Lionel Messi beamed with pride after his magical display inspired Argentina to a resounding victory over Croatia and secured their place in the World Cup final.
One of the greatest players in football history, the 35-year-old put on a man-of-the-match display in the semi-final at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday against the 2018 runners-up.
Messi converted a spot-kick in the first half and saw Julian Alvarez complete a solid solo run with a cool finish, before the skipper showed incredible talent and skill in coaching the striker of Manchester City to wrap up a 3-0 victory.
Argentina will return to Lusail to face either France or Morocco on Sunday, when their captain can crown a glittering career with glory in what looks to be his final appearance on the world stage.
“Well, what I can say is that I appreciate that a lot,” Messi, 35, said with a smile. “I feel really good.
“That’s what we did in every game. The previous game was a big sacrifice and we went to extra time. It wasn’t easy.
“Today we were tired but we used our strength to achieve this victory.
“We played very well. We knew we would play this way. We prepared for this a lot because we knew they wouldn’t have the ball because we had to run in this game and then keep our chances.
“So, like I said, I think we prepared for this game very well, as we always do.
“And, personally, I can say that I feel very happy in this whole World Cup. I enjoy it a lot and luckily I can help my whole team to get things done.
Messi is in his fifth World Cup and was part of the Argentina side that lost the 2014 final in extra time to Germany at the Maracana.
The 35-year-old praised a ‘very smart’ team and ‘great technical staff’ in Qatar, where things started with a shock 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in the same venue for Sunday’s final.
“I would say the first game was a blow for all of us because we were unbeaten in 36 matches,” Messi said. “To start in this way in a World Cup was a very hard blow.
“We didn’t think we would lose to Saudi Arabia and so to start like this was a litmus test for this whole team.
“But, again, this team proved how strong we are and then we won the other matches.
“It was very difficult, what we did, because every game was a final and that involves a mental load because every game was a final for us.
“We were aware that if we didn’t win, things would be more complicated for us.
“We played five finals and luckily we were able to win all five finals – and I hope the last game will be the same.
“I would say internally we were confident that we would get there because we know what we are capable of as a team, as a team.
“Yes, we lost in the first match because of small details, but from there it really helped us to be stronger and to be able to grow even more in this tournament and also to grow internally as a crew.”
As Lionel Scaloni’s side advance to the final, 2018 runners-up Croatia need to dust themselves off for Saturday’s third-place play-off.
Head coach Zlatko Dalic, who has confirmed he will stay for Euro 2024, said: “I want to congratulate the Argentinian team for winning the semi-final.
“I would like to thank our boys and our players for everything they did in this game.
“Now we have to pull ourselves together, get back on our feet and try to earn third place.”