The defining image of this World Cup was just about its last one. There was a kiss for the trophy. Lionel Messi finally became acquainted with the World Cup. On a night high on drama and higher on emotion, it had the perfect ending for the greatest of them all.
The one prize that had eluded him was won with the help of two nerveless penalties, perhaps the only perceived flaw in his game. Even his other goal came with his weaker right foot. It was a game in which every question was answered. Football? Completed it.
He joins Pele and Diego Maradona as World Cup-winning greats after a final that showcased the magnificence of not just Messi but another in Kylian Mbappe. But in truth this was all about an achievement that separated him from the rest. He has the missing piece now.
His final trick might just be his greatest too. Stripped of the searing pace that when coupled with his ability to manipulate the ball made it almost unfair, this version of Messi is battling against his own 35-year-old body. The physical advantage is with the opponent.
To watch him solve that problem with a glance here and a feint there has been to witness genius. Ronaldo fans never have grasped that it is about more than goals. It is the passes he receives that others cannot. The passes he makes that never require others to break stride.
Messi will know that he needed those others to make this happen, he has always been a team player. He can think back to 2010 to remind him of the need for the right manager. He will recall the misses of others as well as his own in the 2014 final. The mess that was 2018.
Here, it came together amid barbecues with a band of brothers. “Everything that he transmits to his team-mates is something unparalleled, that I have never seen before,” said Lionel Scaloni after the final. “A player, a person who gives so much to his team-mates.”
But that is reciprocated. Julian Alvarez had watched him on television as a child. He was Messi’s legs in Qatar. Rodrigo De Paul spoke of going to war for his captain. He was Messi’s minder. Emiliano Martinez admitted that he would be happier for Messi than himself.
Such responsibility could have been suffocating but cheered on by their supporters, it emboldened him and everyone around him. Burdened with glorious purpose, it became a mission – and the clarity of that mission helped carry them all the way to victory.
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