Lionel Messi beamed as he cradled the World Cup trophy, rubbing it lovingly and repeatedly kissing it.
This title was sweet, made all the more so by the epic performance it took to win it. First extra time, and then a penalty shootout. But in his final World Cup appearance, Messi won the one title that had eluded him throughout his illustrious career.
When Gonzalo Montiel, whose handball in extra time had given France a last lifeline, buried the game-winning penalty, Messi broke into a grin that wouldn’t fade for the rest of the night.
As his teammates dissolved in tears, Messi could only smile. He saluted Argentina’s fans, who had turned Doha into a suburb of Buenos Aries all month, and was at the front of the Albiceleste dance line. He hugged his young sons, who a month ago were devastated after Argentina’s upset loss to Saudi Arabia, fearing their father’s hopes for a World Cup title had ended almost as soon as the tournament began.
Messi accepted congratulations from anyone who could get near him. Rather than being overcome, he simply looked elated, the question that has been asked so many times finally answered.
Yes, the greatest player of his generation is the greatest of all-time. A World Cup champion at last.
But as much as this game — this tournament, as he was named Golden Ball winner as the best player — will go down as a celebration of Messi’s majesty, so, too, should it be remembered for Kylian Mbappe’s otherworldliness.
With France all but left for dead after a lethargic first 80 minutes, he scored twice in 90 seconds to force extra time and then, after Messi had scored in the 109th minute, converted a penalty to force the shootout. His eight goals in this tournament give him 12 at the World Cup, and he’s still just 23.
Mbappe couldn’t beat Argentina and goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez on his own, however.
Martinez blocked a shot by Kingsley Coman, France’s second penalty taker, and Aurelien Tchouameni sent his wide of the post. Randal Kolo Muani gave France a brief reprieve, but Argentina — and Messi — were not to be denied as Montiel delivered the decisive blow.
It is the third World Cup title for the Albiceleste, and first since Diego Maradona’s career-defining performance in 1986.
This World Cup is, and has been, all about Messi, however.
Messi had long ago established himself as the best player of his generation, winning seven Ballon d’Or trophies and four Champions League titles. He’s expanded the reach and appeal of this beautiful game, his iconic No 10 jersey – the light blue-and-white-striped Argentina version, in particular – found in every corner of the globe.
But there was one hole in his glittering resume, one counter to the argument that he’s not only the best now but the best of all time.
In Messi’s previous four World Cups, Argentina had made the final just once, losing to Germany in 2014. Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Ronaldo (the original, not the later, lesser version), Zidane – all the other greats were World Cup champions.
At 35, Messi said before the tournament this would “surely” be his last World Cup, a statement he repeated several times over the last month, and winning the title became the driving force for both him and his Argentina teammates.
“We’re going to play the last game,” Messi said after Argentina beat Croatia to reach the final. “That’s what we wanted.”
What they wanted was to win the World Cup. And now they have it.
Messi snuck a kiss of the Jules Rimet trophy when he went to collect his Golden Ball award. The Argentina fans were whistling and cheering, and his teammates jumping up and down when it came time to collect it for real.
Messi rubbed his hands in glee, looking very much like a kid about to be turned loose on his Christmas presents, as he waited for FIFA president Gianni Infantino to stop talking and give him the trophy. When he got his hands on it, he held it like one of his children, slowly walking in front of his bouncing teammates before finally holding it aloft, setting off cheers that echoed from the Middle East to South America and beyond.
As ordained as this all felt, it didn’t come easily.
Mbappe revives France late in game
France looked off from the beginning of the game, slowed either by a flu that hit its camp this week or the weight of chasing history of its own as it tried to become the first team in 60 years to repeat as World Cup champion. Argentina took full advantage.
In the 23rd minute, Messi converted the penalty won by Angel Di Maria, making him the first man to score in the group stage and every game in the knockout rounds.
In the 36th minute, Argentina picked off France in Les Bleus territory. Messi got the ball around midfield and flicked it to Julian Alvarez, who 10 years ago had taken a photo with his idol. Alvarez played the ball to Alexis Mac Allister, who left France’s defense in the dust before spying on a wide-open Di Maria on the left wing.
He crossed to Di Maria, who beat Lloris easily for the insurance goal.
But Mbappe, who has earned every comparison to both Messi, his teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, and Pele, single-handedly revived France.
He converted a penalty in the 80th and then, 90 seconds later, capitalized on a turnover by Messi to beat Martinez and tie the game. Messi put Argentina back in front in extra time, tapping in the rebound in the 108th minute after Lautaro Martinez’s shot bounced off Hugo Lloris’ chest.
Mbappe had one last bit of heroics in him, converting his second penalty in the 118th minute. That would give him eight goals for the tournament and, with one more than Messi, the Golden Boot.
But Messi, at long last, has the title that matters most: World Cup champion.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.