Thousands of shirts in Argentina blue and white, thousands in Barcelona red and blue—all with number 10 upon their backs—wandered into Chicago’s Soldier Field. Many were there to support the world’s best team, but all were there to see Lionel Messi.
Chicago is a city that knows something about athletic greatness. This is the city that watched Michael Jordan make himself into the greatest his sport had ever seen. Night after night, His Airness displayed the sort of skill that made other professionals look amateur and made every touch seem legendary.
Having become accustomed to such displays, and having spent years now without them, it is no surprise the people turned out to see another man who represented the godlike heights that ability can reach. Using over-worn but entirely appropriate terms like “awesome,” “amazing,” and “exciting,” they dressed for him, not just in shirts but with face paint and false hair, carrying signs with his name scrawled across and others saying “10>7” to taunt his La Liga rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Panama fans, in the extreme minority, were defiant, to a man preferring an incredibly unlikely upset to impressive feats from the world’s best. But their signs suggested how resigned they were to what was ahead. Draped behind goal on the north end of the stadium, “Quijote” was written with a backdrop of Panama red. The team was tilting at windmills in this one, and their fans knew it.
But tilt they would, and luckily for them, their task was a little less impossible at the start. To the disappointment of the crowd, Messi was just returning from injury and started on the bench. Cheers rose with every glimpse of him on the jumbo screens, but he seemed impassive, stroking his new beard and staring off at the play on the field.
On an average day, he should have been watching an easy win. Argentina outranks Panama by 55 places, according to FIFA, and currently sits at number one in the world. But this Copa has proven to be a competition ripe for giant-killing. Lowly Venezuela advanced to the knockout stage by beating star-studded Uruguay and up-and-comers Jamaica. Peru managed a draw against Ecuador before an improbable win against Brazil. Only moments before kickoff, Bolivia, the lowest-ranked team in the competition, very nearly stole a point from third-ranked Chile.
In order to quash any underdog hopes in this game, Argentina struck early. Seven minutes in, Angel Di Maria floated in a beautiful free kick that landed right on Nicolas Otamendi’s forehead. It was the simplest of motions that directed the ball into the net and secured the lead. A minute later, Gonzalo Higuain nearly doubled it with a shot on target that Panama’s keeper did well to keep out.
But Panama refused to be intimidated by the mismatch in quality. They took the fight to Argentina, pushing deep and playing physical. Soon, players were felled on both ends, Blas Perez took a punch to the head in a clearance, while his teammate Valentin Pimentel went down on a header and had to be stretchered off. Javier Mascherano seemed to spend most of his first half on the ground.
This physicality came at a price. In the 31st minute, Panamanian midfielder Anibal Godoy earned his second yellow and his early dismissal when he shot his arm out at Nicolas Gaitan and gave him an intimate introduction to the artificial turf as well.
It was an exciting match, but the Chicagoans looking on remained unimpressed. Starting in the 23rd minute and continuing every five minutes or so from then on, the name “Messi” was chanted end to end. The quality of the game be damned, the people came to see a legend, not just a game.
The half ended without Messi rising to the stadium’s pleas. Though there was opportunity late when Argentina was forced to make a change for an injured Di Maria, the decision was to put on Erik Lamela instead.
From the first moment of the second half, it was clear it would be more of the same. Within the first minute, the game fell into its physical stalemate. In that first minute as well, the call for Messi resumed.
Three minutes later, the chants brought their first fruit. The man himself rose, sending the crowd into ecstasy. He was only sent to warm up, joined by the other bench players, but the people in the stadium could sense what was coming.
Ten minutes more passed with the game at an impasse. And then, a shout began to rise, tentative at first, but increasing in decibels with every instant as the pink jersey came off and Messi walked over to the touchline. The stadium was on its feet, every phone out, every camera turned towards the man in 10 on the sideline.
Augusto Fernandez made way, and the crowd only grew louder. This is what the people had come to see, a little greatness returned to Chicago.
“Chicago is a city that knows something about athletic greatness. This is the city that watched Michael Jordan make himself into the greatest his sport had ever seen”
They were tentative first minutes. Messi took a moment to watch the play, walking and jogging about without making his presence felt. The crowd remained standing, waiting, a cheer rising at his every modest touch.
Another five minutes passed. Messi sent a perfect, curling pass out to Marcos Rojo on the wing, but it came to nothing. It gave, though, some sense of what was to come.
That sense was soon reality. Panama’s Roderick Miller, looking to clear, kicked the ball right into GonzaloHiguain, and the ball fell, as if destined for it, right at Messi’s feet. The ball slotted in with the smooth certainty of the inevitable.
And harnessing that inevitability, Messi was suddenly alive with every moment. The ball found him constantly. It seemed to obey him, as if possessed, as if enchanted.
In the 75th, Sergio Aguero came on for a tiring Higuain. Another master, and yet, though the crowd cheered, it was impossible for most to show as much interest as Aguero deserved. Because, by now, the whole stadium was under the spell Messi was weaving, waiting for more.
Aguero proved quickly his speed and power. He was lightning flashing over the pitch, but Messi was the wizard at the center controlling the storm: steady, controlled, as if he were playing a different game than all the rest.
Standing over a free kick twenty yards out, Messi sent the ball inches over the wall, inches beyond the keeper’s hands, inches within the post. Like the conclusion to a novel that is necessary and inexorable, so too the ball from boot to net felt.
By now, all knew the third had to come. Messi would will it, would materialize it somehow. In the 86th minute he drove into the box, the ball at his foot. Somehow obeying his command, it stop in an instant, right on the penalty spot as defender Felipe Baloy walked right past, allowing Messi to left-foot it into the left corner for his hat-trick.
The crowd was by now stunned and jovial: the number 10 shirts a wave of celebration, the Panama fans long since retiring any hope of a win. There was yet another goal to be had, this time from Aguero who scored off a header from Rojo, but it was destined to be forgotten in the majesty of Messi’s performance.
So intense was the love for this display, a boy wearing one of the tens of thousands of Barca number 10 shirts ran out onto the pitch as the final whistle blew. Security was on him quickly, but Messi waited for them to lift him back up and offered a hug.
Man of the match could go no one but Messi, but it seemed an inadequate title. In a stadium of more than 53,000 people all honoring his gifts, his status was more than human in the moment: it was iconic. In the shadow of the recent losses of Muhammed Ali and Gordie Howe, it was a rare moment to walk with another giant, a man more than his name, a symbol for what sport could be.
Panamanian manager Hernan Dario Gomez called Messi a “monster” after the game, claiming his team’s fate was decided the moment he stepped on the pitch.
Whether monster or magician or simply a master of his craft, no one could deny that what Messi did was special, and no one, whether favorites, fans, or Quijotes, would claim it was a moment the city of Chicago, for all its history of greatness, would likely forget.
Chicago had spent an evening with the master, and it was not disappointed.