cup in what may well be his last ever match with the national team.

On the occasion of his 172nd cap, in his 1003rd career appearance, he scored his 97th and 98th international goals and scored again in the shootout as his team beat France on penalties to win the only trophy that had so far eluded him, and the one that means the most, in perhaps the best ever World Cup Final.

It would not be true to say that the whole world was willing Messi on to win the game. Opposing him was a coalition of the French, many non-Argentine South Americans, Real Madrid fans, Cristiano Ronaldo stans, professional contrarians, and other assorted sickos, perverts and desperadoes who for different twisted reasons hate the ideas of happiness, completeness and justice.


Everyone else wanted Messi to finish with the victory that he deserved so much, to finish his epic and often tortured World Cup story in the best way imaginable, and to crown a heroic career with the ultimate success.

He has delivered in every game here in Qatar, scoring in every game except the 2-0 win over Poland- in which Wojciech Szczesny saved his penalty -and producing match-winning moments of brilliance against Mexico, Australia, the Netherlands, Croatia and now France.

It is as complete a triumph as that of Diego Maradona in 1986, which until tonight was the unassailable peak of Argentine football history. At long last, Diego has someone to keep him company up there.

The decisive Argentina penalty in the shootout was scored by substitute full-back Gonzalo Montiel, who, as he ran to celebrate, broke down and bawled like a baby. The emotional dam that had shattered in Montiel released a flood of joy and also of relief. He had been the one whose unlucky handball had given away the penalty with which France had equalised in the 118th minute. These were the uncontrollable tears of a man who only moments ago had been teetering, through no real fault of his own, on the brink of an eternal sporting infamy. These were the convulsive tears of pure redemption. For the first 70 or 80 minutes it was hard to imagine the final would finish with such epic emotions. Until then it had been little more than a victory procession for Argentina, with some moments of great quality, a bit too easy to be a genuine classic, but overall people were getting what they wanted.

Then, for much of the 40 or 50 minutes that followed, it looked like turning into the kind of movie whose ending would be rejected at the test screenings for being too challenging for the audience. Jaws, but the shark wins. The shark in Jaws was named “Bruce”, supposedly after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer. The shark of Lusail was called Kylian and for 80 minutes Mbappé was having one of the worst matches of his life. His 24 touches of the ball in the first 80 minutes was fewer than any other outfielder who started the match. The action had mocked his claims to be the heir to Messi as the world’s best.

One minute later he had taken three more touches, scored two goals and turned the 2022 final on its head. The last time Argentina had been world champions, in 1986, they had also conceded two late goals to lose a 2-0 lead, but that West Germany comeback took seven minutes. France’s comeback took just 97 seconds: no World Cup final has seen a turnaround as stunning as this.

Argentina had torn into France from the outset, seeming to shock the French with their intensity, aggression and enterprise. Messi had scored a penalty after 23 minutes and Angel di Maria, who thoroughly vindicated Lionel Scaloni’s decision to put him back in the team, added a brilliant second on 36.

That second was one the most beautiful goals ever scored in a World Cup final: a sweeping end-to-end attack involving five players and five passes, four of them first-time. Yet the real mystery of the game throughout the first 60 or 70 minutes had been: how can France be this bad? How can you turn up to a World Cup final and play like this? Maybe only Brazil, who lost 3-0 in Paris in 1998 to give the French their first World Cup, have ever flopped so badly in a final as France did in the first 70 minutes here.

Of course there had been a big reason for that Brazilian failure: Ronaldo had had an unexplained convulsion before the game, but they played him anyway, though the team was in a state of bewilderment and confusion. The natural tendency here was to seek some similar explanation. Had the outbreak of flu in the French camp been worse than Didier Deschamps’ team-sheet seemed to admit? Raphael Varane, Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano had all missed training with illness but all were in the starting XI.

Take Ousmane Dembele for instance - a player of preternatural composure and skill for Barcelona, who here mis-controlled his first touch out of play, gave away a penalty after being dribbled past by Angel di Maria, was made to look foolish by a dropped Lionel Messi shoulder, and was hooked along with Olivier Giroud after just 40 minutes, as Didier Deschamps took drastic action to try to claw back the game. Could big-match nerves alone explain a performance as wretched as this?

Yes, according to France’s coach, who denied the flu theory in his post-match press conference. “I had no concerns about the players who started. They were 100 per cent fit,” Deschamps said after the game. “They were tactical changes. I saw we needed freshness and energy. I’m not blaming Dembele or Giroud, they made a great effort out there.”

Yet after half-time France were just as bad, the tone set in the 46th minute when Theo Hernandez simply missed a ball that had been thrown out to him by Hugo Lloris. Jules Koundé wore the kind of glazed look that suggested he envied Dembele and Giroud. Antoine Griezmann, whose midfield performances have won many plaudits, looked like the out-of-position striker he in fact is.

In hindsight, France started to play better when Griezmann and the hapless Hernandez were replaced by Kingsley Coman and Eduardo Camavinga. But it was Mbappé who hurled the lightning bolts that sparked the French resurrection. His 118th minute penalty both won him the 2022 Golden Boot, made him only the second player to score a hat-trick in a final after Geoff Hurst and meant he exceeded even Pelé in becoming the top-scorer of all time in World Cup finals.

But it wasn’t enough to win it for France, because by then Messi had already scored Argentina’s third, arriving at Lloris’ near post to knock a rebound over the line.

Soon Mbappé was being consoled on the pitch by Emmanuel Macron, and there was still time for Fifa President Gianni Infantino to inject a familiar note of bathos into the post-match proceedings. Infantino, whose face fell as he was booed by the crowd when he strode onto the pitch for the medal ceremony, inserted himself into the events for as long as he was physically able. He clutched at the World Cup trophy while simpering banalities at Messi long after it was time to hand it over, as though daring Argentina’s captain to tear it from his grip.

Before he could join his team-mates with the cup Messi was presented with a bisht by the Emir of Qatar - a kind of gold-embossed see-through black robe which Qatari men apparently wear over the white thobe on formal occasions. It’s not necessarily what one wants to throw over your sweaty national team kit at the moment of lifting the World Cup trophy. But the Emir is the Emir, and he pays Messi a lot of money, so Messi played along.

“It’s madness... look how she is, she’s gorgeous,” Messi told TV reporters afterwards, holding the golden trophy. “I wanted her so much. I had a vision that this would be the one... she was getting closer.

“I wanted to close my career with this, I can no longer ask for anything else, thank God, he gave me everything.”

Football fans the world over feel the same gratitude towards Messi tonight.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer