South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
The Copa America Centenario didn't get to showcase all of South America's superstars like tournament organizers had hoped. They didn't get Neymar, who opted to focus on winning gold for Brazil at the Summer Olympics in August. Luis Suarez, nursing a hamstring injury, didn't even get to play for Uruguay, although he desperately wanted to get on the field.
Thank goodness for Lionel Messi.
The lone member of Barcelona's all-universe attacking triumvirate left in the tournament, Messi started on Argentina's bench for the second straight game in Friday's Group D match against Panama in Chicago. The Soldier Field fans cheered him when he started to warm up, cheered even louder when he ran back to put on his No. 10 shirt and went nuts when Messi finally made his tournament debut in the 61st minute.
Messi would give them more reasons to go crazy, recording a hat trick in just 31 minutes on the field (including two minutes of stoppage time) as the world's best player powered Argentina to a resounding 5-0 victory over 10-man Panama and a place in the Copa America quarterfinals.
Messi's first-ever appearance in a competitive game in the U.S. was delayed due to his tax fraud trial last week in Spain. He was also nursing a back injury suffered in a friendly against Honduras the week before.
The wait was worthwhile for Argentina and the lucky fans at Soldier Field. From all indications, the Messi Show in America is just getting started.
"It was the best time to start in this game," said Messi, who acknowledged a "little bit of pain" in his bad back, in his postgame TV interview.
"It [the game] was very tense, very difficult," he added. "The field is a little hard. The grass is a little too high. We had to win this game to get to first place [in the group] and we did it."
Messi's first hat trick for Argentina since June 2013 began with the simplest of finishes (for him, anyway) after a Panama giveaway at the top of its own box. He pounced on the ball, firing it into the low left corner past former Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo to make it 2-0 Argentina.
Messi continued to show off his other worldly skills, this time from a dead-ball situation. His bending free kick was nothing short of superb for a 3-0 Argentina cushion.