Blog The World Cup belongs to Lionel Messi

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Jan 10, 2023, 11:14 AM ET

Before penalties started at the end of the World Cup final, I left the room on the second floor of the Football Cafe in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood, where I was watching the match along with a friend, a foot or so from Susan Sarandon (somehow), and ran up to the roof.

I have never been able to stomach watching penalties as a player or as a fan. It’s a trait I share with my father, who was once so rattled after the first few penalties while we were watching a match that he left to go to sleep because they were driving up his anxiety.

There is a photo of Pep Guardiola sitting in a chair with his arms folded, facing away from goal as his team took penalties. To me, that’s the only possible way to deal; that and the match had already exhausted me of emotion. Argentina had given up a two-goal lead after dominating for almost 80 minutes. The teams traded goals in extra time, but each time it seemed that Argentina had won, France — Kylian Mbappe in particular — would pull right back. I was already breathing hard, as if I had played 120 minutes as well. So, to avoid becoming an emotional mess, I ran up to the roof of the building, sat in one of the few seats there, folded my arms and looked out into the blue sky of Sunday afternoon.

The problem with trying to avoid the World Cup, especially in one of the biggest cities in the world, is that one would have to lock themselves in their apartment and avoid everything. Sitting on the roof, I was instead exposed to a different kind of anxiety. All around me, from the apartments nearby and the hundreds of people watching the match below me, were the sounds of the game. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it. After every penalty, the world around me swelled with reaction, loud cheering mixed as well with groans of disappointment, which made it impossible to tell which team was doing well. Then my phone started vibrating with friends and family reacting to the makes and misses. The plan to avoid what was going on was failing spectacularly.

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There was nothing that I could bargain with. Instead, I was making the argument that it would make so many people happy. Knowing that God and the gods have more important things to worry about, I also started preparing myself for the bitterness of disappointment.

It was a similar bitterness and disappointment that I felt after Argentina lost their opening match against Saudi Arabia. I had gotten up at around 4 a.m. to be ready for the match at 5. After the first half — which Argentina dominated — and with the gulf in strength between the two teams, it seemed Argentina would score loads of goals in the second half. I dozed off at halftime in that knowledge. When I woke up deep into the second half, I looked at the score and, for at least five minutes, thought I was having some bizarre dream.

For the rest of the match, which would be remembered as the biggest upset of this World Cup, I kept thinking to myself, “This can’t be happening.”

It took until the ending of their game against Poland for a bit of relief to set in. Argentina was not only assured a place in the knockout rounds, but also finished top of the group. Things were going well, though relief is not relaxation. It’s impossible to relax during the World Cup, even when one doesn’t have a direct rooting interest. The competition can be so chaotic that until the last second of a match is over, everything feels possible. When one does have a direct rooting interest, the tournament feels like ingenious torture.

What the loss against Saudi Arabia also did was expose Argentina as vulnerable. They were defeated by two extraordinary goals, which could be reasonably written off as a bizarre event, but the World Cup has a penchant for making these kinds of bizarre events common. The loss was a football memento mori.

Their newfound vulnerability added additional tension and fear to every match. The matches against Mexico and Poland finished comfortably for Argentina, though they were anything but comfortable.

I was at the airport for Argentina’s quarterfinal against the Netherlands. The game was on almost every television. I watched part of it at a Buffalo Wild Wings; another traveler sat next to me, and when he asked the waiter to change one of the screens to something different, people around audibly groaned. Reading the room, he decided to leave.

Later on, I moved to a bar next to my gate to watch the rest of the match. When the Netherlands scored two quick and extraordinary goals, I put my head on the table and said loudly — enough that the guy next to me patted me on the back — that I couldn’t take it anymore. The match went into extra time and my flight was delayed. The more tense the match grew, the more annoyed I was at everyone around me. A guy casually laughing with his friend felt like a personal insult. There was nothing funny about what was going on.

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Then of course Enzo Fernández missed his penalty, and the tension and fear returned. This sport is always reminding us that joy and despair are often only separated by a single kick.

By the time Lautaro Martinez scored his penalty to win the match for Argentina, everyone else on my flight had boarded, and I was standing by the door looking at a TV from a distance. There was still time for the gate agent to close the door, and she found my emotional turmoil as funny as I found it excruciating.

The match against Croatia was much more secure, if secure is even a correct word for anything involving the World Cup. It was a 3-0 win that was unexpected, given how Croatia has embodied the idea that talent, hard work and endurance can overcome whatever their opponents might do. Argentina, seemingly knowing the danger of prolonging the match against them, thankfully ended things before it could get to extra time.

One thing about the World Cup is that even if you’re someone like me who tries to avoid watching matches with other people, it’s hard to experience the event alone. The world around you is going through similar emotions. People build their schedules around the event.

One of these people was the first woman I ever fell in love with, during my first year of college in 2007. From the first match until the last, we were exchanging messages. We met a year after Ronaldinho won the Ballon d’Or and began his acceptance speech by making a radical declaration: “This award says I’m the best player in the world, but I’m not even the best player at Barcelona.”

The next year, the Ballon d’Or was awarded to Kaká and history seemed to be on my side. Even among a roster of legends the club has had in its history, Kaká stood out to me. I loved the paradox of his play, a player whose style seemed to project directly from his gentle personality. He had a true elegance that came from both a mastery of technique — there was no flaw in his ability to control, pass or strike the ball, whether from close range or from distance — and the way that his personality expressed his understanding of the game.

The paradox was that as gentle as his movement, his control and the way he seemed to float above the blades of grass on the field were, Kaka was as tough and as destructive as his most ruthless teammates. One second, you could be enamored with his balletic feints, only to be caught off guard by a shot that threatened to tear the net. He was a man of God who played like he was an Old Testament punishment.

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Because of what he has done for football, I believed that football owed something to him — namely, that he should win the trophy that he has chased after for so long, the one that has led to so much heartbreak for him and Argentina. Of course, football doesn’t care about what’s fair or not, or who seemingly deserves a victory. The match against Saudi Arabia was a good reminder of that. You win what you win. It’s not a fairy tale.

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