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MORE THAN A CORONATION, MESSI’S MOMENT WAS A REVELATION FOR US ALL
As the planet reveled in an epic World Cup final, America, too, was transfixed by an all-time sports story, watching the aging magician overcome Mbappé’s force in a masterpiece that transcended fútbol
This was a soul-shaking revelation that summoned the planet’s enormity, eight billion humans strong and 8,000 miles round, while making everybody not inside the stadium feel small. We were at the mercy of Lionel Messi, who finally can be anointed unequivocally as the G.O.A.T. of his domain now that he has a World Cup Trophy to place by Maradona’s gravesite. We also were in the clutches of Kylian Mbappé, who will have to settle for the title of Most Electric Athlete On Earth while spending years chasing Messi’s ghost.
They made this the greatest World Cup final ever. They made this perhaps the most epic sporting event ever, if we’re considering global magnitude and fútbol-as-religion implications, and also how Messi and Mbappé took turns responding to each other’s grandeur somewhere in Qatar — Messi with the creativity of an aging but determined artiste, Mbappé with the brute power and raw speed of an aerodynamic race car. For once, superlatives weren’t confined to literati on other continents.
Nearly three hours of passion theater evoked poetry everywhere and even made us ignore the sheikhs in the crowd, the shameless rulers who got what they paid for in bribes and slave labor: a seismic match that concluded in a penalty shootout, and, inevitably, the coronation of Messi as a champion for Argentina at age 35. At 5 feet and 6 1/2 inches, 159 pounds when soaked in champagne, he hardly strikes the image of an all-time legend. His light blue and white jersey hung long over his hips, his shorts a bit baggy and dropping below his knees, intercepted by socks pulled high over his padded calves. LeBron James and Aaron Judge could blow bubbles and knock him over. So could Mbappé, who kept France in the match and almost lifted Les Bleus to back-to-back Cups with three mesmerizing goals.
But no athlete of his generation is larger today then King Leo.
“It’s anyone’s childhood dream. I am lucky to have achieved everything in this career, and this one that was missing is here. It’s crazy that it became a reality this way. I craved for this so much. I knew God would bring this gift to me,” said Messi, kissing and rubbing the 18-karat-gold hardware in Lusail Iconic Stadium. He lifted it to the roars of weeping, roaring countrypeople who can die now, shouting to them, “Let’s go Argentina! I can’t wait to be in Argentina to witness the insanity of this.”
How could it be any crazier than Sunday? All I know is, I couldn’t pry my eyeballs from a sport that once worked better for me than sleeping pills, a sport whose zealots pummeled me with social-media abuse when I’d go on national TV and mock it. All I know is, no scene in a long time has moved me quite like that of Messi, a stoic turned romantic, trying to suppress tears but allowing them to seep onto his weathered face, as Argentina finally cried joyfully and not in mourning for Eva Perón. To see him score twice more, giving him seven goals for the tournament, almost triggered tears from my own cynicism-dried ducts. Know how often a sporting moment billed as life-changing crashes into forgettability? This day, I dare say, not only brought relief and immortality to Messi but a mind-bending experience to America. Did this classic signify the arrival of fútbol — not soccer, as President Biden still calls it — in a heretofore yawning, FIFA-marginalized USA?
“The match,” said winning coach Lionel Scaloni, “was completely insane.”
Insane, by fútbol standards, is an understatement. It wasn’t a moment for heart patients or morning brunch-eaters expecting an occasional peak-in. Forgive the gringo comparison, Buenos Aires, but the back-and-forth tugging on our consciousness was mindful of an NFL or NBA game. Only this was the World Cup, about 100 times more important beyond U.S. borders than the Super Bowl. In any language, it was vintage material. Our answer would be Michael Jordan staving off one last opponent, flicking his wrist, holding it steady for eternity and winning his sixth championship. Our answer would be Tom Brady fleeing New England and winning a seventh championship, just before his Brazilian-supermodel wife divorced him. Or Michael Phelps winning 23 gold medals in the Olympic pool. Or Tiger Woods at the pre-scandal, pre-crash peak of his powers. Other answers might be Rafael Nadal or Usain Bolt.
But no athletic statement is more powerful than winning for a country that treats fútbol failure as a death sentence. Messi’s longtime curse was growing up in a small, concrete-block house in Rosario and becoming a prodigy at 13, when he left home for Barcelona. He became a dazzling, prolific scorer who dominated Europe, but when it was time to produce for his homeland, he repeatedly came up empty. Before his death in 2020, the eternal Argentine icon Maradona issued a devastating putdown and declared an end to all Messi comparisons to him. “We shouldn’t deify Messi any longer,” he said. “He’s Messi when he plays or Barcelona … and he’s another Messi with Argentina. He’s a great player, but he’s not a leader. It’s useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game.” Maradona may have been high, his wont then, but few said he was wrong.
