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Argentina, Messi Win Epic World Cup Final in PKs, Overcoming Mbappe’s Hat-Trick Heroics

A match that was on its way to being a lopsided rout absolutely flew off the rails. But when it was done, Messi and Argentina were left lifting the trophy they so desperately craved.

A one-sided World Cup final gave way to arguably the most captivating heavyweight bout of all time—one decided by the greatest player of all time, the one that’s charging hard for his throne and, ultimately, penalty kicks from 12 yards out.

Argentina outlasted France in penalty kicks (4–2) after a 3–3 draw to win its third World Cup and give Lionel Messi the one trophy he and his country had craved so dearly since Diego Maradona last led La Albiceleste to the promised land in 1986.

Kylian Mbappé’s heroic hat trick hat threatened to deny Messi and Argentina their destiny. Argentina, which led 2–0 after 36 minutes, had the titled wrapped up until the 79th minute, when Nicolás Otamendi’s gift of a penalty allowed Mbappé to score from the spot. The French sensation followed two minutes later with a finish of greater class and importance to force extra time, where things got even wilder.

Messi’s goal in the 108th minute (it just cleared the line despite Jules Koundé’s attempt to prevent it) appeared to be the difference maker until another penalty—one conceded by Gonzalo Montiel on a handball—allowed Mbappé to strike again, giving him the first hat trick in a men’s World Cup final since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.

It came down to spot kicks, where both Messi and Mbappé converted to open the proceedings. As he has been known to do, Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martínez was immense in the shootout, saving Kingsley Coman’s shot and watching Aurélien Tchouaméni’s roll wide of the post before Montiel delivered the decisive kick in a moment of personal redemption.

But for Argentina, this title was about one player and one team’s incredible perseverance.

Here are three thoughts on Argentina’s triumph:

Lionel Messi and Argentina win the World Cup

Argentina celebrates winning the 2022 World Cup.

Messi’s crowning achievement

It’s incredible to think where this World Cup began for Argentina. Saudi Arabia’s defeat of La Albiceleste called their championship credentials immediately into question and snapped their 36-match unbeaten streak—one shy of Italy’s all-time record. They then moved into two stress-inducing group games that required cathartic breakthroughs all while they operated under extreme pressure, the kind that has broken plenty of previous Argentina squads. The knockout stage didn’t start out much easier, with Australia posing a more feisty challenge than expected and the Netherlands coming back from two goals down to force penalty kicks. It took an even greater amount of resilience to overcome what happened Sunday, blowing another two-goal lead, then blowing an extra time lead, only to prevail from the spot.

In some ways, it was a microcosm of Messi’s international career. There were setbacks—shocking ones, even—and the GOAT himself also missed a penalty kick in a big spot along the way, which offered a callback to the 2016 Copa América Centenario final vs. Chile. There were even shades of 1986 for Argentina, which blew a two-goal lead in the final vs. West Germany, only to rebound and ultimately win. 

But more often than not for Messi in Qatar, there has been dominance, and there surely has been spirit. Messi has been on a tour de force, filling up the highlight reel and expressing himself in uncharacteristic ways while truly enjoying this run. What was once a burden for him—trying desperately to win a trophy for Argentina—has now become an uninhibited exercise, and perhaps winning the 2021 Copa América title alleviated some of that previous baggage. Regardless, Lusail has become a Middle Eastern Buenos Aires, with “Muchachos” an inescapable anthem for weeks in the title-hosting city where Argentina has largely set up shop over the last month (Sunday’s was its fifth match at Lusail Iconic Stadium, as if the powers that be knew to make Argentina feel at home there). 

Messi’s legacy has long been secure, and anyone saying that he needed to win the World Cup to validate his career is missing the mark. But this is certainly a crowning achievement on top of an otherwise incomparable run. The goals, the assists, the trophies, the awe-inducing moments, the nutmegs, the genius—it’s all unimpeachable. Nevertheless, entering 2022, he had never scored in a World Cup knockout match. Now he’s not just done that, he’s done it in every knockout round. He very nearly scored the winning goal in a final. And on top of that, he has the ultimate World Cup glory to go along with it all, dethroning the reigning champs and dealing a setback to his clear heir.

