The pre-game began early and ended late. Two beers too many and we had to pay for rental bikes and pedal like hell to make it to Soldier Field by the national anthem. Nicolas Otamendi scored the opening goal as we waited in line for security to check bags. As the first half dragged on at a ponderous 1-0, I began regretting my decision. He’s not going to play, I kept thinking. He’s injured. A contusion on his back. And then, when Godoy slapped Gaitan in the face in the thirty-second minute and Panama went down to ten, I threw my hands up. Well, that’s it. Now he’s definitely not playing. I resigned myself to a 1-0 game. At least a goal had been scored—at least I’d heard it, even if I hadn’t seen it.
The crowd of fifty-five thousand was there for Leo. The spectators weren’t wearing Argentina jerseys—they were wearing Messi jerseys. Barcelona jerseys going back as far as 2007 and Albiceleste jerseys as far back as 2006. I saw Colombia jerseys, Peru jerseys, Mexico jerseys—and even a handful of Panama jerseys. But everyone, regardless of nationality, cheered like a madman when the camera panned to Messi on the bench.
“MESSI! MESSI! MESSI! MESSI!” the crowd shouted at the top of its lungs in unison. The loudest cheers from the first half were inspired not from any play on the field, but whenever the camera would momentarily show Messi’s furrowed brow and concerned expression.
The second half began much like the first. Argentina began to show more promise in the attack, but nothing looked in danger of finding the back of the net. Despite Higuain’s prodigious goalscoring for Napoli, it just hasn’t translated to the Copa America—yet. Everyone sat patiently waiting for something to happen, the atmosphere among the Argentines in the stands simmering.
And then, in the sixty-first minute, he stepped out off the bench and began warming up—alone. He stepped up to the halfway line and the assistant referee signaled for Augusto Fernandez to step off. And the crowd went fucking bananas, erupting into riotous applause and deafening screams that left more than a few of us hoarse. He had thirty minutes to show the crowd at Chicago the magic we all paid to see. And boy, did he deliver.
Seven minutes later, the Panamanian defense, in a panic, undid their rock solid defense and cleared a ball wildly into Gonzalo Higuain’s face and arm, deflecting into the path of Leo Messi who effortlessly slotted it past the goalkeeper. 2-0. The crowd lost its shit. We saw Messi score—the ninety-dollar ticket was already worth it.
Seventy-eighth minute: a free kick is called for Argentina, just outside the box, perfectly placed for Messi’s clinical left foot. My friend turned to me and said what everyone was thinking: “It’s going to the front post. The goalkeeper already knows.” Penedo, the goalkeeper for Panama, was cheating toward the front post, standing almost behind his wall, ready to dive the instant the ball sailed over the wall toward goal.
“We all know where it’s going,” I said. “But it’s one thing to know where it’s going and another to be able to stop it.”
Messi stepped forward, smacked it with his left, and curled it perfectly into the upper corner of the goal, beating Penedo’s gloves by a fraction of a second. 3-0. The people behind us showered us with beer in celebration. We welcomed it.
And then, nine minutes later, after an Agüero goal was called back for an offside (that wasn’t actually an offside) Messi completed his hat trick with some nifty footwork and composure, feinting and bringing the ball across his body before curling the shot home in one fluid motion. Just like that he became the leading scorer of the tournament. And everyone in Soldier Field collectively creamed their pants. We all put our arms above our heads and bowed down to the Leo Messi—the Messiah—not only the greatest player in the world right now, but the greatest player in the history of the sport.
In the ninetieth minute, just for shits and giggles, Messi delivered a spectacular pass into the center of the field to set up Agüero to make it 5-0.
As the final whistle blew, a kid in a Messi (Barcelona) jersey charged the field, sprinting toward his—our—hero and handing him a hat to sign before being tackled by two security guards.
I think everyone in that stadium wanted to touch Messi in that moment—to hug him for that performance, to thank him with physical affection for the joy he has brought to fans of the sport. He has been a blessing from the soccer gods. And I was privileged to have witnessed such a performance. My God.
I graduated with my Master’s Degree the following day. That was cool too.