Lionel Messi and his teammates set off for Argentina with the most coveted prize in football as millions of compatriots waited to welcome them home on Monday and catch a glimpse of the World Cup trophy.
In the capital Buenos Aires and throughout the country, millions took to the streets to celebrate Sunday’s remarkable penalty shoot-out victory over France in the World Cup final in Qatar.
Messi finally crowned his record-breaking career with the one trophy that was missing as he produced a performance that will go down in World Cup history, scoring a first-half penalty and netting again in extra time.
France had fought back from 2-0 down in the last 10 minutes as Kylian Mbappe scored twice to equalise and force extra time in a pulsating match watched by an 89,000 crowd in Lusail Stadium.
Messi seemed to have decided the match in extra time with his second goal of the game before his Paris Saint-Germain teammate Mbappe completed only the second World Cup final hat-trick to bring the score to 3-3 and force penalties.
Gonzalo Montiel swept home the decisive spot kick to win the shootout 4-2 for Argentina — but this was Messi’s moment.
And while the players were able to celebrate with an estimated 40,000 fans inside the stadium on Sunday night, there are 45 million back home eager to welcome their heroes on Monday evening.
“Of course, it’s what we’re all waiting for,” teacher Veronica Silva, 44, told AFP from the Plaza de Mayo square in central Buenos Aires where celebrations went on into Sunday night.
“This will continue for a couple of days. It started now and it won’t end tomorrow because they arrive tomorrow: it will go on for longer.”
“Of course we can’t wait to see the players, all of them,” added cleaner Rosa Rodriguez, 63.
“It’s a good team who did us proud. The biggest celebration will be when they arrive.”
‘I can’t ask for more’
Messi had tasted bitter defeat in the 2014 final against Germany but in his fifth and final World Cup, the 35-year-old finally emulated Argentina idol Diego Maradona by leading his nation to World Cup glory for the first time since 1986.
Tens of thousands of blue and white-shirted Argentina fans rose to salute Messi as he told them “We’re champions of the world!” on the stadium microphone.
Later he told Argentine television: “Obviously I wanted to finish my career with this. I can’t ask for any more.
“My career is coming to end because these are my final years. What more could there be after this?”
But he said he would continue with the Argentina squad. “I want to keep experiencing a few more matches as world champion,” he added.
FIFA will be delighted with a pulsating final that capped one of the most controversial World Cups in history, with the Qatari organisers having to face persistent questions about the country’s treatment of migrant workers and its laws on homosexuality.
Neutrals will be happy that Messi has finally won a World Cup. However, with his hat-trick — and the Golden Boot for top scorer at the tournament with eight goals — Mbappe surely showed he is ready to inherit the mantle of the world’s best player.
Argentina, now three-time world champions, dominated the first half of the final as Messi scored a 23rd minute penalty after Ousmane Dembele tripped Angel Di Maria.
The mercurial Messi was then part of a superb move that led to Di Maria sweeping home Argentina’s second goal after 36 minutes.
The defending champions finally got back into the game in the second half as Randal Kolo Muani was dragged down by Nicolas Otamendi in the penalty area and Mbappe converted from the spot with only 10 minutes left.
A minute later, Mbappe scored a superb volley to bring France level.
In extra time, Messi knocked in the rebound when Hugo Lloris parried Martinez’s saved shot in the 108th minute to give Argentina the lead once again.
But when Mbappe’s shot hit Montiel’s outstretched arm, the referee pointed to the penalty spot and the French forward stroked it home to become the first player to score a World Cup hat-trick since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.
His heroics were not enough despite also knocking in France’s first shoot-out spot-kick, as Montiel gave Argentina a 4-2 victory after Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez saved Kingsley Coman’s attempt.
“All that I have dreamed of has been achieved. I have no words for it,” said Martinez, adding that victory was “destiny.”
France coach Didier Deschamps rued the failure to become the first team in 60 years to retain the trophy.
“I don’t want to take any merit away from Argentina but there were lots and lots of emotions and it was cruel at the end because we were so close,” he said.