A stadium packed with 83,000 souls will provide a boisterous backdrop on Thursday night as Argentina play their first match as world champions.
Lionel Scaloni’s Albiceleste side, with three stars now adorning their light-blue-and-white shirts, will line up against international minnows Panama at River Plate’s remodelled Monumental stadium at 9pm, but the match is really just a pretext for a celebration. Argentina’s Qatar 2022 World Cup title will be hailed with a carnival show of live music, pre-recorded videos, a recreation of the trophy lift and the serenading of lots and lots of songs from – as confirmed by FIFA – the best fans in the world.
It’s barely three months since the Albiceleste were crowned champions at Doha's Lusail stadium with a 4-2 penalty shoot-out win over France, after a 3-3 draw in normal time. Scaloni says all the world champions will play over the next week in two matches, including star skipper Lionel Messi.
Excitement and anticipation has been building ahead of the game. The extent of such was underlined on Monday night, when Messi attempted to have a quiet family dinner at the Don Julio parrilla in Palermo. As he dined and posed for photographs inside, a huge group of fans gathered outside the restaurant to cheer and thank the world champion.
Within minutes, renditions of ‘Muchachos’ – the song most identified with Argentina’s World Cup triumph – were ringing through the crowd. When Messi eventually left the restaurant, aided by police and security guards, the mob turned into a mad scramble as fans strained to get a closer glimpse of their hero.
"I think Leo [Messi] is beautiful, he deserves all this affection. He and all the players. It will stay with them forever," Scaloni said at a press conference this week. “All the players in the squad deserve it when they go out on the street. The joy still lasts."
Messi had been widely expected to retire from international football after the final in Doha, in which he scored two goals and a penalty shoot-out spot-kick, but the Paris Saint-Germain forward said he wanted to carry on a bit longer so he could wear the blue and white Argentina shirt as a world champion.
As for now, nobody has been left with any doubt about the continuity of the 35-year-old, who has scored 98 goals for Argentina, and his immediate future with the side.
"Leo is fine. Until he says otherwise, he will keep coming back. In the meantime I think he is happy on the pitch," said Scaloni.
Due to the overflowing love affair between the fans and 'La Scaloneta' (the team’s nickname, derived from the coach's surname), a huge security operation has been set up to ensure order and the arrival of the squad at the Monumental, in the face of the crowds who will try to get close enough to greet them.
On December 20, two days after the final, an unprecedented crowd of five million people formed such a mass of bodies that it prevented the players' bus from crossing Buenos Aires to the central Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada. Messi and his teammates – already way behind schedule – were forced to abandon their open-top bus and take to the skies to see the crowds from helicopters.
"I realised it was going to be crazy and it was. You see the happiness of the people, big and small, it was inexplicable," Messi told a radio station a month after the World Cup.
Streets around the stadium have been closed and there will be at least three checkpoints for fans to pass through, as authorities attempt to ensure that only those with tickets can get close to the venue.
Fernando Romero, the creator of the ‘Muchachos’ song that caught the imagination of every Argentine during the World Cup, is among those to have been invited to attend Thursday’s friendly against Panama.
Romero had lamented on his social media accounts that he had not been able to purchase a ticket for the game. It emerged, however, that AFA President Claudio 'Chiqui' Tapia had contacted him and offered him tickets for the match.
Thursday's match is not expected to be competitive. Panama will play with an alternative squad, it emerged this week. Their priority is a crucial match against Costa Rica in the CONCACAF (Central and North American) Nations League. Even coach Thomas Christiansen will be absent, replaced by Jorge Dely Valdes.
Scaloni said the match "will be approached as always" and maintained that "the Argentina shirt obliges us to do our utmost.”
The Albiceleste’s brief history against Panama began with a 3-1 friendly victory in 2009 and another 5-0 win in the group stage of the Copa América Centenario in the USA in 2016.
A second celebration is scheduled to take place on Tuesday at the 42,000-capacity Madre de Ciudades stadium in Santiago del Estero. Argentina are due to play another friendly, this time against lowly Curaçao, 86th in the FIFA rankings.
Scaloni has also confirmed that the squad will travel to Paraguay on Monday to receive a winners welcome from the CONMEBOL regional football federation.
When the fireworks and hustle and bustle dies down, Argentina face more FIFA-date friendlies and subsequently, the South American qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup in the USA, Mexico and Canada, starting from September.
"There are days of celebration but now it's going to be harder than ever. If they wanted to beat us before, now they want to beat us even more," said Scaloni this week.
Tonight's celebrations: What's lined up
The time has arrived: Argentina are set to take to the pitch as champions of the world. The match Thursday at 8.30pm against Panama at the Monumental. The Argentine Football Association (AFA) has prepared a party for the players and fans and events will be broadcast live on public television.
For the fans, River Plate’s stadium will open its doors at 3.30pm, five hours before the start of the match. At 4pm, performances will start: DJ Fer Palacio will kick off the show.
Afterwards, a promotional film will be shown about the conquest of the World Cup Qatar 2022. At 6pm, Los Totora will play and it is estimated that 40 minutes later, Fer Palacio will enter again. The music will be followed by a performance from La T y M.
Iconic fan Tula and Fernando Romero (creator of the hit 'Muchachos') will also be present to sing the hit that revolutionised the whole country.
At match time, Ariel Ardit from Córdoba will be present to sing the national anthem. During half-time, Wos will perform, and La K'onga will be in charge of the closing of the party.
In addition to all the music, there will be a light show and AFA Argentine Football Association president Claudio “Chiqui” Tapia will present the World Cup to Lionel Messi.