BUENOS AIRES: Lionel Messi capped a night of unbridled joy with the 800th goal of his career as world champions Argentina celebrated their homecoming with a 2-0 friendly victory over stubborn Panama in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
The 35-year-old seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s stunning free-kick in the dying minutes came after 21-year-old MLS sensation Thiago Almada gave a glimpse of what the future holds with his first goal for the national team in only his third appearance.
It was an emotional night as fireworks crackled overhead before kick-off at the impressive Monumental stadium where the 83,000 lucky fans that managed to get tickets among the more than 1.5 million people who tried, created an electric atmosphere.
Messi, coach Lionel Scaloni and numerous players came onto the pitch with their children and several seemed on the brink of tears as fans in unison sang “Muchachos”, the anthem of Argentina’s victorious World Cup campaign in Qatar.
After the match, the party continued, with every member of the World Cup winning squad given a replica trophy to lift, surrounded by their families.
“I always dreamt of this moment, being able to celebrate with you [the fans], being able to come to my country to lift a Copa America, a World Cup. It’s the best thing there is,” said Messi, who was presented with several awards after the game. “Let’s keep doing what we are doing and enjoy this, because we have been waiting a long time to win it again. Let’s enjoy the third star.”
Scaloni, who finally cracked and let the tears flow, added: “I am eternally grateful to this group of players. Football is theirs, it belongs to all those that wear this jersey. They leave every last drop of sweat and sometimes the result doesn’t follow. This time it did and it’s amazing.”
It was clear that this was more a celebration than a football match but Panama clearly had not read the script.
Scaloni picked the same starting line-up from the World Cup final win over France as they looked dominant from the start, but could not break through the Panamanian defensive wall until late in the second half.
Argentina, who started the game playing champagne football, created relatively little given their 73 per cent possession in the first period.
Messi struck the woodwork with a freekick while Enzo Fernandez brought a diving one-handed save out of goalkeeper Jose Carlos Guerra with a shot from distance.
And after a goalless first half, Scaloni made three changes. Argentina knuckled down to try to win a football match but Guerra was twice equal to Messi’s free-kicks and also saved a low curling effort from veteran Angel Di Maria.
As the minutes ticked by, the tension rose with Argentina acutely aware that their party risked falling flat if they did not win.
But, eventually, their main man came to the fore and ensured Panama would not be party poopers.
Messi had a hand in the opening goal, crashing another free-kick off the woodwork, with Atlanta United’s Almada, a second-half substitute, following up to slot home.
The stadium erupted and the tension drained from Argentina’s players, by now mostly substitutes.
With a minute to go, Messi was given yet another free-kick within shooting range — his fifth of the match — and this time he curled it into the top corner to seal the dream scenario for his delirious fans.
Then the party continued with singing and dancing and a video recap of Argentina’s glorious run to their third world title on the stadium’s giant screens.
No one left as the players, accompanied by partners and children, embarked on a lap of honour, each clutching their own replica trophy.
Argentina will continue their World Cup winners’ homecoming with a friendly against Curacao on Tuesday.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2023
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