LUSAIL, Qatar — The World Cup final “for eternity” descended into madness, and then into perhaps the greatest game ever played, around 7:40 p.m. here at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday, with Argentine dreams crystallizing and then, suddenly, in 96 seconds, paralyzed.
They were ultimately realized on a night of lunacy and heart-stopping drama, of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé. They were realized by and for Messi, and by Argentine goalkeeper Emi Martinez, and for a nation of 46 million that erupted into once-in-a-generation celebrations.
But only after Mbappé twice shattered those dreams. Only after a 2-0 lead became 2-2, and 3-2 became 3-3. A wild emotional ride took the final to penalties, where Martinez rose to the occasion yet again.
The goalkeeper, nicknamed “Dibu,” sprung to his right to push away Kingsley Coman’s second spot-kick for France, after Messi and Mbappé had converted. He pranced around the penalty area, pumping his fist into the air. He then shimmied after his sheer size forced Aurelien Tchouameni, France’s next taker, to drag his penalty wide.
Gonzalo Montiel, a reserve defender, completed Argentina’s shootout perfection and sent the Argentine fans behind one goal into delirium. Messi fell to his knees. Teammates engulfed him. He had done it. Finally, he and Argentina had done it.
For around an hour, Sunday’s finale had been a coronation, a crowning of Messi as the greatest player ever in his last World Cup match, and of Argentina as the kings of Qatar. They went ahead via Messi, from the penalty spot, in the 23rd minute. They doubled their lead with a masterpiece, seven touches via six players and a couple of bursting 50-yard runs. Angel Di Maria punctuated the world-class counterattack, and a dominant first half.
And from there, Argentina maintained control. The South Americans were, it seemed, oddly comfortable. They bossed the game from midfield. Their fans roared with passion and approval. Over 8,000 miles away in Buenos Aires, hope and belief gradually turned celebratory.
But then, with clocks ticking toward 80 minutes, France — and disaster — struck. Kolo Muani, who’d entered as a first-half substitute with the French faltering and flailing, got behind the Argentina defense and won a penalty. Mbappé waited, patiently, as the ball hung in the air, at the edge of the penalty spot. He swiveled his hips, and spanked it past Martinez. The French bench spilled all the way across the field, chasing Mbappé in elation. Thousands of Argentine fans stood motionless, hands on heads, in despair.
Mbappé raced to recover the ball from the back of the net, and placed it at midfield, ready to go in search of a second — which he found a minute later.
From there, for roughly 17 minutes, the game devolved into chaos. France howled for another penalty, but the referee correctly ruled that Marcus Thuram had tried to con him. Both teams had chances, and Messi had a couple momentous ones, with the ball and the world at his feet at the top of the penalty area. But Hugo Lloris palmed one stinging shot over the crossbar.
At the final whistle of regulation, players from both teams keeled over in physical and emotional exhaustion. Extra time then restored order. Argentina ascended toward the end of the first period, with Messi teeing up Lautaro Martinez for a golden chance, but Dayot Upamecano careened across the penalty area for a heroic block.
Then, in the second half of extra time, the storybook ending seemed to arrive. In the 108th minute, a ball fell into Messi’s lap and the soccer gods, finally, seemed to smile down on him. He pounced on that ball in France’s penalty area, scored his second goal of the night, and rekindled dreams.
Then Mbappé shattered them again. An Argentine handball in the penalty box gave the French star yet another chance to equalize. He sent Martinez the wrong way, and elevated a legendary game to an unparalleled game.
The shootout, finally, triggered the wild Argentine celebrations. Martinez fell onto his back. Everybody in Argentine white and sky blue ran every which way. Messi emerged in unbridled joy to conduct songs and wave to fans.
He had played a thousand soccer games and dreamed a thousand dreams and cried a thousand tears for this, his moment, Argentina’s moment, 35 and 36 years in the making.
He had starred and suffered, dazzled and despaired, worked and waited and waited, longingly, agonizingly, for almost three hours here at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday.
Now, he was off to enjoy it.