Lionel Messi lifts the FIFA World Cup Trophy | Photo: AFP
For close to a month football held sway among sports fans all around the globe including even in the remotest parts of India. Such is the impact that football can make or footballers can capture the imagination of diehard fans. One needs to step into Kerala to really see for oneself the deep-rooted interest in some of the international footballers like Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo. They may not have come to India at any time, but that hardly matters, for their deeds are global and talking points even among children, let alone mature minds. So in these settings, imagine sharing the dreams of a nation or an iconic player and nurse them with care and feeling! All barriers of nationality, language and unfamiliarity are brushed aside and only one aspect remains in sight__ the beautiful game of football! Millions enjoyed the stuff provided by the 32 nations at the Qatar World Cup even as they went through the agony and ecstasy of seeing that one big player of contemporary times, Lionel Messi, realised a dream. How many in the world of sports ever get to achieve that! Messi has been special, and he proved why he is so on that jubilant evening in Doha when the football world watched with bated breath the rise of a champion to join the pantheon of greats in the sport.
Argentina’s biggest moment in 36 years could not have come at a better time. If it was Diego Maradona the magician with that unfailing wizardry with the ball who took his country to a world cup triumph in 1986, then it was his heir apparent, in every sense, who not only stepped into his shoes but beat all odds to clinch the country’s third title and in the process ensured he walked into the sunset of his career with the football’s biggest prize against his name. Messi had won everything else, created any number of records in football, but a World Cup triumph had eluded him. Not anymore and how it was achieved will remain a golden chapter in the history of the sport.
Indeed, it would be right to say, Argentina began its campaign on the back of overflowing wishes from fans all over the world but still on an inauspicious note only to course through the tough path of the competition thereafter with a touch of elan and finish on a spectacular note. What else can one say of the team’s loss to Saudi Arabia in the group phase! A giant in the game losing to, in relative terms, a lightweight was perhaps the last thing expected and so an early shock of the Doha edition. A run of 36 unbeaten games was stopped there and that included beating Brazil in the Copa America final. Not an easy reverse then and the pain in the team was palpable. To get back morally intact and get to do what Argentina is always known to do best did not prove a huge issue. The Latin American giant rose step by step, Messi, of course, at the helm for all the inspiration.
But then this has been a world cup that saw several of the mighty take a beating early, some crashing out and few rising and lasting for a little longer. Germany, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal, not to forget Brazil, did not quite take the path of greatness when it mattered most. In the process, they actually provided a revelation on the kind of football rise that had come about in Asia and Africa. Only Argentina and France could survive the pitfalls and race ahead to where they are known to belong. Even there, both went through tricky semi-finals against two inspired opponents Croatia, the last edition runner up and Morocco, a stunning big force from the Arab-Africa region. Both had an unforgettable journey before Argentina found the key to stop Croatia and France the route to demolish the Moroccan defence! Morocco certainly was the find of this Qatar edition and gives hope that one day an African country would fulfil the Brazilian legend Pele’s prophecy that one day an African nation would win the world cup! In his recuperating bed, the great Brazilian must have been a touch pleased with the way Morocco had gone a long way to prove him almost right. Even though it failed, the Atlas Lions scripted a new chapter on African football.
Two giants in the end then coming together for the final act had to be a dream lineup. Both were scarred en route but ever ready still to put in their final effort for their respective country. A slow start gave way to a frenetic pace and then to a now-or-never desire to grab the initiative meant the title contest had everything that any football lover would have desired. Great action, quick-silver turns and falls, and of course, the bombardment at the goals! Six goals shared and another six goals shot in the penalties-drama should suffice to state how the final had gone before Argentina, nay Messi grabbed his lifetime elusive trophy! The world of football was at his feet! It was a pity that at the end of it all, the other hero, French star Kylian Mbappe, who notched up a hat-trick, the second instance after Geoff Hurst’s effort in the 1966 final (England v West Germany), had to sit aside in tears. True he won the golden boot (eight goals) but as it happened Messi took the cake!
The Qatar world cup, easily one of the best to date as the FIFA President Gianni Infantino himself proclaimed, also in a way signalled the end of an era. No more Messi, Ronaldo and possibly Neymar too. Time for new stars to enter and carve a niche.