Tears, tears, tears.
Lionel Messi is in tears, falling to his knees in the grass. He holds his arms out wide, his face a portrait of pure sublimity. He has realised something nobody else knows, like he has seen the face of God, like he has touched paradise.
He disappears shortly after, buried beneath a rush of blue and white. Then something unexpected washes around the stadium. It is not the roar of 40,000 Argentinian fans driven to rapture by the final whistle of this indescribable game. Instead, it’s something quite the opposite: a kind of divine silence, a long and peaceful breath at having watched something long awaited finally arrive.
It has been three hours since the World Cup final kicked off at Lusail Stadium, though it does not feel that way. Time does not mean much in games like this, games that take everything you thought you knew and felt about football and tears it up, scattering the pieces to the wind.
We expected this to be a game of titans, a game of pasts colliding with futures, a game of legacies forgotten or fulfilled. But we did not expect it would be a game like this.
Because it was not just one game. It was games within games, histories within histories, stories within stories.
The first half’s game belonged to Argentina — or, more specifically, to Angel Di María, who was recalled to the starting team alongside Messi, one of his oldest and dearest friends. They debuted for Argentina together as boys and have been tied together ever since as if by an invisible string. You could see them plucking it here, in the muscle-memory moves they made around each other, the little smiles and gestures they flicked through the air.
Messi spent the opening half doing what Messi always does: watching, walking, thinking. He looks around, feels the strings, takes it all in. Then he moves. A scything pass opens up France’s defensive line, a shot by a teammate spinning out for the first corner.
The Albiceleste are everywhere, engulfing the navy blue of the reigning champions like a mist, shrouding and suffocating them. It is 10 minutes before we hear the name of Kylian Mbappé, and it will be 60 minutes more before he decides to force it from our mouths.
Di María is dancing down the left side, scooping the ball this way and that, twisting and nudging the spaces he needs into existence. He chops inside the scattered Ousamane Dembélé, who clips the whippety Argentine to give away the first of what will be many penalties tonight.
The referee’s whistle melts into the whistle of the fans as their captain shuffles forward and arcs his gold boot smoothly, shooting the ball through for the opening goal. There are Argentinians already in floods of tears. Everything is heightened here, the emotions piling up game after game, year after year, decade after decade, all coalescing into this one moment that feels like everything in an otherwise empty desert.
Fifteen minutes later, they score again. But this time it is not through the efforts of a single man. This time, it is through the ballet of an entire team. It begins in Argentina’s own defensive third and ends in France’s net — a sweeping five-pass move that is football at its purest, at its cleanest, at its most divine. Di María finishes this diamond-cut sequence of passes and is close to tears now too. He senses it — this feeling the whole universe is urging them on. We all do.
Half-time arrives and France have not registered a single shot. This has not been a contest so much as a capitulation by the reigning champions, a navy-blue carpet rolled out to welcome the guests of honour. We weren’t here to watch a contest anyway, were we? Most of us came to watch Lionel Messi’s story reach its perfect conclusion. France are simply academic, part of the paperwork, the dots and crosses to scrawl off in Messi’s final, glorious chapter.
But as the second half begins, so too does the second game. All of a sudden, the things we thought we knew begin to unravel. The momentum leans in France’s favour. The passes begin to connect, to penetrate, to threaten. They still haven’t had a shot as the hour ticks past, but every minute they seem to muscle their way closer to one.
Finally, 20 minutes from time, it begins: the Mbappé show. He cracks off the first frustrated shot, slicing in-field towards the top of the area before rifling over the crossbar, tired of waiting for his teammates to win this thing. Eight minutes later, an opening: another penalty, this time for Les Bleus — Randal Kolo Muani tugged down by Nicholas Otomendi.
Mbappé steps up, feeling the Golden Boot slipping from his foot, and converts as though it were a training-ground drill. From there, it’s like the feeling of the ball thwacking the back of the net unleashes something in him, because a minute later he has another: an outrageous volley, an unimaginable contortion of his body in the air, an impossible flick of his leg like a liquid whip to send the ball into the bottom corner. It’s 2-2 in the 80th minute and there are still so many games to play.
Mbappé tries again and again, storming through Argentina’s midfield like a hurricane, defenders peeling and fluttering off behind him like delicate petals. Messi had faded into the background as Mbappé surged, but here he the Argentine appears again, re-emerging into the fabric of the game, picking the ball up and driving a shot just over the bar, sending a golden pass in behind as the clock winds further down, a few last desperate moments, a few last desperate pleas to the sky.
