Exactly 12 years ago, Leo Messi scored a hat-trick against Brazil. Only player to score 3 goals against Brazil in one match in over 40 years.

The summer friendly has become a familiar genre for American fans, but this felt different. For one thing, Brazil and Argentina are perhaps the only teams in the world able to draw more than 80,000 people in the same time slot as Germany-Portugal — a European Championship game that actually matters. For another, it provided another chance to compare Neymar and Lionel Messi, excellent players in their own right and proxies in the cold war between Pele and Diego Maradona.

And yet it remained a friendly until a moment before the final whistle, when Ezequiel Lavezzi kicked Marcelo and then stood over the Brazil left back. Both teams rushed over, and in the scuffle that followed, Lavezzi found Marcelo and kicked him again. The Argentine had been introduced to the game as a substitute only two minutes before. Both were shown red cards. Perhaps this ending is why stadium security formed a ring around the field and stayed there long after the teams had filed into the tunnel. They stood in orange shirts with their arms crossed, facing outward, while the fans left their seats. It was an odd gesture for such a genial audience; yellow and blue shirts had mixed freely in the crowd—announced as the largest in New Jersey history for a soccer match—and everyone seemed happy with a show that provided seven goals including a Messi hat-trick, taking him to 82 goals for the season. Neymar was unable to score a goal of his own, even though Pele has said he is better than Messi. “Maybe Neymar is the best player in the world,” responded Maradona, “but only if you say that Messi is from a different planet.” The view through the giant plate glass windows in the press box at MetLife Stadium – home to New York’s two NFL teams, the Giants and the Jets – was indeed like watching a soccer game from the observation deck of a hovering UFO. And Argentina left a large, vacant space in the midfield that resembled nothing so much as one of those mysterious crop circles. In his preview of the game for Howler Magazine, Jonathan Wilson wrote that “Argentina produces lots of good midfield holders and forwards, but nothing to link the two.” This meant that Neymar, playing in the center of the field, had the freedom to collect the ball and drive forward again and again.

His runs tended to fizzle, but his free kick led to the first goal of the match in the 23rd minute: A low, curling pass to Romulo, who controlled awkwardly with his knee, turned, and fired. His shot deflected off the arm of Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who was left stranded by his defenders raising their arms for offside. 1-0 Brazil. Five minutes later Neymar was again knifing through the defense, running onto a ball played over the top. He touched it past Romero before being sandwiched between the goalkeeper and a defender. No call. Two minutes later he was in on goal again, foiled this time by a slight shove in the back that forced him to overrun the ball before falling to the ground. A minute later and Messi had his own chance, a mirror-image of Neymar’s. Played through by Higuain, who had dropped into the midfield void to win the ball, Messi ran straight at goal and side-footed the ball into the side netting. 1-1. Three minutes later and Messi was played through the center of Brazil’s defense yet again, this time by Angel di Maria. He rounded the Brazilian goalkeeper Rafael Cabral with his first touch and chipped the ball into the goal with his second. 2-1 Argentina. Brazil were back in the 56th minute, a one-two in which Leandro Damiao, with his back to goal, killed the ball at the top of the box, then fed it into the path of Oscar, who continued his run and finished past the onrushing Romero. 2-2. Brazil went ahead 16 minutes later. Romero committed, and tipped a corner kick toward the opposite touchline. It fell to a backpedaling Hulk, who took it out of the air with a side-volley at an acute angle. 3-2 Brazil. Alexandre Pato and Sergio Aguero were second-half substitutes, but it was a defender, Federico Fernandez, who scored Argentina’s equalizer, a header from an Aguero corner kick, in the 75th minute. 3-3. The last word went to Messi: Picking the ball up near the right touchline just inside Brazil’s half, he ran at the defense, cutting to his left just as he reached the top of the box, and drove a high, curling shot into the top corner. The Argentine bench exploded. The reserves knocked over the digital signage hoarding as they celebrated. 4-3 Argentina. “We’re lucky he’s Argentine,” head coach Alejandro Sabella said after the game. “We can benefit from that.” Up in their spaceship, the mostly American reporters cheer and slap each other on the back. They’re supposed to maintain a veneer of neutrality, but they’ve just seen the greatest player on the planet score a hat-trick. Against Brazil. In New Jersey. What an otherworldly experience.

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