After 12 years, shredded schedules and a whirl of geopolitics; after death and ghosts and suffering; after armbands, hard power, the Davos in the desert vibe; after 64 games of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, the Lusail Stadium dished up a purely sporting surprise.
This was the greatest Fifa World Cup final. It was also a third World Cup victory for Argentina, who beat France on penalties at the end of a wildly oscillating 3-3 draw.
More tellingly, it was also a kind of coronation, belatedly, for the greatest footballer of the age, probably of any age, the mooching 35-year-old mobile brain Lionel Messi, a thousand games into his astonishing career.
This was an emotional overload, a game that seemed to have been won at least four times over 120 minutes before it finally was with the last kick of the tournament. Even here there was a twist. This World Cup final was supposed come down to a meeting of genius, to the Messi-Kylian Mbappé dynastic arm wrestle. It did in many ways. Mbappé scored the first hat-trick in a men’s World Cup final since Geoff Hurst in 1966 and still lost.
But the game also came down at the death to good old-fashioned malandro gamesmanship, embodied by the chest-puffing antics of Argentina’s goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, who chucked the ball away, advanced on the French kickers, almost screwed himself into the ground after each unsuccessful kick, and at one point had to be shoved back by the referee.
As Gonzalo Montiel’s winning kick billowed the net, a beautifully soft moment before the night dissolved into a wave of static, Messi was buried in the centre circle under a knot of blue and white.
Eventually he broke free and walked off, waving both hands, all alone in the chaos apart from a single passing cameraman sensing his own money shot. How fitting, in the end, that Messi should celebrate a World Cup the same way he won it, by walking around on his own.
This was a Messi story in so many ways. Messi scored seven goals at Qatar 2022 and won the Golden Ball as the best player. He toyed with some of the greatest footballers on earth. He did all this aged 35 and semi-injured. This is not normal. At some stage it will start to stretch the bounds of credibility.
Plus he is part of the wider story of this $7bn sporting extravaganza. As Messi was given the World Cup trophy he was handed a robe to wear by the emir of Qatar, who is also his employer.
You get what you pay for, and Qatar achieved its perfect final here. You have to admire the thoroughness, a blueprint that says we will not only pay for the World Cup but for the players who are most likely to be on the podium at the end: a Messi, an Mbappé, paid ambassadors of Qatar Sports Investments via dizzying contracts with Paris Saint-Germain. This is the real thing: end-to-end fully encrypted sportswashing. It is an incredible feat of will.
But there is also a paradox in Messi winning this divisive and physically brutal of World Cups. There have always been two World Cups at Qatar 2022. First, the one Qatar built out of human wastage, the one that has held a mirror up not only to the depravity of big sport, but to a global labour market that drives migrant workers into lucrative near-captivity; a system Qatar did not create, which it has simply embodied with manic hypercompetence.
Then there is the other World Cup, the spectacle that brings joy and drama, and that feeling of collectivism; and which Messi’s brilliance has elevated into one of the great sporting stories.
He was sublime all game. From the start the colours were perfect. The deep French blue, the Albiceleste of Argentina, the lime-green grass, the cold white stadium lights. The opening five minutes of any Messi performance have been much discussed in recent weeks. Messi spends those five minutes watching.
He did it here. He scans, does a panorama, walks, scouts his opponents. And Messi’s walking is not really walking. It’s thinking. Walking is his rapid eye movement, his spinning disc while he crunches the code. Messi walks three miles a game. He is not doing this to get his steps up.
And from the start Argentina were more fluid than at any stage to this point, Ángel Di María providing another point of incision on the left. It felt a little strange. Messi was almost too involved. This is supposed to be the World Cup of moments. Don’t waste it. Keep it safe. Wait for it to bloom.
Messi duly scored the opening goal from the spot, made by Di María. The second for Argentina was a wonderful team goal. Messi had a hand at the start, producing a sublime 45-degree pass. Di María finished expertly, then just kind of collapsed, drunk on the glory, the noise the space, the light.
Didier Deschamps ripped up his attack. France sat on the game for a bit. And so the twists began. Mbappé made it 2-1 on 80 minutes, then 2-2 with a beautifully pure finish. In the VVIP boxes Emmanuel Macron “went off on one”, the gravely intellectual president of the republic hooting, leaping and honking like a startled goose.
Argentina had gone. The team that seemed to be romping like handsome schoolboys towards glory looked frazzled, lost, done. Then Argentina came back, scoring again through Messi, before Mbappé levelled it again from the spot. Then came penalties and that final moment of grace.
• This article was amended on 19 December 2022. Lionel Messi scored seven goals at the tournament, not six as an earlier version said.