Messi Mania Grips Argentina in 1st Match as World Cup Champs

Argentina's Lionel Messi raises the winning team replica of the FIFA World Cup trophy during a celebration ceremony for local fans after an international friendly match against Panama in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, March 23, 2023. (AP)
Argentina's Lionel Messi raises the winning team replica of the FIFA World Cup trophy during a celebration ceremony for local fans after an international friendly match against Panama in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, March 23, 2023. (AP)
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Messi Mania Grips Argentina in 1st Match as World Cup Champs

Argentina's Lionel Messi raises the winning team replica of the FIFA World Cup trophy during a celebration ceremony for local fans after an international friendly match against Panama in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, March 23, 2023. (AP)
Argentina's Lionel Messi raises the winning team replica of the FIFA World Cup trophy during a celebration ceremony for local fans after an international friendly match against Panama in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, March 23, 2023. (AP)

Messi mania gripped Buenos Aires as the Argentina national team led by Lionel Messi beat Panama 2-0 on Thursday in a friendly match that was essentially a celebration of their World Cup victory last December.

Although the world champions dominated the game, they didn’t get a goal until the 78th minute when Thiago Almada scored after a free kick by Messi hit the goal post.

Ten minutes later, it was Messi’s turn, and he scored the 800th goal of his professional career with a perfectly executed free kick. He is now one short of the 100-goal mark for the national squad.

After the match, the celebrations got into full swing and Messi took center stage, smiling from ear to ear as he received awards and accolades.

"I want to thank you for all the love we've been receiving … We told you we were going to do everything possible to win this," a visibly emotional Messi said as he was handed the microphone. "Let’s enjoy this because we went a long time without winning it, and we don’t know when we’ll win it again."

When it was coach Lionel Scaloni’s turn to speak, the first thing he did was lead the packed stadium on a chant praising Messi.

"Eternally grateful to this group of players," Scaloni said as tears streamed down his face and he thanked fans for their support.

The players’ families later joined them on the pitch and each of the players proceeded to lift a replica of the World Cup trophy in celebration. The players then walked around the pitch waving to fans as fireworks lit the night sky.

Earlier in the day, news channels carried live images of the players traveling to the stadium with a police escort as excited fans waited to see the team's first game since it beat France in a thrilling final in Qatar.

Outside the Monumental Stadium there was a party-like atmosphere from early in the afternoon as somebody impersonating Pope Francis blessed a World Cup replica, children almost universally donned Messi’s No. 10 jersey and street sellers hawked Messi dolls.

Amid the celebrations there were also recriminations as many fans lamented they'd bought tickets for several times their face value from resellers that ended up being fake. The frustration led to scuffles with law enforcement officials who fired tear gas to disperse the angry fans.

"We spent all we had for this, we spent $100 for each ticket," said Marcelo Aguilera, 21, who traveled by bus from neighboring Paraguay for the game with three friends only to find out they had fake tickets.

Marcelo Saracho was dressed up like the pope, an Argentine, but with his cheeks painted in the light blue and white colors of the national flag.

Messi, the Paris Saint-Germain star who only last week was whistled by a group of fans of the French club that had been knocked out of the Champions League, received a massive ovation when he and his Argentina teammates entered the stadium filled with 83,000 fans.

When the anthem played the cameras zoomed in on Messi, who looked to be holding back tears as fans sang along triumphantly.

"I can’t believe I’m here," Sofía Clavero, 12, said as her eyes welled up with tears while describing how she was eager to see her "idol" for the first time on the field.

The match culminated a week in which Messi, 35, was widely celebrated as a hero after helping Argentina win its third World Cup title, a marked change for the player who once suffered the indifference and even apathy from many Argentina fans who blamed him for the team’s failings in previous championships.

It all started Monday night when hundreds of fans mobbed a steakhouse in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo when word spread that Messi was inside having dinner. He needed a police escort to leave but was all smiles as people shouted "Messi I love you" and "Thank you, Leo."

The next day, a group of fans realized the car next to them on the highway was carrying the man who is often described as the world’s best football player. They immediately started shouting, "I love you, Messi!" and "Let’s go, Messi!"

That’s when Messi proceeded to roll down his window and wave. The brief video of the encounter quickly went viral.

On Wednesday, the hosts of a morning network TV show went wild when they received an audio message from Messi.

"Good morning, everyone," Messi said in the message that the hosts huddled to hear. "I’m happy to be here, to enjoy everything we keep experiencing after what happened in December, and excited to enjoy tomorrow’s game."

To avoid any issues, the players were taken to the stadium six hours before the start of the match flanked by a security operation that involved dozens of law enforcement officers. Plans for the transfer had been kept under wraps to avoid a repeat of what happened in December when a celebratory open-top bus throughout the capital had to be cut short when millions of fans made it impossible for the vehicle to advance.

Tickets to Thursday’s match sold out quickly but the game was just one chapter of the celebration that included local musicians and a trailer of a documentary about the World Cup-winning squad. The fan who wrote "Muchachos," which became the unofficial anthem for the Argentina squad in Qatar, was also present.

The party continues next Tuesday when the team will play another friendly match against Curaçao in Argentina’s central Santiago del Estero province.



Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic Will Meet in the Wimbledon Men’s Final Again

Spain's Carlos Alcaraz celebrates winning against Russia's Daniil Medvedev during their men's singles semi-final tennis match on the twelfth day of the 2024 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 12, 2024. (AFP)
Spain's Carlos Alcaraz celebrates winning against Russia's Daniil Medvedev during their men's singles semi-final tennis match on the twelfth day of the 2024 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 12, 2024. (AFP)
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Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic Will Meet in the Wimbledon Men’s Final Again

Spain's Carlos Alcaraz celebrates winning against Russia's Daniil Medvedev during their men's singles semi-final tennis match on the twelfth day of the 2024 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 12, 2024. (AFP)
Spain's Carlos Alcaraz celebrates winning against Russia's Daniil Medvedev during their men's singles semi-final tennis match on the twelfth day of the 2024 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 12, 2024. (AFP)

Carlos Alcaraz is only a couple of months past his 21th birthday, and yet this whole Grand Slam success thing is already a bit been-there, done-that for him.

Moving a step closer to a second consecutive Wimbledon trophy and fourth major championship overall, Alcaraz overcame a shaky start Friday to beat Daniil Medvedev 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals at Centre Court.

"I feel like I’m not new anymore. I feel like I know how I’m going to feel before the final. I’ve been in this position before," Alcaraz said. "I will try to do the things that I did well last year and try to be better."

Like last year, his opponent in Sunday's title match will be Novak Djokovic, who advanced with a 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory against No. 25 seed Lorenzo Musetti. Djokovic won 15 of 16 points when he went to the net in the first set and finished 43 for 56 in that category.

It'll be the first time the same two men meet in consecutive Wimbledon finals since Djokovic beat Roger Federer in 2014 and 2015.

"He’s as complete a player as they come," Djokovic said about Alcaraz, who won the 2023 final in five sets. "It's going to take the best of my abilities on the court overall to beat him."

Djokovic, who hadn't reached a final at any tournament all season and needed surgery in June for a torn meniscus in his right knee, will be vying for his eighth championship at the All England Club. That would tie Federer’s mark for the most by a man — and put him one behind Martina Navratilova’s record of nine — while making the 37-year-old from Serbia the first player in tennis history with a career total of 25 Grand Slam titles.

"I know what I have to do," Alcaraz said. "I’m sure he knows what he has to do to beat me."

Late in Djokovic’s semifinal, as he let his first three match points slip away, fans hoping for a longer match began chanting "Lo-ren-zo!" One yelled out during a point, bothering Djokovic, who soon was wiping away fake tears mockingly after Musetti failed to convert a break chance in the last game.

The No. 2-seeded Djokovic — who got a walkover in the quarterfinals when his opponent, Alex de Minaur, withdrew with a hip injury — eventually worked his way into his 10th final at Wimbledon and 37th at a major.

"I don't want to stop here," Djokovic said. "Hopefully I'll get my hands on that trophy."

Musetti said it didn't look as if Djokovic was hampered at all by his knee, which was covered by a gray sleeve.

"He showed that he’s really in great shape, not only in tennis, but physically," said Musetti, who was appearing in a major semifinal for the first time.

After a so-so opening set against Medvedev, Alcaraz transformed back into the energetic, attacking, crowd-pleasing force who already was the first teenager to be No. 1 in the ATP rankings and is the youngest man to have won a major trophy on three surfaces: grass, clay and hard courts.

Now the Spaniard is one victory away from joining Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg as the only men in the Open era, which began in 1968, with multiple championships at the All England Club before turning 22.

Alcaraz also triumphed at the US Open in 2022 and the French Open last month and is 3-0 in major finals.

"We’re going to see a lot of him in the future, no doubt," Djokovic said. "He’s going to win many more Grand Slams."

On a cloudy afternoon, the No. 3-seeded Alcaraz went through some ups and downs against No. 5 Medvedev, a 28-year-old from Russia.

"I started really, really nervous," Alcaraz said. "He was dominating the match."

Indeed, Medvedev grabbed an early 5-2 lead, but then got into trouble with his play and his temper.

Alcaraz broke to get within 5-4 with a drop shot that chair umpire Eva Asderaki ruled — correctly, according to TV replays — bounced twice before Medvedev got his racket on the ball. He voiced his displeasure, and Asderaki, after climbing down from her seat to huddle with tournament referee Denise Parnell during the ensuing changeover, issued a warning to Medvedev for unsportsmanlike conduct.

"I said something in Russian. Not unpleasant, but not over the line," Medvedev said at his news conference.

He regrouped quickly and was just about perfect in that set’s tiebreaker.

Then it was Alcaraz’s turn to get headed in the right direction, which didn’t take long. He got the last break he would need for a 4-3 edge in the fourth when Medvedev sailed a backhand long, then sat in his sideline chair, locked eyes with his two coaches and started muttering and gesticulating.

"I was playing well," Medvedev said, "and just it was not enough."

Nearly every time Alcaraz emitted one of his "Uh-eh!" two-syllable grunts while unleashing a booming forehand, spectators audibly gasped, regardless of whether the point continued. Often enough, it didn’t: Alcaraz had 24 forehand winners, 20 more than Medvedev.

In addition to the Wimbledon men’s final, Sunday’s sports schedule features the final of the men’s soccer European Championship in Germany, where Spain will meet England.

When Alcaraz alluded to that in his on-court interview by saying, "It’s going to be a really good day for the Spanish people, as well," he drew boos from the locals — perhaps his biggest misstep all day.

Alcaraz smiled and added: "I didn’t say Spain is going to win. I just said that it’s going to be a really fun, fun day."