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SPORTS | 24-03-2023 07:54

Affection rains down from stands as Argentina's fans and players enjoy World Cup party

Argentina still mean business, and on the evidence of Thursday night, the lights will not go out for a long time as millions of fans across the nation continue to cherish those golden days in Qatar.

Before diving in to the column proper, let us try something different: a bit of gentle, topical humour:

How many Edesur technicians does it take to change a lightbulb?

I'll let you know in three days when they come to turn the power back on.

Knock knock?

Who's there?

Not Edesur, that's sure. Ask again in a week.

The last month has seen Buenos Aires held captive by a hellish heat wave, and as tends to happen in such moments the metro area's creaking power grid, particularly in the accursed half of the city 'served' by the aforementioned company, gave up the ghost. Thousands of users, including this writer, were without electricity for days on end, though thankfully, with the power restored, temperatures slightly down and with the healing power of time, we can at least start to laugh about it. A taste, perhaps, though with a slightly graver impact, of what was to occur when tickets for Argentina's World Cup celebration party/friendly with Panama went on sale.

The Deportick website choked and spluttered like an Edesur substation under the weight of one-and-a-half million hopefuls desperate to claim passage to the Monumental this Thursday, but somehow held out long enough to allot the necessary golden tickets to the lucky few who watched Lionel Messi and his band of heroes take the field. Thousands more descended on Núñez anyway, while the Argentina squad, mindful of the chaos of their abortive victory parade back in December, arrived a full six hours before kick-off to ensure they wouldn't miss a minute of the festival that included live music, DJs, fireworks, no few tears and countless renditions of 'Muchachos.'

The affection the Argentine people holds for this team tramples the line between charming and psychotic. A case in point was Messi's supposedly intimate dinner at renowned Buenos Aires steakhouse Don Julio earlier in the week, accompanied by hundreds of fans who serenaded the legend from his first bite of chorizo right through to dessert. But where a lesser mortal might grate at the loss of the last vestige of a private life, publicly at least Leo seems to revel in the attention, making a point to smile and wave at the mob at every opportunity. And on Thursday, on a far more appropriate stage than a Palermo street, the Albiceleste made sure to repay that unconditional adoration in full.

Events on the pitch itself, of course, were of secondary importance. The same starting XI that kicked off against France three months ago filed out against a second-string Panama side charged with being the fall guys of the evening, football's answer to the hapless Washington Generals chasing Argentina's Harlem Globetrotters, whose every touch was greeted with a rapturous ovation. Not that they were content to play that passive role; indeed, quite the opposite: a crunching tackle left Messi with a bloodied knee early on, only for the idol to dust himself off and guide an exquisite free-kick onto the woodwork, narrowly missing out on a landmark 800th professional goal.

That frustrating outcome set the tone for a match far harder fought than almost anyone on the Argentine side could have imagined, as they foundered time and again against a fierce away side determined to make a point at the Monumental. It took until deep into the second half to finally make the breakthrough. Messi once more smashed a set-piece against the post, but this time Thiago Almada was on hand to break the deadlock and restart the celebrations. Then, the crowning moment, scripted, it almost seemed, from the heavens themselves: Messi's umpteenth free-kick of the night hit the net with just a minute left, giving the evening its dream finale, culminating in the captain lifting the World Cup again in front of the adoring crowd.

This team still means business, and on the evidence of Thursday night the lights will not go out for a long time as millions of fans across the nation continue to cherish those golden days in Qatar.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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