By STEVE DOUGLAS
AP Sports Writer
LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi’s once-in-a-generation career is complete. The Argentina superstar is finally a World Cup champion.
Messi scored two goals and then another in a shootout as Argentina beat France 4-2 on penalties Sunday to claim a third World Cup title despite Kylian Mbappé scoring the first hat trick in a final in 56 years.
Now there’s no debate. Messi is definitively in the pantheon of soccer’s greatest ever players, alongside Pelé — a record three-time World Cup champion from Brazil — and Diego Maradona, the late Argentina great with whom Messi was so often compared.
Messi achieved what Maradona did in 1986 and dominated a World Cup for Argentina. The torch will one day pass to Mbappé, whose late goals lit up one of the most dramatic finals in the tournament’s 92-year history and made him the first scorer of a hat trick in a final since 1966, but not just yet.
“Let’s go, Argentina!” Messi roared into a microphone on the field in the post-match celebrations.
Messi put Argentina ahead from the penalty spot and played a part in Angel Di Maria’s goal that made it 2-0 after 36 minutes.
Mbappé scored two goals in a 97-second span to take the game to extra time, and then Messi tapped in his second goal in the 109th minute. But there was still time for another penalty from Mbappé to take the thrilling game to a shootout.
Gonzalo Montiel scored the clinching penalty kick after Kingsley Coman had an attempt saved by Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez and Aurelien Tchouameni missed for France.
Europe’s run of four straight World Cup winners came to an end. The last South American champion was Brazil, and that was also in Asia — when Japan and South Korea hosted the tournament in 2002.
Argentina won its previous World Cup titles in 1978 and 1986. In Qatar, the country backed up its victory from last year’s Copa America, its first major trophy since 1993. It’s quite the climax to Messi’s international career, which might not yet be over at the age of 35 because he is playing as well as ever.
It was quite the finale, too, for a unique World Cup — the first to be played in the Middle East and the Arab world.
For FIFA and the Qatari organizers, a final between two major soccer nations and the world’s two best players represented a perfect way to cap a tournament laced in controversy ever since the scandal-shrouded vote in 2010 to give the event to a tiny Arab emirate.
The years-long scrutiny since has focused on the switch of dates from the traditional June-July period to November-December, strong criticism of how migrant workers have been treated, and then unease about taking soccer’s biggest event to a nation where homosexual acts are illegal.
On Sunday, there was one narrative at play for most people: Could Messi do it?
He could, despite the 23-year-old Mbappé — Messi’s teammate at Paris Saint-Germain — doing all he could to emulate Pelé by winning his first two World Cups.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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