Messi secured his crowning glory with a little help from his street fighter friends, who refused to submit after Mbappe's thrilling late intervention. They could not and would not accept that their skipper’s dream had died. This was the code, the unity among blood brothers. The Argentina players all made their way towards Messi after defender Gonzalo Montiel converted the winning penalty in the shootout.
Montiel was nerveless after Kingsley Coman and Aurelien Tchouameni had failed with successive penalties for France, the former having missed the target completely.
The three stars tattooed on the rugged Montiel’s throat seemed to anticipate the moment he would ensure a third star can now be stitched above the crest on the La Albiceleste shirt.
It was the World Cup final we all wanted, including the sports washers, it must be noted. Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s claim that this has been the “best ever” World Cup does have some substance. The unarguable drama does risk masking the human rights controversies.
Even the nourishing nature of Messi’s story should not be allowed to facilitate a suppression of such issues. However, there was something undeniably purifying about seeing the Argentina captain approach the plinth where the World Cup was sitting and note the grass stains on his shorts. Not even the netted gown – known locally as a bisht – he was awkwardly invited to push his arms into by the Emir of Qatar could ruin the moment.
It was the culmination of a dream held since he was a little boy. The trophy is on its way back to Argentina for the first time since Diego Maradona lifted it aloft in 1986. Messi’s reconnection with the Argentina public, a relationship many had feared had cooled beyond repair during his many years in Barcelona, is now complete.
Even those obviously hoping for a different outcome, such as those in France and Brazil, will concede there was something preordained about this.
Messi received some unexpected assistance from France, who were awful in the first half. The one-sided nature of the opening 45 minutes threatened to somehow turn a fairytale story, one so many seemed to be willing, into a humdrum one. An illness circulating in the French camp looked to have taken its toll.
Messi appeared to be strolling towards immortality. But then Mbappe decided to declare his own genius again – and again. He struck twice in under two minutes as the contest was reaching its scheduled closing stages. The first was scored from the spot, the second from an outrageous volley after a flowing move from the reigning champions, who had belatedly decided they were not going down without a fight.
The game was now afoot. Messi had to go to work, scoring another goal, his second of the match, in the second half of extra time to seemingly wrestle back control of the narrative.
Mbappe again decided otherwise. Picking up a clearance from a corner with just three minutes of extra time left, he shot towards goal. The ball struck Montiel on the arm. The Argentina substitute would still have his own significant part to play. In the meantime, however, he had to watch Mbappe compose himself again. The French forward, who turns 24 on Tuesday, kissed the ball and then sent Emiliano Martinez the wrong way to complete the first World Cup final hat-trick since 1966.
The craziness of the game was summed up by very chances to win the match being spurned by both sides in the brief time that remained; Martinez saved brilliantly from France substitute Randal Kolo Muani and then Lautaro Martinez headed wide from an excellent cross from Messi, who, at 35, was still going strong in the last moments of his last-ever World Cup.
The No 10 was everywhere. Seven games in a month might not sound overly taxing. But this was not La Liga, when games are of vastly varying intensity. It is not Ligue 1, where the same applies. This was the World Cup. When the eyes of the world were on him.
Few players can have operated to such a high level while under such suffocating pressure. Time and time again he rose to the challenges. There was an early test of nerve when Argentina won a penalty after Angel Di Maria was felled by Ousmane Dembele. Messi tucked the kick away as if he was back playing on the dusty pitches of Rosario, his hometown.
Normal service had been resumed after an inauspicious start when his first corner failed to beat the first man. Messi then played a part as Argentina went 2-0 up, flicking the ball onto Julian Alvarez, who in turn fed Alexis Mac Allister. The Brighton player then played in Di Maria, who stubbed the ball into the ground and over Hugo Lloris. It was not even 1pm in Buenos Aires and Argentina’s greatest football day since 1986 was seemingly assured.
It is unusual for a World Cup final to be all but done and dusted by half time and this certainly wasn’t, even if, for the first time since 1998, one team enjoyed a two-goal advantage at the interval.
Didier Deschamps had already opted to make two tactical substitutions, replacing two of his celebrated forward line, Olivier Giroud and Dembele, with Thuram and Kolo Muani, after just 41 minutes.
It also seemed a way of conveying the message to the watching hundreds and millions that something was not quite right with his virus-affected side. It was certainly an extreme measure for the manager to take, but some credit for France’s brave comeback must go to him, while also acknowledging Mbappe’s inspiration. But even these qualities were not quite enough to change the course of destiny.