Rich as an Argentine

Destiny is a dangerous phrase in sports. Many suspect they know it when they see it, most of them blinkered partisans who believe in what they know. It’s impossible to capture fully, scorned not without good reason by the quants who have distilled so many sports down to the barest essentials that can separate wins from losses. To call a squad a team of destiny is to make an irrational leap, to claim to see something others cannot, likely in athletes one has never met, seen only on a TV screen from half a world away. It is perhaps even more ludicrous for someone who is only a passing fan of a sport; someone who’s followed on and off over the years and has down the names of the main protagonists, but has no claim to deep expertise.

As this World Cup went on, however, it became clear that Argentina was one of those teams. It didn’t guarantee they would win the thing, but it did mean they would be there at the pivotal moment, would rise to the occasion, would push to the brink in ways others could never will themselves because they just felt it in their bones. It simply meant more in Argentina. They have known they have a window for a championship ever since Lionel Messi began showing the world what a different level of skill meant, and as the five-foot-seven magician from Rosario turned thirty-five, knew this would be his last chance. Their fans, after 36 long years of waiting, overflowed with raw emotion. Argentine tears flowed out at every goal (insert Evita joke here), and as they fought past the resilient Dutch in the quarterfinals, triumph felt more like relief, like completion of a solemn mission, than the mere victory enjoyed by other nations.

By that point, I was fully on board the bandwagon for the ride, using unspent work personal time to catch their remaining matches. After the sky blue and white carved up Croatia in the semifinals, they earned a clash for the ages against France. The final was about the juiciest imaginable: perhaps the greatest of all time against the golden child of the next generation, two otherworldly talents trading blows on the world’s most dramatic stage, the defending champions against the fútbol-bleeding nation determined to send out a sporting deity on top. It somehow outdid all the hype.

Messi had the supporting cast in his quest; the Argentines, unless defending a late lead, were the most cohesive unit of this tournament almost all the way through. The work rate in the midfield, from Alexis Mac Allister to Rodrigo de Paul to Enzo Fernández, took apart their vaunted French counterparts. On the sideline, the other Lionel, the little-heralded Lionel Scaloni, pressed all the right buttons as he molded his squad, boldly putting a few stars on the bench in favor of the right supporting cast for Messi’s skills. His master stroke: starting the wily veteran Ángel di María, who had the half of his life in the final, as he drew the penalty converted by Messi for Argentina’s first goal and finishing off a majestic passing sequence on their second. The Argentines were in complete control against the world’s deepest footballing machine, and in normal times, this would have been enough for a coronation.

Destiny, however, demands drama. No podía ser de otra manera sino sin sufrir, sobbed Andrés Cantor to his Spanish language audience at the end of the night: they had to suffer, there couldn’t be any other way. The source of that drama, aside from suddenly ragged defending: Kylian Mbappé, the French virtuoso who drifted through most of the game who needed just 93 seconds to knot the score. His vicious strike on the second goal hushed the singing Argentines for the first time all tournament; soccer, perhaps, was ready to pass the torch to a new superstar. But after that it was sheer, magical chaos, the teams powering up and down the pitch trading chances at reckless abandon, substitutions one-upping another, a net-crashing Messi seemingly winning it all before Mbappé snatched it back again in the dying minutes of extra time. So often in soccer penalty shootouts seem unspeakably lame, a way of euthanizing a game that has long since run out of energy, but it felt like the only sane conclusion here. One by one, the Argentines came forward and clinically finished their penalties, while their keeper, Emiliano Martínez, rose to the challenge once again.

When Gonzalo Montiel sealed the Cup with the final penalty, Argentina went into a catharsis to end all catharsis, a pure release, from the pitch to the broadcast booth and everywhere beyond. Montiel ran around cluelessly before his teammates swarmed him, di María bawled for the third or fourth time in the span of two hours, and Messi raised his hands to accept the worship of the masses and channel it through him. On the other side, abject shock, with dazed stares of exhaustion and Emmanuel Macron down on the pitch to console Mbappé. (I here picture Donald Trump coming down to the pitch to inform a United States team in a similar spot that they are all losers, or Joe Biden forgetting who all these people are anyway.) Who needs great conquests or wealth when a two-hour game can provide the apogee of human emotion?

The next night I found myself ignoring Monday Night Football to pour myself a Mendoza Malbec and watch footage from Buenos Aires: a drone sweeping over the Avenida 9 de Julio, the view from a lonely cyclist peddling up a deserted street as the city suddenly explodes, relentless song and dance, a few insane souls scaling the obelisk in the Plaza de la República. Then came the scenes from the victory parade, which had to be abandoned and completed by helicopter to get around the crowds. Oh, to someday be able to party like an Argentine.

And then it occurred to me: a few months ago, I’d been offered a spot on a trip that would have begun in Argentina in late December. I declined: a bit too much money, a bit too complicated logistically. I looked back at the old string of emails and, sure enough, if I’d accepted, I would have been in Buenos Aires on the day of the final. FOMO, you have consumed me.

Life goes on, though, and rewards in Christmas parties and holiday retreats and good hockey. And before long there will be new windows into that full range emotion, life to the fullest, joie de vivre in the face of everything. May the bursts never stop coming.

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