Lionel Messi scored the winning goal on his return from a short-lived international retirement on Thursday as Argentina defeated Uruguay to take control of South America’s 2018 World Cup qualifying race.
Messi had stunned the footballing world in June after vowing to never play for Argentina again following an agonizing defeat to Chile in the final of the Copa America Centenario.
But that tearful farewell was a distant memory at Mendoza’s Estadio Malvinas on Thursday as the Barcelona superstar orchestrated a 1-0 victory over the two-time World Cup winners.
Messi, showing no sign of the groin injury which had placed a question mark against his participation, lashed home the winner on 42 minutes, with his low shot taking a wicked deflection to deceive Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera at the near post.
Afterwards Messi paid tribute to the rapturous applause he received throughout.
In the dying minutes one young fan sprinted onto the pitch and nearly flattened the five-time world footballer of the year with a congratulatory hug.
“I am grateful to the people for the treatment, for the love,” Messi said, insisting his retirement announcement in June was genuine as he digested a third defeat in a final with Argentina in as many years.
“I wasn’t trying to cheat anyone, I said what I felt. (Now) I feel happy,” Messi said.
Argentina’s new coach Edgardo Bauza meanwhile saluted Messi’s commitment in returning to play despite his niggling groin problem.
The coach hinted Messi may be rested for Argentina’s next match, against Venezuela on Tuesday. “If he’s not right we won’t risk him,” Bauza said.
“I know how painful it is to suffer a groin injury — but Messi’s character meant he was always going to stay on the pitch tonight.”
Argentina’s win came after a superb backs-to-the-wall defensive effort in the second half when they had been reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of young Juventus striker Paulo Dybala just before half-time.
Dybala, 22, was escorted from the pitch in tears after the red card.
Argentina’s win leaves them in first place in South America’s marathon round-robin qualifying campaign with 14 points from seven games.