Lionel Messi commanded all of the attention on Friday night in Chicago, with the Argentina superstar drawing stadium-wide chants of his name from the Soldier Field crowd. Every move he made, every word from his manager or glance at the ball, drew oohs and ahhs from fans eager to see what Messi would do next.
And he wasn't even in the game yet.
Messi started Argentina's match against Panama on the bench, still recovering from an injury suffered before the tournament started and that had kept him out of their first match against Chile. With a fairly dull match in front of them -- Argentina were basically bullying an overwhelmed and unprepared Panama side that went down to 10 men just half an hour into the game -- the fans were far more interested in when they would see Messi in action than they were in the rest of the match.
Every excuse the fans had, they chanted for Messi. When Angel Di Maria went down injured in the first half? "MESSI! MESSI! MESSI!" When he walked to the trainer to get some water? "MESSI! MESSI! MESSI!" When he jogged up and down the sidelines with his teammates to loosen up his legs a bit? "MESSI! MESSI! MESSI!" When he leaned forward on the bench to see the match better? "MESSI! MESSI! MESSI!"
The fans barely even reacted to anything that happened on the pitch, with even fun scoring chances being ignored as Messi Watch went on. Then just after the hour mark, he stripped off his warmup shirt, put on his Argentina shirt, and the stadium almost exploded.
The roar of the crowd when Messi stepped onto the pitch was stunning, with the crowd reacting as though he had scored a fantastic, highlight-reel goal -- and he hadn't even touched the ball yet. Of course, then he did touch the ball, and the crowd didn't have to wait long at all for Messi to give them a reason to celebrate for real.
Messi had spent just seven minutes on the pitch, and he'd already generated the game's best moment. But that wasn't good enough -- he just had to top it.
There is nothing about that free kick that is fair or even human.
Messi went on to add a third goal late in the match to get a hat trick, and then played provider for Kun Agüero on Argentina's fifth goal of the match, but the story had already written itself: Lionel Messi absolutely stole the show on Friday night for Argentina. No star shone more brightly, no one held more attention, no one even came close to performing like Messi did -- and he didn't even need the hat trick for that to be true.
In fact, Messi may have stolen the Copa America as a whole -- no one has done more in the first two rounds of group play than Messi did in his half hour of play. Sure, the match was won. Sure, Panama don't hold a candle to Argentina, and were a man down. But even with all the build-up, all the anticipation, Messi still found a way to exceed all expectations. He is the star of the Copa America, and the best player in the world right now. He deserved the love the fans showed him and the way he rewarded that love won't be forgotten any time soon.