It was time to shed the burden, now or never. He never asked to be a national savior, but the people needed Messi, with inflation ravaging the economy and natives literally selling homes and cars to make the pilgrimage to the Middle East. He was feistier than we’ve seen him, telling Dutch striker Wout Weghorst in Spanish during a quarterfinal match: “What are you looking at, dummy?” Is that you, Leo? Clearly, he was driven to win in 2022, or driven not to lose.
“It’s madness. Look how she is, she’s gorgeous. I wanted her so much,” said Messi, all but fondling the trophy. “I had a vision this would be the one. She was getting closer. We suffered so much, but we managed to do it. I wanted to close my career with this. I can no longer ask for anything else. Thank God, he gave me everything.”
He is leaving the door open for 2026, the same one walked through by Brady and Jordan, after saying for weeks that this would be his final World Cup. With nothing more to accomplish, it’s appropriate to ask why Messi would risk going out with a loss, like Jordan and (probably) Brady later in their careers, when the U.S. helps Canada and Mexico host the quadrennial spectacle. “First of all, we need to save him a spot for the World Cup 2026," Scaloni said. “If he wants to keep playing, he will be with us. I think he is more than entitled to decide whether he wants to keep playing or what he wants to do with his career. It is such a huge pleasure for us to coach him and his teammates. Everything that he transmits to his teammates is something unparalleled, something I have never seen before — a player, a person who gives so much to his teammates.”
Messi gave them the most in extra time, in the 108th minute, when he found another gear and drove home a rebound after goalkeeper Hugo Lloris blocked Lautaro Martínez’s shot. This came after Mbappé had brought back France in an extraordinary burst, two goals in 97 seconds. He wasn’t finished, either. Awakening after a first-half slumber and displaying the skills that one day should make him the G.O.A.T. — after all, he already has one World Cup — he forced a 3-3 tie and more extra time. Only France’s inexperience in the penalty-kicks phase may have prevented a repeat championship. Several minutes passed during Argentina’s celebration before Mbappé was able to peel himself off the grass near midfield. So much of his career so far has been about achievements and riches. He not only wants to be the greatest footballer ever, he wants to make the most money and win the most World Cups. To ram home the point, he made a summer U.S. media tour and stopped in prominent newsrooms. He told the New York Times, “I always say I dream about everything. I have no limits. So of course, like you say, it’s a new generation. And Ronaldo, Messi — you’re gonna stop. We have to find someone else, someone new.”
Not yet, said King Leo. But does anyone doubt Prince Kylian, even after a devastating defeat? Yes, that was the France president, Emmanuel Macron, waiting to console him on the field. Still two days before his 24th birthday, he already has matched Pele’s career total of 12 World Cup goals. He left Qatar with eight goals and the Golden Boot trophy, as the tournament’s top scorer. Messi left with the trophy he wanted — the Golden Ball, as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“Kylian has really left his mark on this final,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t leave it in the way he would have liked. That’s why he was so disappointed at the end of the night.”
Not even the zany, wild-eyed Argentine goalie, Emiliano Martinez, could take away from Mbappé’s brilliance. As the winners danced in their locker room, they shouted for “a minute’s silence” for France, with Martinez shouting, “For Mbappé, who is dead!” Minutes earlier, he had made a lewd crotch gesture with the Golden Glove trophy — awarded to the best goalie — as a Qatar official looked on unamused in his white headdress. Martinez had stonewalled France twice in the shootout after an acrobatic, game-saving stunner earlier. Let him be an idiot, the Argentines figured.
Unlike previous fútbol collisions, we felt like we knew the protagonists, as media coverage ramps up in America. Fox reported record numbers for the semifinal and final rounds on domestic airwaves, which means social-media chatter — once known as water-cooler talk — will continue to center on Messi this week. If our men’s national team ever graduated from the middle of the international pack, a decent audience is waiting: 15.8 million viewers watched two feeds of the U.S.-England group-stage game. I speak for millions who cussed when the network insisted on flipping to NFL coverage as the first wave of Sunday games began, forcing us to search the cable hinterlands for FS1’s post-game show.
You don’t flip away from Lionel Messi for Dak Prescott. You don’t flip away from history, a sport-as-life masterpiece.
So I took the remote and pushed 400 in Los Angeles. And there he was.
“So many times I dreamt it,” King Leo said. “Now, to enjoy it.”
At the holidays, we are thankful to enjoy it with him, in an America that suddenly seems a little more shrunken and in tune with fútbol, not soccer.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.