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Lionel Messi and Argentina electrify Atlanta in victorious Copa América opener

Lionel Messi and Argentina electrify Atlanta in victorious Copa América opener

ATLANTA — They descended on Mercedes-Benz Stadium on foot, on bicycles, on scooters, by car and by train. They came from every point on the compass, and almost all of them wore the white and sky blue of La Albiceleste. They were the disciples of the church of Messi, and on Thursday night, their high priest rewarded them.

Lionel Messi and Argentina began their defense of their 2021 Copa América title Thursday with a tricky but ultimately inevitable 2-0 victory over Canada. The vibe throughout the stadium was far more South America, much less Southeastern Conference, giving American fans an up-close look at the kind of passion that drives soccer fans on continents beyond this one.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium has hosted a Super Bowl, several Beyoncé and Rolling Stones concerts, a college football national championship and an MLS title game. It’s the regular first-week-in-December home for the SEC championship, and it’s seen some of the mightiest American teams of the last half-decade — the Alabama Crimson Tide, the New England Patriots, the Georgia Bulldogs — win crucial, legacy-defining games here. But it’s never seen anything quite like the South American explosion that radiated throughout the massive arena Thursday night.

An elite-level soccer match is an all-out assault on the senses, constantly rotating advertisements of brands unfamiliar to American audiences, blends of stadium standards like “Livin’ On A Prayer” and “Welcome to the Jungle” with Latin and club beats, fire-up-the-crowd MCs shrieking hard enough into the mics to overwhelm the overtaxed house speakers. It’s a thrilling and relentless barrage, and even if you don’t understand every word, you can revel in the fact that everyone around you is having an ecstatic experience.

Argentina supporters filled Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

After a spectacular opening ceremony to kick off the 48th iteration of the Copa América, the match officially begins at 8:06 p.m. local time. There are 22 players on the pitch, but all eyes are focused on Argentina’s No. 10, who set a new Copa América record Thursday night with his 35th tournament appearance.

Messi can spend significant portions of a match loping around like he’s waiting for a barista to finish his order. And then, out of nowhere — like he can predict the future — he’s exactly where he needs to be, like during a 10th-minute breakaway when he fired a shot across the goal that veered just wide. The play might well have been offside, but the message to Canada and the world was clear: Messi is coming.

Canada spent most of the first half just holding off the initial Argentine attack, with just enough pushback — like an Alphonso Davies penalty kick and a Liam Millar follow-up close enough to leave the crowd gasping — to keep anyone in sky blue and white from getting too comfortable. And when Canada’s Stephen Eustaquio nearly headed the ball home in the 43rd minute, Argentine nerves frayed just a little bit more.

At the half, stadium crews watered most of the newly laid natural grass, trying to bring some more consistency and stability to a surface very different from the NFL stadium’s usual turf. The viability and sustainability of natural grass laid atop artificial turf will be a key question not just at the Copa América over the next month, but in the larger, world-encompassing tournament coming to American shores in two years. Eleven of the 16 stadiums slated to host World Cup games are NFL stadiums, and many of those, including Atlanta, have turf fields. Soccer purists are every bit as focused on field agronomy as golf aficionados, and any hint of an imperfection will draw withering criticism.

“We have known for seven months that we are going to play here and they changed the grass two days ago," Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni said after the match. "We didn't play on a decent court. It was similar to [Saudi] Arabia but with the difference that we played there on a suitable field. It can not be like this."

Whether the turf is natural or artificial, there’s a certain symmetry to the fact that the Copa América kicked off in a stadium that’s hosted some of the most significant moments in recent college football history — Alabama’s second-and-26 overtime national championship win against Georgia in 2018, then Georgia’s clock-strikes-midnight playoff semifinal win over Ohio State in 2022. Of all American sports, college football comes the closest to the unparalleled, unabashed reverence that South American fans have for soccer.

Fat-cheeked babies with Argentine flag face paint, young boys and old men alike peeling off their shirts and whirling them above their heads, the complex cheers and chants that coalesce out of nowhere and encircle the stadium, the constant nervous energy that thrums through the crowd … it all makes for a fervent, passionate vibe that, for Americans, may be foreign in the details but very familiar in its intensity.

Canada put up a good fight in the first half, but reality caught up with the Canucks early in the second. Argentina’s Julian Álvarez, taking a break from his day job with Manchester City, converted after Canada’s goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau collided with Álvarez’s teammate Alexis Mac Allister, leaving the goal wide open for an easy-ish tap.

Messi ignited the crowd in the 65th minute, nearly converting on a one-on-one breakaway that was at once graceful and balletic from Leo, and desperate and grasping from Canada. Desperation won this time.

Another signature moment nearly blossomed about 10 minutes later, when Messi got free once again with only Crépeau between him and the goal — but a collision with Crépeau ended the threat, leaving Messi sprawled face-first on the grass and most of the crowd mad enough to pry open the stadium’s retractable roof:

The dagger came in the 88th minute, when Messi set up Lautaro Martínez for a brilliant putaway:

The match was that rare one that serves as a sort of victory for both sides — Argentina, obviously, gets the three points for the win, but Canada gained the confidence to know that it can run with the world’s best … and they can take some solace in the fact that Crépeau and the Canadian defense denied Messi on two easy chances. It’s not as good as a win, or even a draw, but it’s something.

As for Messi and Argentina — after a slow start, they’ve begun the Copa América by showing that they’re not quite ready to surrender their title just yet. And now American fans have an idea of how to step up their game, too.

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