There was only one reason for me to go see Argentina play Panamá in the Copa América Centenario – Leo Messi. The two teams played their second group stage game at Soldier Field in Chicago on a sweaty Friday night.
My uncle, Lefteri, bought the tickets a few days before the game. He picked me up in Greektown and we had a quick dinner at Greek Islands before driving to the game. When we arrived, we drove through Museum Campus to one of the parking lots south of Soldier Field. Both of us were shocked at the US$45 parking rate.
We walked to the stadium and saw the area dressed up for the game. There were banners representing the teams playing at Soldier Field during the group stage and hundreds of excited fans tailgating and playing football in the parking lot.
After going through security, we went to our seats behind the goal on the north end of the field and watched the stadium fill up. The majority were dressed in blue and white Argentina jerseys with a handful of Panamá fans in red. Almost 54,000 fans packed Soldier Field for the game (for Messi, in reality).
The fans settled in and watched the teams come onto the field for the national anthems. The Argentinean fans created a joyous atmosphere to start the game as they stood for their anthem. They were up chanting the entire game after that.
The game started off quickly with a goal at 7′ by Nicolás Otamendi after a brilliant free kick by Ángel Di María. Argentina continued to threaten but after an injury to Di María forced him out of the game in the 43rd minute, the play was flat all around.
Throughout the game, fans were chanting Messi’s name. Nobody was sure if he would play after recently being cleared of an injury, but the entire stadium erupted (except for Panamá supporters) when Messi started to warm up and finally entered the game in the 61st minute.
The rest of the game is history. Watching Messi was an experience I’ll never forget. He scored three goals in 19 minutes, the last two just breathtaking to witness. The first was off a lucky bounce that fell right to Messi at 68′. The second was an incredible free kick at 78′. The third was after a spectacular move to fool a defender at 87′. Sergio Agüero capped off the night with a header at 90′.
Everyone stood and applauded Messi’s incredible effort as the legend walked off the field. He was interviewed in my corner of the field and I was able to snap a few photos.