BUENOS AIRES – The 800th goal of Lionel Messi’s career could not have come at a better time as world champions Argentina celebrated their homecoming with a 2-0 friendly victory over Panama in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
His stunning free kick in the dying minutes was a perfect ending after 21-year-old Major League Soccer 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 – who managed to get tickets among the more than 1.5 million 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.
“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.”
A tearful Scaloni added: “I am eternally grateful to this group of players. Football is theirs, it belongs to all those that wear this jersey. Without them, we wouldn’t have won the World Cup.
“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.
Despite fielding a weakened side, they were organised and disciplined and managed to frustrate Argentina for 78 minutes before their defence was finally breached.
Argentina, who started the game playing champagne football, created relatively little given their 73 per cent possession in the first half.
Scaloni had picked the same starting XI who faced France in the World Cup final in December but after a goalless first half he made three changes.
After the break, Argentina knuckled down to go for the win and 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 a free kick off the woodwork, with second-half substitute Almada following up to slot home.
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 homecoming with another friendly against Curacao on Tuesday in Santiago del Estero. AFP, REUTERS