Argentina’s Lionel Messi kisses the trophy after winning the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. Argentina won 4-2 in a penalty shootout after the match ended tied 3-3.
Martin Meissner, Associated Press
With apologies to Tom Brady, Stephen Curry, Aaron Judge, et al., the greatest athlete in the world — and certainly the most famous — is a tiny, slump-shouldered soccer player named Lionel Messi.
He’s 5-foot-7 — the result of a childhood medical issue — 148 pounds, and if you saw him on the playground he is the last guy you would choose for your team. On Sunday, he put soccer-bonkers Argentina onto his tiny shoulders and carried his countrymen to a 4-2 shootout win over France in an epic World Cup final.
A headline in The New York Times read: “Coronation Complete! Lionel Messi Claims His Crown as Argentina Rejoices.”
Playing in his fifth and final World Cup and his second World Cup final, the 35-year-old Messi scored two of the team’s three goals in regulation and extra time and then netted the first penalty kick in what might be the greatest game in history. It was a showdown between the defending champs from France and Argentina, between Messi and Kylian Mbappe, who scored three goals in regulation and nailed a penalty kick.
Argentina seemed to be coasting to a victory with a 2-0 lead through 80 minutes of play, but then Mbappe scored twice in 90 seconds and the nail biting began. Regulation play ended. In the 108th minute, Messi scored again. Ten minutes later Mbappe scored to tie the game. Finally, the game was settled by penalty kicks and Messi claimed the only thing missing from his resume.
He is the all-time leader in goals and assists in La Liga — European soccer’s version of the NFL. He has scored more than 800 goals in two decades and won seven Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball), awarded to the best player in the world.
Messi was brilliant while playing in La Liga, winning a record 10 league championships abroad, but he couldn’t lead his home country to a world title, which led to complaints from fans at home. This was Messi’s fifth World Cup appearance and the first four ended in heartbreak — elimination in the quarterfinals in 2006 and 2010, runners-up in 2014, and elimination in the round of 16 in 2018 (losing to France).
This was a failure as dire as inflation for his countrymen. Americans think that the Super Bowl is the ultimate sporting event, but it pales in comparison to the World Cup and its impact. The last Super Bowl was watched by 99 million people. The 2018 World Cup final was watched by 1.1 billion (3.5 billion watched the tournament as a whole).
It is a global event — there are actually more national soccer teams (211) than there are countries (195) because countries such as the United Kingdom have carved out teams for Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Great Britain.
No one is more passionate about the game than the Argentines. Everything is wrong in the country — decades of inflation (now at 88%), poverty and political unrest. The people work long days and multiple jobs. But they set all that aside to root for Team Argentina, especially for the World Cup.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi holds the winners trophy as he celebrates with fans after Argentina won the World Cup final soccer match against France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.
Francisco Seco, Associated Press
“Soccer is everything,” 24-year-old Belen Godoy told ABC News. “I left my family. I spent all my savings. I’ll return to Buenos Aires and I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent … but no one can take away what I’ve lived.”
A countryman, 34-year-old Christian Machinelli, told ABC, “I sold a Toyota truck for this. It’s what I’ve been spending here so far, and I have enough left to buy the ticket to the final. There’s no explanation, no reasoning, except that we Argentines are just crazy about soccer, and we’ll do any craziness to support (the team).
Another countryman, 30-year-old Nicolas Orellano, told The Sun he spent all his savings and borrowed money to travel to Doha, where Argentine fans gathered in a commune nicknamed “Little Buenos Aires.” Orellano said before the final, “I have no money and no idea how I’ll get home, but there is no way I can leave, now we’re so close to seeing Lionel Messi lift the World Cup. Our politicians back home have let us down, but our football team has not — they are the only hope we have. It is a special kind of madness which brings us here when we have so little.”
The Sun reported that 60,000 Argentines made the 8,000-mile trip to Doha, where the stadium seats 89,000.
Messi was born in the middle of this soccer madness. He showed promise as a boy, but by his 12th birthday his family realized he was much smaller than others his age. Doctors determined that he had a growth hormone deficiency. As described by MoneyControl News, young Messi was injected with growth hormones in both legs each night, but the family didn’t have the money to continue the treatments. FC Barcelona, a professional soccer team in Spain, offered to pay for the treatments if he would join the team as a 13-year-old.
He never would gain much size, but he made up for it with dazzling quickness, ball-handling skills and footwork, all of which were on display in Doha.
As expected, Argentina erupted after the victory. An estimated 2 million people gathered around or near the Obelisk of Plaza de la Republica in central Buenos Aires, shouting, hugging and jumping up and down for hours. They were delirious in a way many in the world could never understand. Ask yourself: Is there anything that could possibly happen that would cause millions of Americans to flood the streets to celebrate?
“Argentina is my country, my family, my way of expressing myself,” Messi said after the 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final. “I would change all my records to make the people in my country happy.”
Argentina’s Lionel Messi, left, celebrates with teammate Angel Di Maria after scoring his side’s opening goal during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.
Francisco Seco, Associated Press