Argentina's captain Lionel Messi prepares to collect the World Cup trophy
Doha (AFP) - Lionel Messi saved his best for last on Sunday, bringing the curtain down on his World Cup career by finally landing the one major title that has eluded him.
In the end, the greatest player of his generation, possibly of all time, bowed out with victory in arguably the greatest World Cup final of them all.
It was a perfectly scripted farewell for the 35-year-old Argentine captain, playing in what he has said will be his fifth and final World Cup tournament.
Messi was a beacon of calm amid frequent outbreaks of pandemonium at the Lusail Stadium as Argentina twice squandered winning positions, eventually taking the title on penalties after the game finished 3-3 in extra-time.
Before kick off, Argentina’s raucous supporters had roared their appreciation as a giant television screen played a tribute to the late Diego Maradona, with clips of his legendary goal against England at the 1986 World Cup.
That was all the inspiration Messi needed as he set about delivering Argentina their first World Cup title in 36 years.
Maradona had also inspired that 1986 win, helping Argentina recover after they gave up a 2-0 lead before defeating West Germany 3-2.
Eight years ago, Messi had cut a forlorn figure, finishing on the losing side as Argentina slumped to a 1-0 extra-time loss to Germany at the Maracana Stadium in the 2014 World Cup final.
That defeat left Messi staring at the possibility of joining German legend Karl-Heinz Rummenigge as the only man to captain his country to defeat in two World Cup finals.
It soon became apparent on Sunday, however, that Messi had no intention of taking up membership of that unwanted club.
Within minutes of the kick off, Messi was into his rhythm, demanding possession and conducting traffic with his customary grace, picking up Angel Di Maria repeatedly down the left flank.
And when Di Maria drew a foul from Ousmane Dembele inside the area on 21 minutes, Messi stepped up to coolly fire his team into the lead with a nerveless penalty, his 97th international goal and his 12th in World Cups.
- Extra-time drama -
On target: Messi celebrates in the shootout
Messi was buried under a mountain of Argentine team-mates in the celebrations that followed but he was soon back on his feet tormenting France.
After a period of Argentine dominance, Messi produced a delightful flick to send Julian Alvarez racing into space down the right flank.
Alvarez found Alexis Mac Allister who in turn picked out Di Maria who made it 2-0.
It looked like the party was starting early as a subdued France struggled to get into the game.
Then suddenly out of nowhere Kylian Mbappe scored twice in a minute with less than 10 minutes remaining to turn the game on its head.
Still Messi would not be denied. In extra-time he tested France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris with a rasping shot as he attempted to drag Argentina to victory by sheer force of will.
Then in the second period of extra-time, the little magician struck again. Lautaro Martinez’s shot was parried by Lloris and Messi, anticipating the rebound, jabbed home the finish from close range for 3-2.
Wild celebrations followed but still France were not beaten.
Argentina substitute Gonzalo Montiel conceded a late penalty in extra-time and Mbappe stepped up to make it 3-3 from the spot.
Yet if there was any chance of Messi crumbling in the shoot-out – he famously missed a penalty in the 2016 Copa America defeat to Chile – he dispelled it immediately as he rolled home Argentina’s opening kick.
From there his World Cup fate was left in the hands of his team-mates, and goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez made a huge save before Montiel made amends for his earlier penalty concession to seal Argentina’s win.