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 sung “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.
“I am eternally grateful to this group of players. Football is theirs, it belongs to all those that wear this jersey,” said Scaloni, who finally cracked and let the tears flow.
“They leave every last drop of sweat and sometimes the result doesn’t follow. This time it did and it’s amazing.”
Persistence pays for Messi
It was clear that this was more a celebration than a football match but Panama clearly had not read the script.
Despite fielding a weakened side, they were organized and disciplined and managed to frustrate the new world champions for 78 minutes before their defenses were finally breached.
Argentina, who started the game playing champagne football, created relatively little given their 73 percent 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.
Scaloni had picked the same starting XI that faced France in the World Cup final in December — when Argentina triumphed 4-2 on penalties after a sensational 3-3 draw — but after a goalless first half he made three changes.
In the second period, Argentina knuckled down to trying to win a football match but Guerra was twice equal to Messi 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 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 honor, each clutching their own replica trophy.
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