In 1986, I set off from my native Argentina with a backpack and a couple of friends along the coast of Brazil for a “year out.” Our aim was to get to Mexico in time for the World Cup. The beaches, I guess, and our youth, delayed us somewhat, and we ended up watching the tournament in Brazil. After the Seleção got knocked out by France, and following Diego Maradona’s handball-aided victory over England, Brazilians took to manifesting their dislike of all things Argentine with huge machetes—we were ushered out the back door of bars and told not to speak, lest we reveal by our accents where we came from.
I watched the final, between Argentina and West Germany, in a hostel in Rio with three German travelers who were so stunned by the hostility of our environment that they took me out for a beer. It was a weird way to celebrate what had been an extraordinary tournament, a monthlong display of fantastic football: Among a generation of superb talent from all over the world, the genius of Maradona had stood out above the rest. It was also so very different from my memories of celebrating the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, when as an 11-year-old I had experienced both love of football and pure joy for the first time.
During this World Cup, the 2014 edition, I’ve realized that this love of football is about emotional ties that transcend the game, and emotional responses that are triggered by events on the pitch. For everyone in Argentina, memories of the glories of 1986 are about where you were in 1986, and who you were 28 years ago. And it’s the same for 1978, and that’s how it will be for 2014, too.
My grandfather was a sportswriter. In 1950, he took my great-uncle Jose Antonio, born in Brazil, to the Maracanã for the World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay. “In those days he just took me along and smuggled me in,” Jose Antonio recalls now. “I don’t know if he had a plan B should anyone have refused me entry. I was just a boy so I don’t know what he would have done.” The weeping and inconsolable sadness provoked in the little boy when Brazil lost that match became the stuff of family legend. My grandfather wrote him a story, a work of fiction in which Brazil wins the World Cup at the Maracanã, dedicated with the words, “perhaps, one day, it could become a reality.”
I watched Brazil’s opening game with Jose Antonio, hand on his heart and a solemn expression on his 70-something face, while he sang the national anthem. I watched Argentina’s victory over Belgium, sealing their ticket to the semifinal, on Copacabana beach with a German colleague. I realized sipping my caipirinha that my own relationship to the game—my own history, my family’s, and my country’s—meant that if Argentina continued winning, I didn’t want to be here. In Brazil. Again.
The Brazilians have been amazing this past month, both on a personal and national level. The football has been terrific. But as it becomes clear that a dream might become reality for an entire country—winning the World Cup, with Lionel Messi at the helm—the concept of “being there” for an event acquires a blurry quality. What would I gain by being in the stadium? What would I lose by not being home in Argentina?
The experience of the stadium is one without equal. I was on the pitch right behind the goal in Saint-Étienne when Argentina knocked England out in 1998 and 18-year-old Michael Owen’s goal became the closest thing to magic after Maradona’s epic solo run from 1986. This time, though, there was the added edge of my being there—Owen was running toward me! Argentina then got eliminated by the Netherlands in a quarterfinal in Marseille, where the Dutch master Bergkamp scored a golazo and Ariel “El Burrito” Ortega lost his cool, head-butted an opponent, and got sent off. The emptiness after the event, as the press corps improvised their packing up and going home, the scrambled departures in all directions … I’ll remember that forever. It was also the night I took one particular road of no return in my own life. I’ll remember that, too.
Years later I met Ortega at Maradona’s birthday party—yes, that’s right—and I said to him, “Are you familiar with chaos theory? Whereby if a butterfly flaps its wing in China … ” The whole history of humanity might have been different if you hadn’t head-butted that Dutch guy, I told him. Ortega just stared at me, as if I was from another planet, shrugged his shoulders, and asked me if I could introduce him to a legendary TV celebrity in her 60s who was standing nearby. When I flew out to Rio at the beginning of this World Cup, I bumped into Ortega on the plane, half-asleep, on a ridiculously early flight, both of us looking weathered and older.
Awaiting another middle-of-the night flight, this time to Porto Alegre, I lay on the floor to sleep, only to be kindly woken by José Luis “El Tata” Brown, who was concerned I would miss boarding. El Tata scored the first goal for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup final, off a set-piece that had been thoroughly rehearsed by obsessive tactician Carlos Bilardo. Years later, he told me that not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of that goal, or someone reminds him of it with gratitude. He was mocked by the press when first included in the squad: They said he was only going along to make the tea. But when it came down to it, and Maradona was annulled by a German side determined to prevent him from playing, Tata was one of the crucial pieces of the engineering that made the dream possible.
Now, we have a new crop of characters. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero, the hero of the hour, the most unlikely hero. Javier Mascherano, the natural born leader. Ángel di María, Marcos Rojo, Pablo Zabaleta … and Lionel Messi. A huge assortment of storylines have emerged from this. How they have learned to work together, become a team of conviction and determination. How feelings of national identity and patriotism can come to the fore, as exemplified by Messi’s once questioned and now revered identification with his motherland. How the rich and the poor experience World Cups differently, as evidenced by those watching from the villas and the slums, by the backgrounds of players such as di María, who is now said to be chartering a plane so 10 of his childhood friends can watch him.
And a new installment in our own stories unfolds. “Life is what happens between World Cups,” says eminent Argentine sportswriter Ezequiel Fernández Moores, and he means it. But life is also what happens during World Cups, and in the matches themselves. I finally made it back to Buenos Aires, to watch the final “among my own,” whatever that may mean, full of pride for sharing a nationality with the young men who are busting their butts to deliver this sense of glory, and with those who have come before them. Full of emotion over the fact that “we” are in the semifinal, and that “we” may win the Cup for a third time. For reasons that are hard to explain.