The moment that everybody packed into the Estadio Monumental had come by train, plane and automobile to see didn’t happen until the dying embers of Argentina’s stroll against Panama.
Playing their first game since their World Cup triumph in December, Argentina returned to action in Buenos Aries with a hysterical welcome; fans screeched at Nicolas Otamendi like the centre-back was a K-Pop star, while we’re amazed Alexis Mac Allister’s clothing wasn’t ripped from his torso.
But their true devotion was reserved for Lionel Messi, the man that completed football by lifting the World Cup trophy aloft in Doha.
Lining up for the national anthem, with his three children beside him and fireworks booming in the night sky, Messi struggled to contain his emotion as a wall of noise rolled down from the steep stands.
His team-mates and manager Lionel Scaloni were also afflicted with leaky eyes, in a manner not unlike a chef chopping onions in a dusty room.
But, once the pre-match rigmarole was concluded, Messi started toying with Panama. His nimble footwork and speed of thought caused opposition defenders to launch into kamikaze tackles in a vain attempt to stop the unfolding genius.
One free-kick twanged against the post, with the vibrations reverberating across the globe. In the second half, another Messi set-piece rebounded off the crossbar to an alert Thiago Almada. His finish dialled the madness up another notch.
Messi wasn’t about to let his adoring public slip off into the night without performing an encore. With the game almost completed, and Panama mentally yearning for the flight home, the 35-year-old lined up another free-kick.
Wrapping his foot around the ball like a tender embrace, Messi swept it beyond the despairing goalkeeper and into the top corner to score his 800th career goal.
The Monumental lost itself in an orgy of celebration. Millions across the world, including us, let their excitement reach a level where a small amount of urine was expelled and a change of trousers was required.
Lionel Messi quite simply is the 🐐
99 international goals.
800 career goals.
This is greatness. pic.twitter.com/J2YBkR88uH
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 24, 2023
“Messi will continue to come until he says otherwise. I see him happy on the pitch and within the selection,” Lionel Scaloni said at a press conference on Tuesday.
“Leo’s looking good to me. He deserves all that love. He and all the players who are here deserve to go out and receive that love because they have not been able to live it.”
The Argentina boss also called on his players to avoid complacency after their triumph in Qatar.
“We are world champions, but that doesn’t mean we have the right for more,” he added. “Just because we win we can’t do whatever we want.
“That’s what [the players] have to understand. The message is that a new process is beginning: the pitch is what rules.
“From there on, those who are world champions have no advantage, we will have to keep working.”
It’s not inconceivable that Messi will retire from international duty once he and Argentina emerge from their post-Qatar celebratory bender.
But his dedication to delivering moments for his adoring public to treasure remains unparralled.
By Michael Lee