This year”s tournament ended the same way that it started.
RIO DE JANEIRO— When it was all over, Messi stood there dejected and alone, holding the Golden Ball as the World Cup’s best player. It was a hollow consolation, one he didn’t want and probably didn’t think he deserved. As he walked up the stairs to receive his prize, some fans reached out to touch him. But most Argentinians sat—as subdued as they had been in weeks—clapping quietly, watching Messi fail to become the emblematic hero an entire nation had hoped he would.
The World Cup has a way of amplifying things. Goals become national statements. A poor performance becomes an affront to the flag. Every action is bigger and holds more importance—and, inherently, holds some symbolic meaning. This includes the event itself. The World Cup became Brazil’s moment of national reckoning: The tournament would not only showcase the places in which Brazil was broken—political unrest, lack of infrastructure, public services— but also, hopefully through that exposure, catalyze reform.
In the same way, when Messi stepped on the field in the Maracanã on Sunday, he was no longer just the best footballer on the planet. He was Argentina’s savior, the hope of every 20-something who was part of a new generation of Argentine football fans.
On Saturday, the day before the final, I went down to Rio de Janeiro’s Sambadromo where hundreds of Argentinians were camped out. They had trekked thousands of miles to see their team play. There were cars and buses and tents on top of each other, all overflowing with the things the Argentinians had carried with them. Banners hung between campers and wet clothes were draped over the open trunks of cars to dry. But there were other things they carried too, things that couldn’t be seen.
One matte black bus that was home to 11 Argentinians had a painted banner hanging outside that showed Maradona handing a football over to Messi—a passing of the torch. Its owner, Nicholas, was twenty-eight and had come with his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and their one-year-old daughter.
“It’s a dream,” he said, about his country making it to the final.
He was born in 1985, the year before Argentina had last won the World Cup. He doesn’t remember any of it.
Two other cousins I talked to were twenty-two, and, like Nicholas, had stories, not memories, of 1986. This time, though, they would see it with their own eyes.
“We believe in our team,” one said.
“We believe in Messi,” the other quickly corrected him.
These young fans were ready to turn the page on Maradona and accept Messi as the new football god. He had become a symbol of those too online casino young to remember the World Cup victory in 1986, but maybe just old enough to remember their defeat in the final at the hands of West Germany in 1990.
In the end, it wasn”t to be. Messi missed a golden chance in the second half and sailed a free kick over Manuel Neuer’s goal in the game’s waning seconds. He never became what a younger generation of Argentinians hoped he might, the idea they’d made him into.
It was a fitting end to a World Cup that also never became what many tried to make it: A hope for fixing Brazil. Protests and talk of its nation’s problems had faded in the face of an exciting, high-scoring tournament. Its own team’s form faded too, culminating in a humiliating defeat that underscored rather than ameliorated the ills of its broken country.
That’s the danger of putting your faith in an idea. Sometimes the idea overtakes the thing it was borne out of. It gets imbued with so much meaning that we forget that sometimes it is just what it is and nothing more. Sometimes Messi is just Lionel Messi, football player, and sometimes the World Cup is just a soccer tournament, as much as we want it to carry deeper meaning or greater impact. Messi couldn’t bring joy to a new generation of football fans who were hoping for it, and the World Cup couldn’t—and never was going to be able to—fix Brazil.
Tomorrow, it would be a beautiful day in Rio and Copacabana would be teeming with people, but the World Cup would be gone. The yellow of Brazilian jerseys would be harder to find in the crowds and the protests that had been in hiding would come back out near the airport, blocking three lanes and slowing traffic to a crawl.
But for now, during the trophy presentation, the World Cup ended the same way it started: with the Brazilians telling their president, Dilma Rousseff, to “Fuck Off.”
My seats were tucked into a corner of the Maracanã, right behind the photographers’ corral. The Germans celebrated on the far side of the field, jumping up and down and dancing around the trophy they’d just won as their section of fans cheered passionately. It was enough to make the hair on your arm stand up.
But I could only see it if I looked past what was happening right in front of me: two Brazilians in gray uniforms walked through the now almost empty corral picking up trash, and one lingering photographer, who stood behind them, had removed his yellow Brazilian jersey.
He was using it as a sweat rag.