Soccer-Messi leads Argentina win over Panama in first game as world champions


FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - International Friendly - Argentina v Panama - Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires, Argentina - March 23, 2023 Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentina beat Panama 2-0 in a friendly on Thursday with goals from Thiago Almada and Lionel Messi amid a festive atmosphere in their first game in front of their home fans after winning the World Cup in December.

Lionel Scaloni picked the same starting line-up from the World Cup final win over France as they looked dominant from the start, but could not break through the Panamanian defensive wall until late in the second half.

Atlanta United's Almada opened the scoring in the 79th minute with his first international goal after capitalising on a rebound following a free kick by Messi that hit the left post.

Captain Messi finally got his 800th career goal and doubled the lead in the 89th minute with a brilliant free-kick that went into the top right corner to excite the more than 80,000 fans chanting his name at the Monumental Stadium.

"I always dreamed of this moment, to celebrate with you in my country Argentina, lifting the greatest thing that is the World Cup," Messi said at a post-match ceremony organised by the Argentine FA to celebrate the country's third World Cup title and first in 36 years.

"Let's keep doing what we are doing and enjoy this, because we have been waiting a long time to win it again. Let's enjoy the third star."

A tearful Scaloni added: "Eternal gratitude to these players. Football belongs to them, and without them we wouldn't have won the World Cup.

"Everyone who wears this shirt gives their all and sometimes the results don't come. But this time we got it and it's incredible," said the coach before a victory lap of players and families reminiscent of the one his team did 95 days ago at the Lusail Stadium.

Argentina will continue their World Cup winners' homecoming with a friendly against Curacao on Tuesday, while Panama face Costa Rica in the CONCACAF Nations League.

(Reporting by Janina Nuno Rios in Mexico City; Editing by Bradley Perrett and Sonali Paul)

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