Un amigo vas a encontrar.
Que de la mano
de Leo Messi
toda la vuelta vamos a dar!*
With the shout of a whistle from inside Brazil's Estádio do Maracanã, the weight of the world fell from his shoulders. The boulder tumbled down the mountainside. The wood splintered. The curtain tore in half.
Today is the first day of a new world, for Lionel Messi and for me too. The world of my joy and his redemption. After falling short in his previous four finals for the senior national team, Messi has finally won his first major trophy for Argentina.
There is a hero's journey story here. That is the story everyone, in the hours since Messi lifted the Copa America trophy, has already written.
So, instead, I'm writing about the power of memories.
Nostalgics like me live off memory as if it were fuel. But it doesn't take being a nostalgic to value remembering. Fans of Roger Federer will remember the first time they saw him win Wimbledon. Those who were lucky enough to see Muhammad Ali fight or Michael Jordan play basketball—who were there in the Rose Bowl in 1999 when Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off after scoring the penalty that won the United States a World Cup—will tell you exactly where they sat, who they were with, and how they reacted in the moments after they witnessed greatness crystalize.
I was 16 when I first saw Messi play on television, in 2005 at the under-20 World Cup in Netherlands (that tournament, like this Copa America, Messi was also named best player, top scorer, and won the team title). Beforehand, Messi had been approached by Spain. Since he was a dual national, playing at Barcelona since 2000, he was eligible to represent either national team. Messi declined, then scored as Argentina defeated Spain 3-1 in a quarterfinal match (he also scored against Brazil in the semifinal and twice in the final). At that point in his career, he didn't even have a Wikipedia page.
Messi's legend grew as he became more famous at Barcelona. I will not go into that history here—Messi has a Wikipedia page now, a very long one, and about a million videos compilations of goals, assists, and extraterrestrial skill on YouTube (here's one of my favorites). He won an Olympic gold medal for Argentina in 2008. He won the Champions League for Barcelona in 2009; I watched the final on the wall-mounted TV at my uncle's house in Argentina before he drove me to see Rosario Central's stadium, where I got to meet then player, now coach, and 2004 Olympic gold medalist for Argentina, Kily Gonzalez (talk about a very good day).
I also saw Messi play in person twice: the first time in March 2011 when Argentina played the U.S. at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. That match ended 1-1. I wore an Argentina jersey and a U.S. flag as a cape. The second time was the Copa America Centenario Final in 2016, also at the Meadowlands. I had decided last minute to attend. I paid $700 for a round-trip flight from Knoxville, Tennessee and $500 for a ticket. I went with my brother and three neutral friends. After 120 goalless minutes, Messi missed a penalty kick in front of my section of fans and Argentina lost its third final in a row without scoring. Afterward we sat in stadium traffic for over an hour. I got home and on Facebook wrote an impassioned defense of Messi, who announced his first brief international retirement after the match.
Occasionally, memories—for better or worse—embed themselves inside us. I don't know know what distinguishes the ones we can shake from the ones we can't. I've been telling more and more people recently that I worry for my memory. I can hardly remember anything anymore. This morning, I tried to force myself to recall each Argentina goal from this tournament; I couldn't even remember the scorelines from the group stage. I don't know if it's my own mind. If it's from living in a constant state of distraction. Checking my phone every five minutes to see if I've gotten a new notification or to scroll on Twitter. I hope I'm not alone, because that may signal that something is deeply wrong here, not just for our culture but for me too.
This Copa America Final I watched in my own living room with my brother, who had been visiting, and my friend DJ. We drank fernet con coca, beers that DJ brought, and water. We ate hot-wing-flavored ruffled barbecue chips and butter-snap pretzels (which Victor swears taste better stale). When Angel Di Maria scored I was briefly transported back my grandparent's spare room, just past 1 a.m., where I had laid on the bed alone and watched him score an even more outlandish chip to win the 2008 Olympic final, 1-0, for Argentina against Nigeria. Like that time, I celebrated with restraint, my daughter asleep—in her Argentina onesie—two rooms away from the living room. The game ended. Relief came. Messi had done it.
Because I stayed up for hours after the match ended reading articles and watching clips, recaps, analysis, and social media posts, I saw the YouTube video of the players gathered around Messi singing his redemption song. An almost entirely different group had sung it for Messi in 2014, when Argentina fell just short of winning a World Cup (coincidentally, losing the final in the same stadium in Brazil where they won this past weekend—talk about redemption). Then Messi had won the best player trophy, and stared into space. It's said that as soon as he got into the dressing room, he gave the trophy to a trusted member of the backroom staff and asked him to dispose of it. In an interview before the 2018 World Cup, Messi said he thinks of that final every day—walking by the cup on his way to the locker room, the missed chances, the celebrations that could've been.
Now Messi has a different memory. In the video, he is holding the trophy shirtless and dancing. He is singing along with his teammates. "By the hand of Leo Messi, we're all rounding the field now."
*The song meaning translates to English as: "Come, come! Sing with me! Here, you'll find a friend. From the hand of Leo Messi, we're going to round the field (in celebration)."
**I was in Mickey's living room in Bayonne, Jersey. Also there were our friends Steven Kim (who we called Estefano), Cesar Alvia, and Mickey's litle brother, Shakes. I sat on a couch to the left of the TV, which was in front of the window. We celebrated widly, piling on top of each other screaming.