Argentina beat France 4-2 on penalties to win the nation’s third-ever World Cup.
But the headline that caught most of social media’s imagination was the fact it is Lionel Messi’s first and (considering he will be nearly 40 by the next tournament) only triumph in football’s biggest competition.
Here’s how social media reacted:
— Fabrizio Biasin (@FBiasin) December 18, 2022
— HOTD Source (@HOTDsource) December 18, 2022
He can finally rest… Lionel Messi pic.twitter.com/L0FCXBYHqx
— TUNDRA MOTOR🐻 (@MotorFN) December 18, 2022
The Beautiful Game gifts Lionel Messi a World Cup win as the tournament's best player and it's the most appropriate departing thank you for the sport's greatest ever player and all of the performances he's given the world over 18 years. pic.twitter.com/rooSI8VX4J
— Umir (@umirf1) December 18, 2022
There was a sense of relief, given Messi’s past heartbreak in the competition, captured in the moment Gonzalo Montiel scored Argentina’s winning spot-kick:
The moment when Lionel Messi understood that he’s a World Champion
— All About Argentina 🛎🇦🇷 (@AlbicelesteTalk) December 18, 2022
Much of the focus centred on debate as to whether Messi is superior to Cristiano Ronaldo or past greats, such as Pele and Diego Maradona.
Lionel Messi has more World Cup final goals than Cristiano Ronaldo has World Cup knockout goals.
— Oliver Young-Myles (@OMyles90) December 18, 2022
The football GOAT debate is settled
Lionel Messi pic.twitter.com/6CpxlOvbGI
— Stefanie (@fastpitstop) December 18, 2022
What an unbelievable game! #Argentina you are the #FIFAWorldCup champions. #Messi vs #Mbappe was the highlight. Messi is undisputed GOAT of his generation. Like Pele, Maradona before him ♥️ pic.twitter.com/GRqOSXcQHD
— Ravi Shastri (@RaviShastriOfc) December 18, 2022
Before officially lifting the trophy, Messi was able to greet the trophy in advance while collecting his Golden Ball award, given to the World Cup best player.
LIONEL MESSI KISSES THE WORLD CUP! pic.twitter.com/9RJ6XpWg5Y
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 18, 2022
This is Messi’s second Golden Ball award, the only player to ever claim the accolade twice.
2 – Since the award was officially introduced in 1982, Lionel Messi is the only player to win the Golden Ball twice at the World Cup (2014, 2022). Levels. pic.twitter.com/3XNAlf2tnN
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 18, 2022
Fellow pros paid tribute:
— Neymar Jr (@neymarjr) December 18, 2022
We will never see a player like Messi ever again.
— Declan Rice (@_DeclanRice) December 18, 2022
For those who know football know that tonights result didn’t determine whether Messi was the best player ever or not. But yet I’m so happy he did for the people who thought he needed it so now there’s no debate. 🐐 #Messi𓃵
— James Maddison (@Madders10) December 18, 2022
Living in the shadow of Diego Armando Maradona was never an easy situation for any Argentine worthy of wearing the number 10 jersey.
Lionel Messi, unfairly or not, was always labelled Maradona’s ‘heir’ by the media, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. Since his nation’s most beloved footballer retired from international duty in 1994, many have been earmarked as the successor. But one by one they buckled under the weight of pressure.
Which is not to say their careers were duds. Some saw riches and silverware, but never quite reached Diego’s transcendent level. That was until a diminutive left-footed genius — born and raised in Rosario before relocating to Barcelona — emerged.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) December 18, 2022
Lionel Messi truly announced himself at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, where he was indomitable, before earning the first of many senior caps a month later. It was one to forget as he was sent off just 30 seconds into his substitute appearance. In the near two decades to follow, Messi rewrote the book subsequently establishing himself as football’s greatest-ever player. He’d also play a significant role in La Albiceleste ending a painful 28-year trophy drought.
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This recent Copa América success effectively laid the foundation for reconquering Maradona’s prized acquisition. To Messi’s generation, Barrilete Cósmico‘s exploits in the heat of Mexico in 1986 were legendary. Maradona stopped at nothing in his pursuit of Argentina’s second world title — literally taking matters into his own hands — but since then it’s been one disappointment after another for the South American nation, including two heartbreaking final losses to Germany.
🇦🇷🔥🏆¡¡¡SOMOS CAMPEONES DEL MUNDO!!!🏆🔥🇦🇷 pic.twitter.com/KoYnhTmeQC
— Selección Argentina 🇦🇷 (@Argentina) December 18, 2022
The accusation often levied at Argentina’s men’s team since those halcyon days is they are a team brim full of individual quality but lacking the cohesion needed to be successful. Current head coach Lionel Scaloni has undoubtedly changed that perception, as Argentina, following a false start against Saudi Arabia, progressed to a sixth Fifa World Cup final. You now hear that Argentina is playing for Messi, rather than the other way around. “Messi feels comfortable,” Scaloni told reporters after Argentina’s win over European champions Italy in the Finalissima. “We’ve managed to get the group to assimilate him as he is, and he feels that he is one of the group. It should be normal always, but it’s only in the last couple of years that this process has really started.”
Too often in the past, Argentina have relied so much on Messi’s sheer ability to bail them out. But as the law of averages indicate, you can’t always keep getting away with that level of dependency (or ‘Messidependencia‘).
That is not to say Messi hasn’t been sensational in Qatar. As great as ever, the record seven-time Ballon d’Or recipient here enjoyed operating in a more deep-lying forward role within Scaloni’s preferred 4-4-2 shape. Alongside him and essentially spearheading the attack was Manchester City striker Julian Alvarez, who has turned out to be the perfect foil for ‘La Pulga‘ as his willingness to run in behind allows Messi to needle balls through. A perfect illustration was that sensational assist for him against Croatia in the semi-finals. It also highlighted Messi’s preference to pull the strings more so than floating near the penalty area. If need be, Messi is still willing and able to ghost past defenders, though, and there’s no one better at manoeuvring out of tight spaces.
In his fifth tournament appearance, Messi had his Mexico ’86 moment. Much like Maradona back then, he possessed a steely determination throughout inspiring those around him through example. Though a spectacular goal for the ages hadn’t been scored, nor a controversial one (though video assistant referee is operational), Messi is still Argentina’s totem and one they gravitate towards.
Not since the days of Maradona has an Argentine footballer been this revered. And on Sunday came his second date with destiny. The pain of Maracanã was already exorcised in 2021 when Messi and company returned seven years later to win a record-equalling 15th Copa América title at host Brazil’s expense. In the middle of that wait came an exhilarating 4-3 loss to France, which catapulted Didier Deschamps’ men to World Cup glory.
Messi was born a few days before the first anniversary of Argentina’s last world championship heading into these finals, a birth that heralded the third star on the national team’s strip. The first was secured through Mario Kempes’ brilliance in 1978, their home tournament which produced one of football’s defining images of ticker tape and confetti. That breakthrough moment inspired a new generation led by El Diego, and now it was Messi’s turn. He did not disappoint in an enthralling 3-3 stalemate which saw him register a brace. Argentina ultimately triumphed via penalties but that was a simple footnote to an incredible game.
Kylian Mbappe took home the Golden Boot courtesy of a sensational hat trick. Messi’s longtime comrade Ángel Di María also got on the scoresheet, rounding off a beautiful team goal.
Once the dust settled, Messi’s immortality was sealed. He not only succeeds Maradona but perhaps surpasses his idol. This was his final World Cup match and what a way to bow out. When the day eventually comes and he bids football goodbye, we will now ask who the ‘new Messi’ will be.