Argentina beats Panama in 1st match after World Cup title

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BUENOS AIRES (AP) — The 83,000 screaming fans were not disappointed in Lionel Messi and his Argentina team’s first international match since lifting the World Cup title last December.

Messi’s Argentina beat Panama 2-0 with two late goals Thursday night at the Monumental de Nunez Stadium in Buenos Aires, in the first of two matches for the team to celebrate its triumph in Qatar.

Thiago Almada opened the scoring in the 78th minute, pushing the ball into an empty net after a free kick taken by Messi hit the post. Eleven minutes later, the Argentine great netted the second with another free kick to the delight of the capacity crowd.

“I always dreamed of this moment, celebrating with you,” an emotional Messi said after the match, standing with his family on the pitch. He lifted the World Cup trophy once more in front of his fans and took a slow victory lap with his teammates, who carried miniatures of the same trophy, as fireworks erupted over the stadium.

It was Messi’s 800th goal in his professional career. If he scores another in Argentina’s next friendly against Curacao on Tuesday, he will hit the mark of 100 goals for the national team.

Argentina’s full squad in Qatar attended the match. Messi and others brought their families to the stadium. Coach Lionel Scaloni was one of the most emotional; he was tearful before and after the match.

The match culminates a week in which the 35-year-old Messi was widely celebrated as a hero after helping Argentina win its third World Cup title, a remarkable change from years when some of the same fans accused him of apathy with the national team.