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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An ode to those of us who struggle to say no, to the vets of meta-regret, the inadvertent pursuers of paralysis who know neurosis all too well. There was a time when the answer was all the above, though now I’ve given that whole instinct a shove. And yet here it stays, unwelcome and grating, yet there may be some good past all of this waiting.

And so it is now, these things that won’t happen. A rowhouse in Georgetown, a flat in Manhattan; a summer place on the cape, or likely even the lake. No as well to the Wisconsin front porch, the tropical retreat, or that elegant burb of the American Dream, Edina or Winnetka or a Grosse Pointe estate: I’ve found my place, though don’t tell me I can’t still escape. Too much a city kid to head for the hills, too tied to the wilds to take up all the city frills.

I will never have a Big Four consultant’s finesse, nor will I have a chance to dole out mass largesse, will cut myself off before the PhD or the law degree. State is a pipe dream, fading into the fog, Foggy Bottom or Superior shores, it’s all just some bog. So much for a Rhodes, for a fellowship, for the MFA. What this means for my career I can’t really say. Maybe something I write will cause someone to sway. Seize the chances as they come, I pray, and hope that keeps the doubt at bay.

Forget the perfect test score, forget those paths I never trod; I gave up any childhood fancies of running roughshod. If I strap on a pack to take the world as my stage, it will only come when I reach a great age. There will be no firm checklist of places or things, just chances for adventure, whatever they may bring. The political dream is modest at best, pull a few strings and set things up for the rest. Just make new beginnings, as Arendt wrote, stave off the ruin and keep humanity afloat.

I will not have children before I turn thirty, will have to wait more time before my house that’s all dirty. The house, I suppose, isn’t here yet either, biding its time as I grasp at new levers. I’ve lost a few people, things I wished I’d said; all lovers have regrets, but can still come out ahead. Patience, kid, your hour is near, and in the meantime let’s bury your every last fear.

Athletic glory has passed me by, though these two legs still have plenty of paths they long to try. I will never skate for a varsity squad, though I did jump in the fountain in Dahlgren Quad. I will never be the finest beer judge or sommelier, though I’ll do my part, for as long as I care. Though, though, though: any literary dreams are far down the road, my writing life still in search of its most fruitful abode. Fits and starts and gaps and frustration, does everyone who tries this encounter such damnation?

Farewell to the kibbutz and commune, wishful dreams still; utopia is impossible, though chase it we will. Untold thousands of books go unread, and TV shows or movies or music? don’t get me started, it’s all sheer dread. Hours and days lost to mindless staring at screens; nostalgia lies, it was the same in my teens. Could I have done more, what did I miss, at what point do we draw value from that monotonous bliss? Overachievers have more fun, or so Stegner said, but maybe that’s just a thought that helped get him to bed.

I won’t be the one with the snappy answer, a truth-seeker well-bred; I never quite understood why I should opine on any stray thing in my head. A wide-ranging ponderer I remain, picking up any stray fact for my gain; but even with doors open, so many close, yet there are still enough there to stay on my toes. Sometimes too free, sometimes constrained, truth somewhere in the middle, drifting each day. A world of possibility becomes a world of regret, the paralyzing fear of a generation in debt.

So here’s to uncertainty, to the things we’ll never do, and the struggle to know, a blog or a poem, thought vomit from a kid who but briefly saw Rome. But those glimpses we get, they power us through, and someday we may get a more lasting view. Maybe it comes over drinks in some energized state, maybe it’s those lonely nights to which we can all relate. Here’s to the struggle, the upward climb, while true to where we came from, windows unto the divine.

With nods to Roger Cohen and Roz Chast.