South Americans now three-time world champions after victory over France
LUSAIL, Qatar — Argentina's men's national football team celebrate after winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup final against France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 18, 2022. This is their third hold on the title. (Photo: AFP)

LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi, wearing a black Qatari robe over his blue-and-white Argentina shirt, kissed the World Cup, shuffled toward his teammates, and hoisted the golden trophy high in the air.

It was an iconic sight that finally — definitively — places the football superstar in the pantheon of the game's greatest players.

Messi's once-in-a-generation career is complete: He is a World Cup champion.

In one of the wildest finals in the tournament's 92-year history, Argentina won its third World Cup title by beating France 4-2 in a penalty shoot-out after a 3-3 draw featuring two goals from the 35-year-old Messi and a hat-trick by his heir apparent, France forward Kylian Mbappé.

"It's just crazy that it became a reality this way," Messi said. "I craved for this so much. I knew God would bring this gift to me. I had the feeling that this [World Cup] was the one."

Argentina's Angel Di Maria (left) scores his team's second goal past France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris during the Qatar 2022 World Cup football final match at Lusail Stadium in Qatar on Sunday. (Photo: AFP)

Amid the chaos Mbappé did all he could to emulate Brazil great Pelé as a champion at his first two World Cups — even scoring the first hat-trick in a final since Geoff Hurst for England in 1966.

It wasn't enough.

Now, there's no debate. Messi joins Pelé — a record three-time World Cup champion — and Diego Maradona, the late Argentina great with whom Messi was so often compared, in an exclusive club of the best football players of all time.

Who is the greatest? It's a discussion that will rage forever because there can never be a definitive answer. Messi has put up a good argument, though, and — with the World Cup title on his resume — he is surely above Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player of his generation.

Messi achieved what Maradona did in 1986 and dominated a World Cup for Argentina. He scored seven goals and embraced the responsibility of leading his team out of those dark moments after a shocking 1-2 loss to Saudi Arabia in the group stage.

Argentina's Lionel Messi looks at the FIFA World Cup trophy as he holds the Golden Ball award after winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup football final match against France. (Photo: AFP)
Messi wins World Cup, Argentina defeat France on penalties

Playing in the spirit of Maradona, Messi coupled his dazzling skills with rarely seen aggression and led Argentina to the title by becoming the first man in a single edition of the World Cup to score in the group stage and then in every round of the knockout stage.

The torch will one day pass to Mbappé, but not just yet.

"Let's go, Argentina!" Messi roared into a microphone on the field in the post-match celebrations after playing in a record 26th World Cup match.

Later, he said: "I can't wait to be in Argentina to witness the insanity of this."

Messi was in scintillating form from the start of the final, putting Argentina ahead from the penalty spot after Angel Di Maria was tripped and later playing a part in a flowing team move that resulted in Di Maria making it 2-0 after 36 minutes.

France forward Kylian Mbappe reacts after losing in the penalty shoot-out of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football final match against Argentina on Sunday. (Photo: AFP)

Mbappé, on the other hand, was anonymous until bursting into life by scoring two goals in a 97-second span — one an 80th-minute penalty, the other a volley from just inside the area after a quick exchange of passes — to take the game to extra time at 2-2.

Messi still had plenty of energy and he was on hand to tap in his second goal in the 108th minute, with a France defender clearing the ball just after it had crossed the line. Argentina was on the brink of the title once again but there was still time for another penalty from Mbappé, after a handball, to take the thrilling game to a shoot-out.

Mbappé and Messi took their teams' first kicks and scored. Kingsley Coman had an attempt saved by Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez and Aurelien Tchouameni then missed for France, giving Gonzalo Montiel the opportunity to end it. He converted the penalty to the left and sparked wild celebrations.

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