There is something thrilling about staying up through the early hours of the morning to watch live soccer from South America.
Our relationship with time and distance has been fundamentally changed by modern technology, particularly the Internet. But when the soft darkness of a mild summer’s night in Ireland is brightened by TV pictures of Brazil playing Argentina, it is nonetheless a throwback to the joy of staying up late in childhood summers watching the World Cups of 1978 and 1986.
And a soccer match broadcast from South America looks different. The players are familiar, the stadia are now almost identikit – especially without supporters – but the light is different; it gives the pictures from the Maracanā, the iconic stadium in Rio, a different feel.
The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is famously intense. And this is how this match revealed itself. There were some brilliant flicks, nice passing moves and the sort of touch and close control that only the very elite can manage, but this match was as physical as international soccer now gets.
There was no space in the middle and an absolute determination to stop the stars of either team – Neymar for Brazil and Messi for Argentina – doing anything. If that meant fouling them, then so be it.
The thing is though that most sporting rivalries are so confected that they cannot survive basic contact between human beings who are fundamentally decent. In this instance, the fact that the best players from Brazil and Argentina share dressing rooms in Europe’s greatest clubs has changed the dynamic. Most symbolically of all, Messi and Neymar share a deep bond from their time in Barcelona. And Neymar is also close to the Argentinian players Ángel Di María and Leandro Paredes, with whom he shares a dressing room in Paris.
It is this other context which probably prevented this game from boiling over into something truly fractious.
Argentina’s first-half lead was deserved. Ángel Di María beautifully controlled a long diagonal ball and lifted it over the oncoming Ederson in the Brazilian goal. Ederson, Manchester City’s goalkeeper, was picked ahead of Liverpool’s Alisson; he too would have been unable to do anything other than wave at the ball as it passed above him, like a child waving at a passing plane.
More confusing was the fact that the Brazilians picked Manchester United’s Fred ahead of Liverpool’s Fabinho. In the first five minutes of the match, Fred miscontrolled the ball, gave a poor pass and picked up a yellow card. He improved after that, but only to a point.
Part of the problem for Brazil as they huffed to recover the deficit is the pressure they play under. There is no need to reheat here the history of Brazilian brilliance.
They had not lost a final to Argentina for 84 years and had not lost a competitive match at the Maracanā since 1950, a run of 28 games. The current Brazilian team is not in the same league but had not lost a competitive match for some three years.
And yet there is no insulation from the fact that the most recent eye-popping moment in Brazilian soccer has left a fragility that is undeniable. When Germany beat Brazil in the 2014 World Cup by 7-1, the reaction of the Brazilian public and of the press was brutal. The words that filled the front-page headlines were ‘disgrace’, ‘outrage’, ‘humiliation’, and so on. Nobody who read them could have been left in any doubt just how much soccer meant to the Brazilian people.
The agony of the Brazilian players as they played out those final minutes was not easy to watch – it is a cruel thing to watch people being shamed in public in so comprehensive a manner. Cruel, but compelling at the same time. And the fact that all of the players were millionaires could not insulate them from what they were feeling. No matter what else happens in their lives, they will always be remembered for that day – and they knew it.
And as this game drifted along from them in the second half, there was no absence of effort. They pushed and pushed and tried everything they knew to equalise. They came close – very close – but there was no siege and so sense at any time that a goal was definitely coming. Indeed, it felt as likely that Argentina would score a second on the break.
As the second half moved into its final minutes, it became more ratty. There were cynical fouls, a few vicious tackles, timewasting, diving and a general edginess. There was even a bit of push-and-shove between a dozen players; there was no danger of anyone getting hurt in it, however.
The pressure to win – or not to lose – suffocated all else. It was compelling to watch because of this raw desire, but it was neither stylish nor elegant.
In the end, Argentina held on. It was a signal moment for Messi who had never won a major international trophy with Argentina (Olympic gold doesn’t count).
Indeed, he has previously played on three losing teams in Copa America finals (2007, 2015 and 2016), as well as in the losing World Cup final of 2014 at the same stadium, and the way he ran and tackled in the second half showed just how much he craved an international victory to add to his exceptional club career.
He actually fell over the ball when one-on-one with Ederson two minutes from the end when presented with a chance to finish the game. It was a miss which would have led to him being ridiculed again by the critics of his contribution to Argentina, but the fact that Argentina held on to win 1-0 will allow the moment melt away now into meaninglessness.
In the end, it will be recorded that he was the best player in the tournament, that he played well in the final and that his team won. He sank to his knees at the final whistle and the whole of the rest of the squad ran to him and piled on top of him. His was the ecstasy of this relief and achievement. And in the celebrations it was manifest as pure joy.