Lionel Messi’s fourth World Cup ended in bitter, frustrating and all-too-familiar defeat on Saturday, with Argentina tumbling out of the tournament with a 4-3 loss to a suddenly impressive France in the round of 16.
Messi departs after a frustrating tournament in which Argentina only barely escaped a humiliating elimination in the group stage. But it ended as all his major tournaments with Argentina’s senior national team have: without a trophy, and while carrying the burden of a team defeat on his slight shoulders. At 31, he may choose to make this his last World Cup.
For a few minutes in the second half, it almost seemed as if Argentina’s troubled trip at this World Cup might be extended. Angel Di Maria scored a gorgeous long-range goal just before halftime, and then Gabriel Mercado turned in a low shot by Messi three minutes into the second half for a 2-1 lead.
But France was simply too good. The teenage forward Kylian Mbappé won a penalty in the first half with a three-quarter-field run, and then scored two goals of his own four minutes apart to stick in the knife on Argentina.
Mbappe is the brightest star on a French team populated by kids who emerged from the Paris suburbs.
Antoine Griezmann scored France’s first goal, converting the penalty Mbappé had won, and right back Benjamin Pavard slashed in France’s second in the 57th minute — a volleyed goal that was the equal of Di Maria’s stunner — after some nervous moments early in the half.
After pulling even, France simply pulled away. Mbappé restored his team’s lead with the cool of a veteran in the 64th minute, calmly finding space in the area to rip home the go-ahead goal.
Then, four minutes later, he finished off a flowing move that began deep in France’s half by slotting his second goal of the day — and third of the tournament — past Argentina’s goalkeeper Franco Armani.
Argentina got a final lifeline deep into stoppage time, when the substitute Sergio Aguero headed in a Messi cross — Messi’s second assist of the game. But Argentina needed one more, and within two minutes, it, and Messi, was out of time.
France will play the winner of Saturday’s second game, Uruguay vs. Portugal, on Friday in Nizhny Novgorod.
The victory will embolden French hopes that this team might just be good enough to win the tournament. France, while it had not lost a game in Russia, had been unimpressive in the group stage. Its final group game, a listless 0-0 draw against Denmark, was played to a chorus of boos.
But the France that tore apart Argentina was a different team. And with its core — Mbappé and Griezmann up front, Paul Pogba and the tireless N’Golo Kanté dominant in midfield, and center backs Raphael Varane (Real Madrid) and Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona) forming an unusually harmonious alliance — it might have what it takes to repeat its only triumph at the World Cup, on home soil in 1998.
The 19-year-old Mbappé became only the second teenager to score two goals in a World Cup match — after Brazil’s Pelé in 1958. A star at Paris Saint-Germain, he immediately pushed back on any comparisons.
“Let’s put things in perspective,” he said when told of the achievement. “Pelé is another category.”
Born six months after France won the 1998 World Cup, he is seen as the country’s best hope for delivering a second this summer, and he has embraced the challenge with poise and skill.
“In a World Cup you have the top players, so it’s an opportunity to show your abilities and what you can do,” he said. “There’s no better place than a World Cup.”