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Finally. Lionel Messi leads Argentina over France to win a World Cup championship.

Lionel Messi of Argentina scores the team's first goal from the penalty spot during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar.
Catherine Ivill
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Getty Images
Lionel Messi of Argentina scores the team's first goal from the penalty spot during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar.

AL DAAYEN, Qatar — The 2022 World Cup started terribly for Argentina. The shocking opening loss to Saudi Arabia - and the whispers began immediately.

Is this it?

Will Lionel Messi end his glorious career without winning a World Cup?

The statistics were clear. Losing the first game in group play makes it almost impossible to advance to the knockout round. Not only would Argentina advance, it won the group and kept winning and never stopped.

Now, with a 3-3 (4-2 penalty kick shootout) victory over defending champion France, Lionel Messi can call himself a World Cup champion in what was probably his final World Cup match. It's Argentina's third title and those early whispers have been replaced by tears and cheers.

Argentina started the match against France with aggressiveness and relentless attacks. The French, who looked so dominant all tournament, struggled to find their rhythm, cohesion and energy it had showcased in Qatar.

The Argentina attack paid off midway through the first half. Argentina forward Ángel Di María scooted past France's Ousmane Dembélé who tripped him in the box and won a penalty kick.

There was no doubt who would take it. Lionel Messi, playing in his 26th World Cup game (the most ever in the men's tournament), walked up to the penalty spot, 12 yards from the French keeper. With a deep breath and calm strike, he powered it low and to the right. 1-0.

With the goal, Messi became the first man to score in every game of a World Cup knockout round in a single tournament (round of 16, quarterfinal, semifinal and final).

Argentina's midfielder #11 Angel Di Maria celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022.
Adrian Dennis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Argentina's midfielder #11 Angel Di Maria celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022.

The South Americans were not done. In the 36th minute, Argentina managed to dissect the French defense across midfield. With just two crisp passes, it was Di María creating the chances, again, streaking into the box with a shot lifted above diving French keeper Hugo Lloris. 2-0.

After the goal, Di María trotted back to the Argentina side of the field, wiping away tears.

France looked out of sorts. Coach Didier Deschamps did the unthinkable - replaced two of his starters in the first half: Dembélé (whose foul led to the first goal) and all-time French scoring leader Olivier Giroud.

At halftime, defending-champion France looked shocked. The French star, Kylian Mbappé, had little to show in the first 45-minutes of the match.

France's forward #10 Kylian Mbappe and Argentina's midfielder #24 Enzo Fernandez fight for the ball during the Qatar 2022 World Cup football final match between Argentina and France on December 18, 2022.
Franck Fife / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
France's forward #10 Kylian Mbappe and Argentina's midfielder #24 Enzo Fernandez fight for the ball during the Qatar 2022 World Cup football final match between Argentina and France on December 18, 2022.

Mbappé shined during the 2018 World Cup as a 19-year-old. The comparisons were many to another teenager with a stellar soccer pedigree: Pelé. (In 2018, Mbappé became the first teenager to score at a World Cup final since Pelé in 1958). At the 2022 tournament, Mbappé picked up where he left off.

He set another World Cup record — surpassing Pelé's record for a player under 24 with his 12 total goals. Mbappé scored eight goals in Qatar - entering the final tied with Messi with the overall goal lead. But against Argentina, Mbappé had been largely silenced. Which is saying something. His first recorded shot came in the 71st minute.

The nearly 89,000 people inside Lusail Stadium were overwhelmingly for Argentina - most wearing the team's trademark white and sky blue uniform. It was electric. They cheered every touch, every pass and every shot.

But in the 80th minute, Mbappé sliced the Argentina lead in half with a penalty shot to make it 2-1. All match long, France had been muted. Quiet. Unsure. But then the game's energy changed as France showed some life.

Then, 93 seconds later, unbelievably Mbappé did it again. He evened the score with a blistering right-footed shot beyond the Argentinian keeper Emiliano Martínez. 2-2.

Kylian Mbappe of France celebrates after scoring the team's second goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar.
Catherine Ivill / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Kylian Mbappe of France celebrates after scoring the team's second goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar.

This is the French team everyone expected to see in the championship. It was finally Messi vs. Mbappé. The 35-year-old, one of the finest to ever play the game, against the 23-year-old, who continues to add to his impressive soccer pedigree.

The teams played nine more minutes in regulation - and eight more in stoppage time. Neither would score - forcing 30-minutes of extra time.

Argentina had been here before. It lost in the 2014 World Cup final when Germany scored in extra time and won 1-0.

This time it would be Argentina which scored in extra time. And was there ever any doubt who would knock it in? Lionel Messi, of course. The ball ricocheting in front of the French goal and Messi booting it in. In the 109th minute. His second goal of the evening. 3-2.

Of course that score wouldn't hold. A handling call inside the Argentine box led to another penalty kick attempt for France. And of course it would be Mbappé. And of course he scored in the 118th minute. A hat trick for the young French star. 3-3.

Both sides battled in the waning minutes. But it would come down to a penalty kick shootout to end what will likely go down as the best World Cup final in history.

Argentina got the early advantage. After penalty kicks scored by Mbappé and Messi, the Argentina keeper stopped the attempt by France's Kingsley Coman. Then, Aurélien Tchouaméni missed his attempt. It came down to Argentina's Gonzalo Montiel who scored the winning penalty kick. Tears and hugs and smiles for Messi and all of Argentina, really.

It had not been since 1986 when Argentina last won a World Cup carried by Diego Maradona - the man whose shadow has loomed large over Messi.

The 2022 World Cup belongs to Argentina. It's Argentina's third title and the first for Lionel Messi. The first time he can call himself a World Cup champion. It was his last chance. Now his resume is full.

Tom Goldman contributed reporting from Al Daayen, Qatar, and Russell Lewis reported from Birmingham, Ala.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Russell Lewis
As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.