The whistle sounds, drawing the curtain on the first act of this perilous drama. The second act begins, more games pouring into extra time. The camera pans over the open mouth of the stadium as whistles and roars bellow from within. You cannot remember the last time you breathed steadily, the last time you stood to stretch or look away, sensing that any second could be the one that changes everything. Every tackle, every pass, every moment quivers with possibility, the alternate realities spinning off into the night.
This is football at its finest, at its most fragile and its most precious, where it is at its clearest and most beautiful. Messi scores again, not through some Pythagorean miracle, but by the ugly rawness of a desperate man, bundling it over the line with the collective will of the world at his back. Mbappé claws France back level through another penalty, becoming the first man to score a World Cup final hat-trick since 1966, forcing this game of games into its final fateful act.
This is the football that has rescued this shadowy tournament from itself, football as we want it to be, a kind of sporting Shakespeare, a theatre of dreams. And this final has been the magnum opus, perhaps the greatest final of all time, a final into which all our hopes for the game’s redemption have been poured.
The penalty shootout begins; the last 120 minutes, the last four weeks, the last 12 years of this treacherous journey, and the last two decades of Messi’s staggering career distilled in a couple of kicks this way or that. It feels like it shouldn’t, but it does. The ultimate judgement day, the final catharsis.
Maybe it had to feel like this, given everything that has happened. Maybe it had to be extreme in its beauty and light to counteract the darkness that has shrouded it all. It is fitting, perhaps, that this final occurred in a place like Qatar, a place where reality bends and twists and folds on itself, a place of sand and mirrors, where things have never felt quite as they seemed.
Lusail itself, in Doha’s north, is a kind of phantom city, an electrified playground dreamed up by a sugar-rushed child of infinite wealth, a gleaming, streamlined world of sprawling, echoey plazas and sanitised streets, towers of steel spearing the sky with no past and no future, built for the idea of a population rather than the reality of one, a dazzling shell of a thing with a deep human emptiness at its core.
Lusail’s “Iconic” Stadium teeters on the edge of this desert (and deserted) dream space, rising like a sun from the vast concrete wasteland that surrounds it. It does not look like it should be here, this dizzying golden bowl, this bird’s nest of the gods, this grand stage on which one of football’s greatest moments is being played out.
And here lies the central paradox: This final is a moment of football purity, a moment that contains all that is good and real and human about the game, manifested in a World Cup that has come to represent everything that is its opposite. How could such joy emerge from such sorrow? Can we sit with each of them in our hearts? Can we cry for both?
Messi is standing on the half-way line, his arms wrapped around his countrymen, watching their final penalty-taker, Gonzalo Montiel, sweep Argentina into the halls of history.
Here he is, curled up like a baby in the grass, his eyes closed, laughing and laughing. We have watched him arrive at the gates of his own destiny and now, on this small peninsula of sadness and sand, have watched him join the pantheon that has waited for him just beyond it.
Here he is, dancing on the table in the dressing room, bouncing around like a child at a birthday party, his birthday party, the party of his birth and of his death. There is nothing left for him now, he has seen and done it all. The Qatar World Cup is his crowning glory, and he is its in return — a man who has been part of Qatar’s project for longer than these four weeks and who will be part of it for longer still, though he may not know or may not even care.
Here he is, being draped in a sheer black robe laced with gold by Qatar’s Emir, the owner of his current club PSG and the reason he is standing on the cusp of immortality. The robe ripples gently behind him like the shadow of a ghost as he moves across the stage, the weight of the gold trophy in his hands.
All of that has been threaded through this single game of many different kinds of tears, in this one image of the bright colours of his country obscured by the dark sheen of who and what got them there.
Can it ever be pure, this thing we love so much? Can it ever be saved from itself? Or is this simply what it is now, this rippling of light and shadow, one always requiring the other, where we must simply take whichever parts we still believe in and hold them close?
Can Messi show us how?
There he is, this little boy from Rosario. The black robe is off and his blue and white jersey is shining, light as air on his skin.
He is sitting with his own little boys now. They are smiling and crawling across him and across that grand and infinite stage.
The World Cup trophy is somewhere else, the weight of it all finally set down and out of sight.
But Messi does not seem to mind. He is already holding paradise in his arms as his boots sway gently in the light.