WILLIAMSTOWN — When you take your 13-year-old soccer-playing son to see the greatest soccer player in the world, you want things to work out right. Right? Well, a little suspense adds spice.
The Copa America Centario offers a rare opportunity to see international soccer in the United States, including seeing Lionel Messi's national team, Argentina. Messi's club team is F.C. Barcelona.
At home, Messi was called the Atomic Flea, as a result of being diagnosed with a growth hormone disorder as a child. He now stands 5-foot-6-inches tall, weighs 148 pounds, and is more often called Leo. He has atomic speed perhaps and, as well as his slight built, may have the flea's bite.
So my son, his mother and I arrived in Chicago on Thursday, June 9. We took in the impressive Chicago lakefront and the former Navy pier, now re-purposed as one of the most popular amusement parks in the country.
A clear, hot Friday morning began at the aquarium, then moved on to the home of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Soccer House. Here the sport is organized, from training coaches and referees to overseeing youth development teams and running international competition. And here, sitting inconspicuously on a shelf, was the silver Copa, the American cup the teams were battling for on the 100th anniversary of the competition.
Because Messi had injured his lower back and ribs in a victory over Honduras on May 27, he missed Argentina's victory over Chile in the Copa opener, June 6. His newly bearded face was not visible when Los Gauchos took the pitch at Soldier Field. We consoled ourselves that there were other stars out there.
Seven minutes in, Nicolas Otamendi scored on a header from Angel Di Maria. And that was where the game, with many yellow cards, one red card for Panama, and a few injuries, stood at the opening of the second half. In spite of nearly all the 53,888 in attendance chanting "Messi, Messi, Messi," he remained on the bench.
With a half hour left in the 90-minute game he began to warm up, exciting the crowd. But what would be the point of risking him in a rough game, with Argentina ahead and Panama down a man? He was subbed in. But, we thought, he'll be nursing his back, he'll probably just be a decoy. Still — we would see Messi play.
It is hard to score in soccer. Typically a game ends 2-1 or 1-0. In the 68th minute, however, thanks to a muffed clearing attempt, Messi scored to the keeper's right side. Delirium in the stands — and in the family, for that matter. We had seen Messi score. The day was complete.
Except that in the 78th minute Los Gauchos earned a free kick from about 24-yards out. Messi drove it over the Panamanian wall and into the top corner of the net.
My son turned to me and asked, What if? And sure enough, in the 87th minute, in a commotion in front of the goal, Messi used his left foot to chip the ball past the keeper for his fourth international hat trick.
And there actually was even more. Nearly at the end of normal time, he set up a goal by Sergio Aguero. 5-0, Argentina? Well, Messi.
The soccer gods smiled on us. At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.