By DÉBORA REY and DANIEL POLITI
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Messi mania gripped Buenos Aires as the Argentina national team led by Lionel Messi beat Panama 2-0 on Thursday in a friendly match that was essentially a celebration of their World Cup victory last December.
Although the world champions dominated the game, they didn’t get a goal until the 78th minute when Thiago Almada scored after a free kick by Messi hit the goal post.
Ten minutes later, it was Messi’s turn and he scored the 800th goal of his professional career with a perfectly executed free kick. He is now one short of the 100-goal mark for the national squad.
After the match, the celebrations got into full swing and Messi took center stage, smiling from ear to ear as he received awards and accolades.
“I want to thank you for all the love we’ve been receiving . . . We told you we were going to do everything possible to win this,” a visibly emotional Messi said as he was handed the microphone. “Let’s enjoy this because we went a long time without winning it, and we don’t know when we’ll win it again.”
When it was coach Lionel Scaloni’s turn to speak, the first thing he did was lead the packed stadium on a chant praising Messi.
“Eternally grateful to this group of players,” Scaloni said as tears streamed down his face and he thanked fans for their support.
The players’ families later joined them in the pitch and each of the players proceeded to lift a replica of the World Cup trophy in celebration. The players then walked around the pitch waving to fans as fireworks lit the night sky.
Earlier in the day, news channels carried live images of the players traveling to the stadium with a police escort as excited fans waited to see the team’s first game since it beat France in a thrilling final in Qatar.
Outside the Monumental Stadium there was a party-like atmosphere from early in the afternoon as somebody impersonating Pope Francis blessed a World Cup replica, children almost universally donned Messi’s No. 10 jersey and street sellers hawked Messi dolls.
Amid the celebrations there were also recriminations as many fans lamented they’d bought tickets for several times their face value from resellers that ended up being fake. The frustration led to scuffles with law enforcement officials who fired tear gas to disperse the angry fans.
“We spent all we had for this, we spent $100 for each ticket,” said Marcelo Aguilera, 21, who traveled by bus from neighboring Paraguay for the game with three friends only to find out they had fake tickets.
Marcelo Saracho was dressed up like the pope, an Argentine, but with his cheeks painted in the light blue and white colors of the national flag.
Messi, the Paris Saint-Germain star who only last week was whistled by a group of fans of the French club that had been knocked out of the Champions League, received a massive ovation when he and his Argentina teammates entered the stadium filled with 83,000 fans.
When the anthem played the cameras zoomed in on Messi, who looked to be holding back tears as fans sang along triumphantly.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” Sofía Clavero, 12, said as her eyes welled up with tears while describing how she was eager to see her “idol” for the first time on the field.
The match culminated a week in which Messi, 35, was widely celebrated as a hero after helping Argentina win its third World Cup title, a marked change for the player who once suffered the indifference and even apathy from many Argentina fans who blamed him for the team’s failings in previous championships.
It all started Monday night when hundreds of fans mobbed a steakhouse in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo when word spread that Messi was inside having dinner. He needed a police escort to leave but was all smiles as people shouted “Messi I love you” and “Thank you, Leo.”
The next day, a group of fans realized the car next to them on the highway was carrying the man who is often described as the world’s best soccer player. They immediately started shouting, “I love you, Messi!” and “Let’s go, Messi!”
That’s when Messi proceeded to roll down his window and wave. The brief video of the encounter quickly went viral.
On Wednesday, the hosts of a morning network TV show went wild when they received an audio message from Messi.
“Good morning everyone,” Messi said in the message that the hosts huddled to hear. “I’m happy to be here, to enjoy everything we keep experiencing after what happened in December, and excited to enjoy tomorrow’s game.”
To avoid any issues, the players were taken to the stadium six hours before the start of the match flanked by a security operation that involved dozens of law enforcement officers. Plans for the transfer had been kept under wraps to avoid a repeat of what happened in December when a celebratory open-top bus throughout the capital had to be cut short when millions of fans made it impossible for the vehicle to advance.
Tickets to Thursday’s match sold out quickly but the game was just one chapter of the celebration that included local musicians and a trailer of a documentary about the World Cup-winning squad. The fan who wrote “Muchachos,” which became the unofficial anthem for the Argentina squad in Qatar, was also present.
The party continues next Tuesday when the team will play another friendly match against Curaçao in Argentina’s central Santiago del Estero province.
Associated Press journalist Victor R. Caivano contributed to this report.
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