BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Lionel Messi paid tribute to Argentina fans in what could be their last home game before November’s World Cup finals and said the raucous support in their 3-0 win over Venezuela was vital in preserving his happiness.
“I didn’t expect anything less of people, of the union between the Argentina public and this team,” Messi said after their comfortable win at Boca Juniors’ Bombonera stadium.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has struggled at Paris Saint Germain since signing from Barcelona in August 2021 but he was as spritely as ever against a poor Venezuela side and the adoration of the home crowd was evident.
Argentina fans revere Messi, and all the more so since he led them to the Copa America in 2021 – their first major international honour in 28 years.
The feeling is mutual, with Messi leading his team mates on a victory lap around the ground and chanting and singing along with the 50,000 crowd.
“I’ve been happy here for a long time, since before we won the Copa America,” Messi said.
“People have shown that they love me and I am grateful for that. Everything flows naturally, that makes it easier on and off the pitch.”
Friday’s game marked Messi’s return to the national side after being rested for Argentina’s previous two World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Colombia.
He made several unsuccessful attempts at goal from free kicks outside the box but eventually score the third, a curious miskick meters from goal.
Messi chested down a pass from Angel Di Maria and although he didn’t connect cleanly it was enough to beat Venezuela’s diving goalkeeper.
The 82nd minute goal came after earlier efforts from Nicolas Gonzalez and Di Maria, whose clever play and passes opened up a stuffy Venezuelan rearguard.
Argentina are one of four South American sides to have qualified for the Qatar finals, along with Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay.
The final round of qualifying games next Tuesday will determine whether Peru, Colombia or Chile go into a playoff against a team from the Asian confederation.
Argentina travel to Ecuador for their final game.
(Writing by Andrew Downie in Edinburgh; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)