In the middle of this constant cauldron of anticlimaxes, there was Messi – the best footballer of the world playing the best football in the world for a country called FC Barcelona – complicating this puzzle.
On Sunday morning – Saturday night at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro – the Great Argentina Anomaly was finally cast aside. In a final that had more collisions than on a Gurgaon highway, and more foul play than in Macbeth – 41 fouls and 9 yellow cards, not to mention the kind of method acting that would have made both Stanislavsky and Shah Rukh Khan proud – it wasn’t a pretty game, even by Copa’s take-over-a-quadrant-and-knock-the-ball-out standards.
But a Brazil-Argentina Copa final, despite all the mythology and near-empty arena, was bound to be a variation of a bullfight.
For Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni, getting the team to be more than a facilitator for their star player meant playing Angel di Maria from the start – which Scaloni had, strangely, avoided in previous games. Hopefully, the triad of Di Maria-Messi-Lautaro Martinez would click. Even with the Angel on board frm the beginning, this didn’t happen.
Brazil made the raids. But their attacks were constantly foiled, not so much by Argentinian body blocks and tackles, but more by the Seleçãon belief that Neymar with the ball down the left flank would break through by the sheer force of statistics. This also didn’t happen.
It was in the 22nd minute that one of the rare long passes of the evening led to a momentarily thaw in the scrabbling. Rodrigo de Paul’s pass from the Argentinian half was supposed to be intercepted by the in-trajectory Renan Lodi. But instead of clearing it, the left back cut the ball’s speed down and ‘handed it’ with his right outstretched foot to the swooping gangle that was Di Maria. His lob was pure Wimbledon, and Brazil custodian Ederson Moraes saw the saddest sight a goalkeeper can see.
The game relapsed to its ragged ‘physicality’ (read: grunt’n’grind), not quite to the level that many Indian dawn-catching Brazil fans disappointingly described it to be (and that the Argentina-Uruguay group match was), but to something best described as gritty. Brazil certainly went into the second half with more set play possibilities, but the Leandro Paredes-De Paul-Giovani Lo Celso Argentina defence was holding.
But it boiled down to the hero of the Argentina-Colombia semifinal, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to punch out a point-blanker from forward Richarlison – who moments ago had netted the ball in but was found off side – and keep the Brazilians at bay.
In the 89th minute, a Neymar deflection was slammed in the right direction by Gabriel Barbosa with a cracking half-volley. But a few miles away from Christ the Redeemer’s giant outstretched hands atop the Corcovado Mountains overlooking Rio, a goalkeeper’s outstreched pair punched the stinging ball over the bar. It was Martinez the Redeemer, once again.
Comedy comes as the best vent in an overlong drama. And as sure as VAR follows these days, such a LOL moment arrived — where Messi takes a De Paul pass and just when he is ready to take off, the world’s greatest footballer tackles himself in front of open goal and keeper Ederson, who protects it from his second touch. Laughter would have echoed nicely in the near empty Maracanã stadium.
One expects high drama to be followed by high spectacle — a fabulous stage to be the site of a glorious display between two traditional rivals, two top South American nations, two spearheads that make the Messi-Neymar duel. That was not what happened in Rio when the birds were chirping in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore…
There was no tango or salsa, but 90 minutes of continuous coitus interrupti. With the telegenic tears of Neymar and the obtuse disappointment of Brazil, and the joyous bursting of another dam for Argentina, a curse was broken, just like that. Both the game and the long wait for the Albiceleste proved how time, on occasions, doesn’t fly.