World Cup final: An unforgettable night of Messi memories when his team stood by him

– Atreyo Mukhopadhyay

I am not saying that I have been to a lot of heart-stopping climaxes at the biggest stage when it comes to sports. Primarily a cricket reporter, I have seen only a few. Of which, the 2019 World Cup final involving England and New Zealand at Lord’s had almost rattled me. For more than a moment, I did not know what to write or how to react. The way things kept fluctuating, I was at my wits end.

A World Cup football final is obviously a different beast. The global following, the things at stake, the overall magnitude of the event, the sheer enormity of the occasion, the volume of emotions involved, the passion it invigorates and your own attachment to this match make it a completely different story. It has no parallel. Perhaps the Olympic 100m sprint final is a distant second.

Let me admit I was completely dazed by the way events unfolded at Lusail Stadium on a frantic Sunday night. I was thinking before the match that France are a better side than Argentina in terms of overall balance, which probably they were on paper. I was also thinking that a World Cup final is usually a 50-50 match. There are no favourites and no underdogs. The side that shows greater collective zeal and desire must come up trumps.

For a better part of the 120 minutes, Argentina showed that. They were behind France on paper, yet bamboozled them for the first 75 minutes. Where were France during that period? Where was Kylian Mbappe? Even some of their best players in Qatar 2022 like Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Ousmane Dembele had to be taken off. It was Argentina all over the defending champions. France were hardly in the game. La Albiceleste had one hand on the coveted trophy.

Then came the anti-climax. Showing why he is heavily touted to be inarguably the next superstar of world football, Mbappe imposed himself on the match. I was telling friends I was watching the match with, that Argentina had blown away a 2-0 lead against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, with less than five minutes remaining on the clock, before winning on penalties. Truth to be told, I did not foresee that the same was going to happen in the final. I was rattled again, almost shaking.

Football is a game of two halves. And I have following this game for years. Rarely did I see a match of this scale turn on its head in the last quarter (barring the 1986 final). From nowhere, Mbappe was all over the Argentines, orchestrating moves, dictating terms, launching attacks single-handedly and causing havoc in the opposition half. In a matter of minutes, the match changed completely. For me, this was the most fascinating aspect of the final. A team perceived by almost everybody as well-balanced in every department against a side seen as a one-man army was relying on one man against a bunch of men in sky blue and white who were fighting as a unit.

This was the story of the final as far as I am concerned. France versus Argentina was supposed to be a contest between a heavily balanced side, against one relying largely on Lionel Messi. What we saw eventually was just the opposite. Every Argentina player played as if their lives depended on this game and played their hearts out. The French side is physically vastly superior. They have players of far better built. But Argentina turned the tables on them when it came to the heart. They gave it their every bit, for 120 minutes and more.

Messi, for whom most of the football-loving population of the world must be very proud by now, was obviously the fulcrum and heart and soul of the side. He converted a fantastic penalty, started the move which resulted in perhaps the best team goal of the tournament and brought his team back from the brink of despair with a blistering right-footer in extra-time. But it was not only about him. Most of his teammates showed as much commitment and determination. That is why they came up trumps. That is why this match must go down in history as one of the, if not the one, best World Cup finals ever.

I am nobody comment on what this means to Messi or whether this triumph makes him the greatest player of all time. He was already among the greatest before this. But to see him lift football’s biggest prize was some experience. I was thinking before the match that it had to be a fairy tale for this to come true. Friends were saying that some fairy tales do not come true. Even I was thinking on those lines. As I write this, at 1.15 am, my South Kolkata neighbourhood is celebrating on the streets. Loudspeakers are going bonkers, crackers are going off every now and then. It’s louder than Diwali for sure. I am not complaining. I wanted to see Messi hold aloft that trophy. I will not be able to sleep tonight but I will have happy memories. Fan moment, you can say.

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