DOHA, Qatar (AP)Lionel Messi ended his long wait for the World Cup title in one of the most memorable finals in history.
Messi was at his most inspirational, scoring two goals to take his total for the tournament to seven and delivering his country’s third World Cup triumph as Argentina beat France 4-2 on penalties after a 3-3 draw through extra time.
But Kylian Mbappe made him work hard for the trophy he has long craved by scoring a hat trick, including two goals in 97 seconds late in regulation to pull France back from 2-0 down.
The France forward evened the score again after Messi put Argentina back in front in extra time.
Ultimately, it was Messi’s World Cup to raise.
After fulfilling his life’s ambition, what’s next for him and Argentina?
EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE
With Messi in the team, it’s always going to be among the favorites. But at the age of 35 and in the final stages of his storied career, the forward looked less equipped than in previous years to lead his country to success. And when Saudia Arabia produced one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s 92-year history by beating Argentina 2-1 in the group stage, the potential for an embarrassing early exit looked a real possibility. Messi inspired the team to recover from that setback and produced one of the all-time great tournament performances with seven goals and three assists. While Argentina’s expectations might not have been at their highest for this year’s World Cup, Messi finally realized the expectations placed on him for the majority of his career by winning the sport’s biggest prize.
Messi said he will stick around for a while longer, even if another World Cup might be too much to ask. Angel di Maria is 34 and earlier this year said he would retire from international soccer after the tournament in Qatar. Nicolas Otamendi is also 34 and unlikely to be involved when Argentina come around to defending its trophy in four years. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni is sure to have won admirers from leading clubs after winning the World Cup at the relatively young age of 44.
Despite Messi being the inspiration for Argentina, it was a squad full of young talent who have yet to reach their prime. Most notably is 22-year-old striker Julian Alvarez, who scored four goals to become the country’s latest star forward. Midfielder Enzo Fernandez, 21, was named the best young player of the tournament and is already being linked with moves to top clubs, despite only recently signing for Benfica. Defenders Cristian Romero and Nahuel Molina are 24 and midfielder Alexis Mac Allister is 23. Scaloni has the basis of a team to build around.
Qualifying for the next World Cup is scheduled to start in March and Argentina will also defend its Copa America title in 2024.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports