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DOHA, Qatar — It seemed fitting the most exciting final brought an end to the best FIFA World Cup in history.
An event marred in controversy from the day this small Gulf nation was awarded the rights to host, came together better than anyone expected with Lionel Messi winning his long-awaited World Cup trophy, cementing his legacy as one of the best to ever play the game.
Messi and Argentina had to overcome another player on that road to greatness in Kylian Mbappe. He took France to the brink of its second consecutive title by scoring three goals in the final and another in the shootout.
In the end, however, it wasn’t enough as Argentina won the shootout after an exhilarating 120 minutes of play, which saw the teams deadlocked 3-3.
“That’s it, we can’t ask for anything more,” Messi said after the game. “I have to thank God for everything he’s given me and letting me finish in this manner with this cup here. For me, for all my teammates, for all of Argentina, we are world champions.”
It was a long time coming for Messi, who appeared his chance had slipped away when Argentina lost in the final of the 2014 tournament in Brazil to Germany, and then was eliminated four years ago by France in Russia.
Yet at 35, Messi proved he is still the best player in the world and led Argentina to its third championship in a final for the ages. Argentina took a 2-0 lead only to see Mbappe score twice within the last 10 minutes to tie the game and send it into extra time.
Messi gave Argentina the lead in extra time, and the goal looked as if it would be the game-winner, which would have been fitting considering his illustrious career.
But Mbappe had one more card to play and scored on a penalty kick late into extra time; awarded after his shot struck the arm of an Argentina defender in the penalty area.
Mbappe and Messi both converted their penalties in the shootout, leaving their respective teammates to handle the rest.
Argentina managed to score the rest of its shots, while France missed two of theirs, giving the title to Messi.
“I’m not going to reflect on that game right now, there is no point,” Messi said. “We knew we had to be world champions and we are. The way the game went, it’s not time now to analyse it, but to celebrate it.”
Messi said he would call it quits at the international level regardless of what happened at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday, but his coach Lionel Scaloni said the door is always open for a return.
Messi and his teammates will return to Argentina to a heroes’ welcome as millions are set to receive them and celebrate the country’s first World Cup since Diego Maradona led them to the title in 1986. The second anniversary of Maradona’s death was on Nov. 25.
“This is it for this World Cup and nobody knows what’s going to happen next,” Messi said. “We just want to head home and celebrate this with everyone there.”
France will also get a warm reception at home, putting up a brave defence of its title and coming within a remarkable last-second save by Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez of winning the game.
It was an amazing final, bringing an end to a 12-year journey for Qatar, who were controversially awarded the tournament in 2010 and got to work building the stadiums and infrastructure needed to host such a massive event.
The buildup was controversial as well, with terrible working conditions of migrant workers coming to light, forcing the country to introduce labour reforms. Thousands of workers reportedly died during the 12 years of construction preparing for the tournament.
The number is somewhat misleading, however, when considering 85-90% of the population of Qatar are migrant workers and many of those deaths were not job related.
Western reports made it seem as though thousands of workers were falling from stadiums, which is simply not true. And while the country still has a long way to go to better treat and protect its migrant workforce, the same can be said for back home, where the minimum wage is far below the cost of living.
Those on the ground here in Qatar were surprised to find a thriving, modern metropolis, with Western culture coexisting alongside traditional customs.
Anything that could be found in a North American city could be found here, including alcohol, and restrictions on clothing, and female attire in particular, were non-existent.
The controversy over the last-minute refusal of selling Budweiser beer in stadiums was also overblown.
In Europe and South America along with many other regions of the world, alcohol is prohibited in stadiums, which was a small detail overlooked in many reports coming out of Europe and North America on the ban.
You almost have to admire the local World Cup organizers for not bending to the will of FIFA and a major sponsor the way those in Brazil did eight years ago; forced to change its laws of prohibiting alcohol in stadiums.
No one here was feeling sorry for Budweiser, particularly since they were charging $18 for a can of beer.
The rainbow debate much ado about nothing as well, particularly when talking to local members of the gay community — one who happens to be a personal friend and played tour guide during my stay.
If the World Cup taught visitors anything, it’s to not fear this part of the planet.
This was the most unique World Cup in history, unlikely to ever be repeated where seven of the eight venues were within a 50-km radius of downtown Doha.
This was also the safest World Cup on record. Unlike previous tournaments which featured armed guards and military vehicles everywhere — which will be the case in the United States, Mexico and Canada in four years’ time — Qatar didn’t have any of that. Police, while out in full force, were unarmed.
There was never a concern about walking the streets of downtown Doha after covering a late match.
Things were so safe, in fact, it was the first time ever an English soccer fan has not been arrested at a World Cup tournament. They managed to keep the hooligans out, allowing the true English fans to enjoy themselves.
The same can be said for the rest of the supporters here. Granted some of the support seemed staged, with local workers posing as fans, but the Argentina support was genuine as was Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Canada among others.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience and most of those who travelled here will attest to the same. And the final will leave a lasting legacy to the event.
Email: [email protected]
On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest
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