The Agony and the Ecstasy of Argentina’s World Cup Victory

Why did we have to suffer like this? Argentina, playing with aplomb, dominated the World Cup final against a tired and uninspired France for almost eighty of the match’s first ninety minutes. Argentina had scored twice. There seemed to be no doubt that Lionel Messi, a national hero and one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, would lift the Cup, completing an incredible journey started some three decades ago in Rosario, Argentina, when he played his first real game, at the age of four. This was to be the triumphant conclusion to the magical saga of his career.

In the eightieth minute, however, an exhausted Argentinean defender found no better way to stop a French forward than to foul him, thus granting France a penalty kick that the French superstar Kylian Mbappé dutifully converted. A doubt caught Argentineans on and off the field: what if the story ended badly? Ninety-five seconds after Mbappé’s first goal, he scored another, forcing the game into thirty minutes of extra time that would settle whether Argentina could overcome what was starting to look like a curse.

My family is Argentinean. We screamed so hard in our Harlem apartment that later we found our tortoise upside down in her cage. But, in the hundred-and-eighth minute, Messi lashed in a rebound from the French goalie. It was 3–2. Finally, glory was at hand—or so many believed. Argentines know better. Ten minutes later, Mbappé scored yet another penalty. Argentina’s goalkeeper, Emiliano “Dibu” Martínez, made a miraculous save on a late chance for France’s Randal Kolo Muani, which could have been the end of the dream. The game was to be decided in a penalty shootout.

By then, we were standing, pacing, shouting, praying, cursing, hoping that telepathic intervention would make the Argentinean penalty takers succeed and the French miss. It worked. Martínez saved one, a French player scuffed another wide, and the Argentineans converted their own. Argentina won.

“We suffered greatly, but we made it,” Messi said later. During the game, Ángel Di María, the beloved thirty-four-year-old winger, had been caught on camera sobbing uncontrollably from the bench, as he witnessed the French comeback. “If you don’t suffer, it’s not worth it,” the left back Nicolás Tagliafico ventured. After several games in this tournament, Argentina’s coach, Lionel Scaloni, appeared to run into the exit tunnel to hide his tears. “We were born to suffer,” the midfielder Rodrigo De Paul said.

Otherwise, how to make sense of the agony with which Argentina went through this Cup? The team had notched thirty-six consecutive victories by the time it arrived in Qatar, and then, nonsensically, in the first game, lost to Saudi Arabia. In the round of sixteen, after dominating the Australians and scoring two goals, Argentina faltered and was rescued only by another remarkable Martínez stop. The Netherlands match was nearly a replay, only this time the Dutch team actually equalized and the match went to penalties, as if in a rehearsal of what was going to happen in the final.

Suffering is an essential part of an Argentinean narrative, shared by coaches, players, supporters—by the entire country. Every four years, it is ritually projected onto what is not just a game but a part of the story that we Argentines tell about ourselves. Argentines were once destined to greatness, the narrative goes, but we fell prey to recurrent, cyclical crises from which only magic can save us. At the World Cup, that magic once carried the name of Diego Maradona, the legendary player who led Argentina to victory in 1986.

Hence a country in which sarcasm and street smarts are considered national trademarks suddenly becomes superstitious. Some people wear the same clothes during every match; others watch each game in the same exact spot, or are not allowed to watch at all, like the father of an old colleague of mine, who is sent by his family to walk in the park for the duration of the match. Self-described witches burn laurel leaves, and Catholic nuns go viral, jumping and singing “Muchachos,” the unofficial anthem of this Cup, draped in Argentinean flags and jerseys. The smallest event acquires extraordinary meaning. A woman in her late seventies, now widely known as Abuela la-la-la, casually joined a group of young men celebrating Argentina’s win against Poland on a street corner of Liniers, a middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Their celebration, shared on TikTok, became an anti-jinx ritual after each game, and that street corner was tagged on Google Maps as a “place of worship.” A man who was taken to a hospital in the city of Venado Tuerto, in the Santa Fe province, and watched all the World Cup games there, refused to leave the hospital when he was discharged days before the final; he insisted that it would be bad luck for Argentina.

Last year, before the Copa América championship, five members of the national team, Messi included, played a card game that they said would decide their destiny. Each player drew ten cards from a Spanish deck. They had to guess the correct value and suit of at least one of them. If they all succeeded, it meant that they were going to win the tournament. One player guessed correctly on his last try; two did on their first. Messi had lost four tournament cups, so he tried the Five of Cups. Sure enough, it was one of the cards. They were crowned champions.

Argentines want to believe in this magic, because they also believe that there will always be a new, more crushing crisis. Lately, there has been soaring inflation, economic recession, and the sentencing on corruption charges of the former President, and current Vice-President, Cristina Kirchner. And when magic happens, as it did on Sunday—now, finally, bearing the name of Lionel Messi—more than a million Argentines take to the streets in collective ecstasy, dancing and singing with friends and strangers late into the summer night, in one golden moment of bonding and hope. ♦

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