It took Lionel Messi some time to make his entrance into the Copa America Centenario, but once he did take the field he made an instant and spectacular mark on the competition. Injured and unavailable for Argentina’s first game against Chile and only on the bench at the start of the second, Messi emerged onto the field with 61 minutes gone of Argentina’s second group match against Panama at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Friday. By the 68th minute he had already got on the scorsheet. And by the 87th he had the competition’s first hat-trick.
In a week when his ability to lead Argentina to a title was questioned by his most famous compatriot, Diego Maradona, Messi demonstrated that he can do all the talking he needs with his feet. With his side already 1-0 up through an early Nicolas Otamendi goal, Messi made the result safe against an opponent that had been reduced to 10 men in the first half by side-footing into the corner of the net after an unconventional assist off the face of teammate Gonzalo Higuain.
It was Messi’s second goal, in the 78th minute, that really wowed the crowd at Soldier Field, though, in what was his first ever competitive match in the United States. From close to 30 yards out to the right of center, Messi whipped the ball with his magical left foot into the top corner of the net. It was already quite the cameo from the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. But the cherry on the cake for both him and Argentina was yet to come. As the match approached its conclusion, Messi simply bewildered Panama defender Felipe Baloy before finding the net a third time.
With second successive win, Argentina sealed its passage into the quarterfinals of the Copa America, with a game against Bolivia still to spare.