LUSAIL – After finally winning the World Cup, Lionel Messi made his strongest case yet to be considered soccer’s greatest player of all time.
It will never be possible to say definitively, though, even after Argentina's 4-2 penalty shootout victory over France on Sunday in the final at Lusail Stadium.
Messi has been his country's inspiration throughout the tournament in Qatar and scored twice in the game that finished 3-3 through extra time.
“It’s just crazy that it became a reality this way," Messi said. "I craved for this so much. I knew God would bring this gift to me. I had the feeling that this was the one.”
Kylian Mbappe certainly made Messi work for a golden trophy that had eluded him throughout his storied career. The France forward scored a hat trick as the defending champions came back from 2-0 down and then evened the match again after Messi made it 3-2 in extra time.
But this was Messi's night and Messi's World Cup.
“It took so long, but here it is," Messi said. “We suffered a lot, but we managed to do it.”
For some, no one will ever surpass Pele, who won the World Cup three times with Brazil. Even in Messi’s homeland of Argentina, Diego Maradona remains, for many, the country's ultimate soccer icon after captaining the national team to the 1986 World Cup title.
And for the past 15 years or so, Messi has had a personal rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo just to establish himself as the finest player of his generation.
Competition is fierce when it comes to determining the greatest of all time, or the GOAT, as it has come to be known. It can come down to the smallest of margins that separate players of such brilliance.
Messi’s failure to win the sport’s biggest prize has always counted against him when measuring his achievements against Pele and Maradona. The same goes for Ronaldo.
Messi is a seven-time winner of the Ballon d'Or award for the best player in the world and lifted club soccer's biggest prize, the Champions League trophy, on four occasions. He ended his wait for a first major trophy with his country at last year’s Copa America.
The World Cup, however, is the ultimate measure of greatness and Pele and Maradona secured immortality with inspirational performances on that stage.
That had eluded Messi until Sunday.
Yes, he was part of the Argentina team that lost to Germany 1-0 in the 2014 final, but the magic he produced game in, game out during his peak years for Barcelona never seemed to translate when wearing the blue and white stripes of his country.
At 35 and nearing the end of his career, the tournament in Qatar was widely seen as his final shot at the World Cup. And if that is the case, he saved his best for last.
Messi does not dominate over 90 minutes anymore, but instead decides matches with moments of genius. He scored seven goals in Qatar, but, arguably, his assists have been more memorable.
His disguised pass for Nahuel Molina’s goal against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals was weighted and measured to perfection. His twisting and turning run to beat Croatia defender Joško Gvardiol and set up teammate Julian Alvarez in the semifinals felt like peak Messi, only in slow motion.
He has now surpassed Pele with 13 goals at World Cups and is tied for fourth with Just Fontaine on the all-time list. His seven in this year's tournament surpassed Maradona’s five at the 1986 edition in Mexico.
Messi has now scored a national team-record 98 goals in 172 games. That places him third in the all-time scoring list for men’s internationals, behind Cristiano Ronaldo (118) and Ali Daei (109).
There has been a sense of destiny for Messi and Argentina, even after its shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in the team's opening game of the World Cup.
Messi had to summon every bit of energy in his aging limbs to get Argentina through the final and hold off Mbappe. Leading 2-0 and cruising to the title as the game approached the last 10 minutes, Mbappe intervened to remind everyone that he has already overtaken Messi and Ronaldo as the best player in the world right now.
He scored in the 80th and 81st minutes to turn the game upside down.
When Messi put Argentina back in front in the 108th minute, he looked to have scored the winner. But Mbappe's penalty in the 118th saw the Paris Saint-Germain star complete the first hat trick in a World Cup final in 56 years.
In the penalty shootout, Gonzalo Montiel scored the decisive kick to secure Messi's place among the pantheon of greats and, perhaps, confirm his position as the true GOAT.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports