Lionel Messi stood, his arms outstretched, in front of those who had come to adore him. Ordinarily, they would be jumping and writhing in celebration, but this time, as the fans moved toward him, they had created a logjam. They were, for just a second, frozen, perfectly still, a moment of quiet communion between the divine and his congregation.
Then, of course, it broke. Messi was flooded by his Argentina teammates, leaping onto his back, congratulating him, thanking him. He had not scored the goal — that simple task had fallen to Julián Álvarez but he had created it, crowning the game with a piece of vintage Messi wonder, using a World Cup semifinal as a chance to become his own tribute act.
And so there he was, at the age of 35, scurrying down the wing, wriggling away from Josko Gvardiol, the Croatia defender who had shadowed him all night, and then slowing down so that he could beat him again, making it to the end line, clipping the ball back for Álvarez. This was Messi, playing the hits.
That is what he has been doing all tournament, of course, and now he has his reward. That goal was Argentina’s third of the night, the one that removed all doubt: Argentina had beaten Croatia, 3-0, and on Sunday, Lionel Messi will return to the World Cup final. Eight years since he lost one, a bitter defeat to Germany in Brazil, the player who might be the best of all time will grace the biggest game in the world. He will have his shot at redemption. He will have his chance at revenge.
Only three other nations have advanced to as many World Cup finals as Argentina, which reached its sixth by beating Croatia, 3-0, in a romp that conferred upon Lionel Messi an ultimate, glorious chance for immortality.
Much like his compatriot Diego Maradona, who in 1990 rebounded after a group-stage defeat to Cameroon to lead Argentina into the final, Messi helped La Albiceleste overcome a shock opening loss to Saudi Arabia, scoring in each knockout-round game. His penalty kick in the 32nd minute opened the scoring against Croatia.
Germany, which exited after group-stage play in Qatar, has played in a record eight finals, while Brazil, winners of five titles, has appeared in seven. Italy, which failed to qualify for this World Cup, has played in six.
In the only other World Cup final of his transcendent career, Messi lost in 2014 to Germany. Here’s how Argentina has fared in other World Cup finals:
2014: A marvelous goal by Mario Götze just before the match would have gone into a shootout lifted Germany to a 1-0 win. Afterward, Messi sat in the changing room and cried “like a baby,” his friend and teammate Pablo Zabaleta said.
1990: A late penalty kick by Andreas Brehme propelled West Germany to a 1-0 victory. Argentina became the first team not to score in a World Cup final.
1986: Argentina clipped West Germany, 3-2, to conclude a tournament remembered just as much — if not more — for Maradona’s notorious “Hand of God” goal against England in the quarterfinals.
1978: Argentina became the fifth host nation to win a World Cup, scoring twice in extra time to beat the Netherlands, 3-1.
1930: In the inaugural World Cup, Argentina allowed three goals after halftime to lose, 4-2, to Uruguay.