What more could Mbappé have done?

The way things had gone for 79 minutes, France had no business threatening to win the title. Its no-show had simply been stunning. Perhaps the flu-like bug that made its way around the team was more of a factor than its players and coaches let on. Or perhaps even champions can feel the nerves of the title stage—there has been significant turnover, either due to injury or other reasons from the 2018 team, after all—and buckle under the pressure. But it took France a solid 13 minutes before settling into any rhythm that resulted in a semblance of pressure, with Mbappé a relative ghost as Argentina controlled the run of play. Ousmane Dembélé’s tackle of Ángel Di María (who, long ago, was poised to be the hero of this final) that resulted in the penalty perhaps should have been subjected to review, but it was a sloppy and needless act. Sloppy and needless characterized much of France’s first-half touches, with giveaways and a lack of focus and discipline readily apparent.

How bad was it? Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani were brought on in the 41st minute for Dembélé and Olivier Giroud, with Didier Deschamps acting with a quick hook for two of his top performers all month. Mbappé had 11 touches in the first half. France didn’t have a single shot and had 0 expected goals before the break.

Then it all changed in an instant. In a two-minute span, Mbappé temporarily denied Messi and Argentina of their title. Before the World Cup, Mbappé told Sports Illustrated that winning the World Cup at 19 “was the first chapter of something crazy.” Even he couldn’t have envisioned something as crazy as this. He’ll turn 24 in two days, and he has 12 World Cup goals to his name, goals in two finals and a hat trick in a final on a day his team was otherwise a shadow of itself. He made three penalty kicks on the day—one in regulation, one in extra time and one in the shootout—and did everything he could to will his nation to victory. It was almost enough.

France was vying to become the first men’s repeat champion since Brazil in 1958-1962, and that ultimately did not happen. As long as Mbappé is leading the line—and for the next decade-plus, that’s precisely what he’ll be doing—they’ll be a factor on the world stage.

A goal for the all-time highlight reel becomes a footnote

Argentina benefited greatly from the penalty spot at this World Cup, with spot-kick goals in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final, but its second goal came on just about the most clinical counterattack you’ll ever see. Each touch was masterful, from turnover to back of the net. Messi’s outside-of-the-boot pass sprung Julián Álvarez down the right. The Man City striker’s early pass played Alexis Mac Allister into space, in stride as he approached the France final third. His curling ball into space also found a teammate in stride, with Di María coasting in before beating Hugo Lloris with a perfect finish.

Richarlison’s bicycle-kick finish for Brazil may be the best individual goal of this World Cup—and Neymar’s against Croatia wouldn’t have been that far behind had Brazil held on in the quarterfinals. Considering the stakes, the stage and the precision, Argentina’s counter was poised to go straight to the top of the 2022 best goals list and carve out a place for itself on the all-time highlight reel. Given everything that followed? It’s but a footnote on a final that flew off the rails, and so too is the contribution of Di María, who was taken off in the 64th minute with the game seemingly in hand—until it very much was not.

The final was shaping up to be a coronation not just for Messi, but for another veteran Rosario native as well. It’s easy to forget how vital Di María was to Argentina’s run to the 2014 final—and how decisive his injury-induced absence from that match vs. Germany may have been. Given another chance eight years later, he was immense, drawing the penalty that led to Messi’s goal and finishing off the mesmerizing counterattack that padded Argentina’s lead. This wasn’t El Fideo’s first rodeo. Di María did, after all, score the goal that netted Argentina its 2021 Copa América title in Brazil, capping another tournament that was otherwise defined by Messi’s quest to end a trophy drought. Argentina’s squad has been bolstered by a rising generation of talent that complements its high-profile stars quite perfectly, but for a long time, this final was going to be secured, in large part, thanks to its GOAT and his big-game sidekick. It wound up taking more than that, but Di María gets his due—and his trophy—nevertheless.