The advent of an international break is most often greeted with dread in football newsrooms. Deprived of the regular comings and goings of the club game, the sudden dearth of stories to cover causes boredom and panic in equal measure among those tasked with keeping fans entertained. Just as well, then, that in South America the last two weeks have suffered no such shortage of controversy as the World Cup qualifiers – well, almost all of them – rumble on.
On Sunday, of course, most of the talking points were confined to matters away from the pitch, or at least on its sidelines. The stunning attempt on the part of Brazilian health authority ANVISA and the police to apprehend four Argentina players for breaking quarantine regulations brought the much-anticipated Clásico grinding to a halt after just five minutes, sparking in turn a campaign of recrimination, accusations and counter-accusations which looks set to continue long after Lionel Messi, Neymar and the rest of the two giants' respective squads are safely back amid the relative calm of their clubs.
The fate of that abortive World Cup qualifier remains unknown. Whether Brazil or Argentina will receive the points, or a replay of the game will be shoe-horned into the already packed global fixture schedule – or indeed just discreetly ignored, given the likelihood that both teams will qualify with ease for Qatar 2022 – is a matter for FIFA to deal with alongside its new quixotic efforts to play its flagship tournament every two years. In the process ANVISA seems to have won celebrity status for its hair-brained intervention, even seeing its website hacked by a group of enterprising Argentine techies who bragged about circumventing its security in a virtual imitation of how Emiliano Martínez, Emiliano Buendía, Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso supposedly slipped through the net to make it onto Brazilian soil.
There was still time for one more mini-scandal ahead of Argentina's clash with Bolivia, the game that finally welcomed back paying fans to the stadium after an 18-month absence. The 15,000 or so fortunate enough to smash through the creaking servers and get their hands on a ticket were all set to hear the national anthem belted out by ex-Almafuerte frontman Ricardo Iorio, only for the outspoken singer to be vetoed due to his rather extreme nationalist public opinions. A more suitable replacement, cumbia star Sergio Torres, was thus given the honours, backed up by the Monumental crowd; but once the game began all eyes were on just one man.
Lionel Messi proved Argentina's hero with all three goals in a comfortable win which keeps the side well on track on the road to Qatar. The captain was then left in tears as he and his team-mates were presented with the Copa América trophy won in such stirring circumstances at Brazil's expense two months ago, finally able to receive the adulation of the home support after those long months banished to empty stadiums as a result of the pandemic. “I was very anxious, I was really looking forward to enjoying this,” he admitted after the game. “I've waited for this for a long time. We won the game, which was most important, and now let's enjoy ourselves.
“I've been seeking this for a long time. Thank God it happened. It was a unique moment for where and how it happened after so much waiting. There was no better way and it is incredible to be able to celebrate it. My mum, my brothers are in the stands. We've suffered a lot, but I am so happy.”
He is not the only one. Thursday's celebrations with three more points safely in the bag may have been a formality following the exploits of July but it underlined the connection between this Argentina team and their fans, forged in the most unusual context and built, first and foremost, on the joy and camaraderie which they bring to the national team whenever they take the pitch. Messi is the poster boy, the inspiration behind it all, but every Albiceleste star played their part in taking home the Copa and ending the nation's long wait for glory, and after such an unusual week nobody could begrudge their celebrations having finally been reunited with the public which has taken them into their hearts.