When we last saw Lionel Messi on the pitch, he was walking off with an injury and a bit of Beckham-like stubble on face. Exactly two weeks later, a fully bearded Messi made his belated first appearance in Copa America Centenario and promptly scored three goals and set up a fourth in a span of 29 minutes to lift Argentina to a 5–0 win over 10-man Panama and become joint-top scorer for the tournament with Brazil’s Coutinho.
Messi entered the match in the 61st minute to impatient chants of his name. Seven minutes later, he slotted in his first goal with an assist from Gonzalo Higuain’s face. Ten minutes after that, he curled in a beautiful free kick. And nine minutes after that, he completed his hat trick the way you or I might finish off a delicious tub of ice cream.
With those three goals, Messi now has 53 career international goals — three behind Argentina’s all-time leader Gabriel Batistuta.
Oh, and he did all this a day after Maradona said he isn’t a leader.
The lessons we can take from this half hour of brilliance are plentiful.
-Bringing Messi in to face a CONCACAF side that has already been reduced to 10 men is just mean.
-Bearded Messi might be even better than baby-faced Messi (much like Andrea Pirlo).
-There is no better assist than a Gonzalo Higuain face assist.