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October 22, 2014

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Messi strike delights; French, Swiss win, too

RIO DE JANEIRO — A breathtaking last-gasp goal; a first for goal-line technology; happy and cheering fans. What else could the World Cup want? Oh yes, a stunning goal by Lionel Messi for Argentina at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

The World Cup continues to delight in Brazil, with 37 goals in four days and nine alone on Sunday.

On Sunday evening in Rio, in front of tens of thousands of cheering Argentinian fans. Messi produced a moment of magic to remind a global audience why he is for many the best player in the world. The other player who competes for that title, Cristiano Ronaldo, will appear when Portugal play its first game, a tough clash against Germany, on Monday.

Sunday evening in Rio was reserved for Messi.

The team, tipped to go far at the World Cup, was mediocre but managed a 2-1 victory over debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina. Messi's shimmering run and a shot that squeezed into the goal off the post gave Argentina a 2-0 lead.

Argentina looked set to turn its opener into a runaway game when a Messi freekick was glanced on and turned into his own goal by defender Sead Kolasinac as early as the third minute.

The Balkan rookies though, held firm until Messi finally awoke from his slumber with the standout second goal. Yet Argentina's frailties were laid bare five minutes from time when Vedad Ibisevic scored a close-in goal. Iran and Nigeria open their chase of Group F leader Argentina on Monday.

Messi's 65th minute goal put the seal on the action on the cup's fourth day, including the first decisive decision by FIFA's goal-line technology during France's 3-0 win over Honduras.

The French relied on two goals and a decisive move from Real Madrid's Karim Benzema to keep pace with Switzerland in Group E. The Swiss turned their match into a real thriller, capping yet another come-from behind win with a breathtaking final-minute goal to beat Ecuador 2-1.

FIFA may have been to blame when France and Honduras had to start their game without anthems, but it made sure its new goal-line technology was working to perfection.

France was already leading 1-0 when Benzema's shot hit the inside of the post. The ball bounced back along the line before goalkeeper Noel Valladares flailed at the ball and briefly fumbled it over his own line before slapping it out.

It could have been controversy, but technology made it crystal clear, with seven video cameras proving the ball had crossed the line and alerting the referee through his watch.

The technology has been introduced following some disastrous errors in previous tournaments.

Benzema would have preferred scoring it directly since it would have given him the first hat trick of the World Cup after he scored the opening penalty and added a second in the 72nd minute.

"He scored and he was decisive for us," said France coach Didier Deschamps of the player widely counted on now to take over the leadership role from injured star Franck Ribery.

After four days, goals continue to pour in at a rate of more than three a game. Outside the stadiums too, there were more happy cheers than angry protests, belying early worries that demonstrations would turn the tournament into violent chaos.

Around 200 protesters marched on the Maracana stadium but were largely outnumbered by security. At last year's Confederations Cup, more than 1 million Brazilians took to the streets in protest in a single day.

An Associated Press video appeared to show a live pistol round being fired by a Brazilian police officer at anti-World Cup protesters near the Maracana around the beginning of the Argentina vs. Bosnia game.

In Brasilia, thousands of fans missed the first part of Switzerland-Ecuador because of long lines to pass through security. FIFA said there had been some "challenges" with the gates allowing fans in, but also blamed Brazilians' habit of turning up for events at the last moment.

Stoppage time at the end of the match was what really mattered.

With the three minutes of injury time nearly up and Ecuador and Switzerland tied at 1-1, the South Americans broke through with a great chance. Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami however, put in a lunging block in the penalty box on Michael Arroyo.

Then, Behrami sped off, riding a rough tackle, rolling over and recovering the ball to set up the winning move that was finished off by Haris Seferovic.

"How many times are you going to see a chance in one box ending up as a goal in the other," asked Switzerland defender Johan Djourou. "The effort produced by this team was incredible."

"Never give up" is quickly turning into the motto of the tournament since 5 of 9 games so far have been come-from-behind victories.

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