RIO DE JANEIRO -- Christ the Redeemer looms over this city, a symbol of so many things. He is faith and he is doubt; he is hubris and he is humility. He stands on a green, steep-sided mountain above the madness, the crowded beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to his right, the cauldron of the Maracana to his left. Even for nonbelievers, the pilgrimage to see him is almost a given. He is on the short list of the places and objects that we have made iconic enough to have their own gravitational pull.
There are three ways to go up that mountain: There are railway tracks, there is a road and there is a footpath. Yesterday I took the path. I had been looking forward to that hike from my first days in Brazil. It had become, in my mind, the symbolic end of my World Cup, my transition from here to back there. If only for a few hours, I needed to supplant the thrill of watching with the satisfaction of doing.
The path starts in the lush Parque Lage. At first it is made of gleaming cobbles, but they quickly give way to a dirt path, almost a muddy rut, through the trees. The path there at the bottom is a switchback, and the rise is easy and gradual. It didn't require much effort or thought to navigate, and my mind began to wander. I thought of home and how close I am to it, just one game away. Covering the World Cup is a privilege. You still miss the people and things that you love about where you are from. Sometimes it takes going away to appreciate even the small corners of your ordinary universe.
But almost inevitably, I also began to think about this trip and this tournament, its moments that have stuck and I hope will stick forever.
In my first hours in Brazil, in the jammed streets of Sao Paulo, I went to the site of a fatal construction accident at the unfinished monorail, one of the countless projects that were promised to the citizens here in exchange for their hosting but has been left incomplete. I stood in the rubble and stared at the blood of a dead stranger streaked across the concrete. I couldn't find out his name, but that man shouldn't go invisible to us.
It seems as though we've wanted to forget that this World Cup is close to criminal, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on stadiums that already sit empty, the crush of the world's expectations put on a country that was never going to be able to meet them. We shouldn't forget because forgetting would be a sin of its own, but also because there are important lessons here in Brazil. If mistakes are to have any value -- to our own lives, to the world around us -- it is in how they teach us to fix them.
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Two nights later I was at the opening game. It seems so long ago, Brazil versus Croatia, the first of these 64 all-or-nothings. Everyone had hope then. A World Cup match, in the flesh, somehow transcends sports. It becomes something far larger than a game. For 90 minutes -- or more likely 120 minutes, at least in this year's knockout rounds -- it becomes the only thing that matters, as though the axis of the planet has temporarily adopted a different home. It becomes something you don't just see, but feel. I wish for every football fan to have that experience when you surrender to those little turns in your stomach, to the shivers in your legs and tremors in your chest. Brazil scored three and Croatia scored one, and that entire stadium inhaled and exhaled like lungs. We were off.
First came the jungles of Manaus and what remains my favorite single play of the tournament, Andrea Pirlo's dummy against England, a small victory for wisdom over the maximum power of youth. (That Michael Bradley later attempted two dummies and looked clumsy each time only confirmed Pirlo's beauty in my mind.) I can't even tell you how much I loved that little flash of perfect nonpossession.
But more to me, Manaus will be its ancient, gorgeous opera house. I went to it twice; it was such an unfathomable place. The first time, I went alone and sat in the quiet. The second time, I went with a friend of mine. Among the lasting benefits of a World Cup are the new friendships you make and the old friendships you affirm.
It was Father's Day, and my friend had lost his father not long before the tournament. We had spoken of him on our hot walk to the opera house; it was a conversation that made me want to be a more mindful father and son. Then we arrived and there so happened to be a rehearsal, the first strains of it leaking out into the street. My friend and I went inside and sat in the cool in one of the boxes, and we listened to the violins and voices soaring into space, and it was almost overwhelming, the magic of that moment. We sat there together for close to an hour and each made our silent prayers and resolutions.
* * *
After several tight turns, the path to Christ the Redeemer begins to straighten. It grows steeper but also prettier. The first of the waterfalls comes just then, a river of water that seems to pour out of an opening in the canopy, as though its source is the light before they run together down the rocks and on down the mountain. Then there is another waterfall, higher than the first, and then another, cool and splashing.
* * *
Natal followed Manaus, where John Brooks advanced the U.S. past Ghana with his miracle header -- now that was a noise. Then back to Sao Paulo to watch Luis Suarez score two against England, when it still seemed possible for him to rewrite his narrative, to defeat his curses with his gifts. Who could have known what was to come? He was the best of us that night, a man who could see the future and had the power within his feet to alter fate. The World Cup has a way of making a select few men who or what they will be forever. On that night, Suarez could have been everything that any of us could wish to be. Now here he is, a devil banned for his third bite. The days since then have made that only harder to believe.
The best action of the tournament -- the second half of Germany versus Ghana in Fortaleza -- was soon followed by the comedown of Recife. Recife and its sharks and its rain and the river of effluent that runs through its heart. Recife and its unforgivable stadium in the middle of a terrible nowhere. Recife and everything that this World Cup might have fixed but only worsened. Recife is also Mexico finally coming to life against Croatia, the U.S. surviving the floods and their loss to Germany, Costa Rica and Keylor Navas -- an anti-Suarez, a man who was made rather than destroyed here -- triumphing over the Greeks. But those were the only breaks in the clouds.
Thankfully Salvador came next, and it lived up to its name. The U.S. lost to Belgium, and yet Tim Howard was inspirational, one of those rare performances that you know will prove historic even when you're in the middle of it. I also felt the sun for the first time in more than a week and swam in the ocean. Those blessings turned everything around for me, a twin engine of spiritual buoyancy. They were a reminder that if you never feel trapped, you never feel as though you've escaped.
* * *
After the waterfalls, the path up the mountain is no longer really a path. It becomes steep and rocky, with roots and vines for handholds. The exertion felt good, and the steam began coming off my head and back. I was wet with sweat. That's the first time in my life I've seen my breath because of heat and humidity rather than cold, puffing like a dragon. In one especially steep stretch, a series of rusty chains is bolted into the face of the rock. It's hard, but it should be hard.
* * *
The quarterfinals came and went with the four favorites advancing, Germany beating France in Rio in a game that was less a physical feat than a test of wills. Maybe the Germans were saving themselves for Brazil in the semifinal. Seven goals still seems a ridiculously improbable number, especially the way the eliminations had gone, each one tight and tentative.
But something else happened that night in Belo Horizonte: the fracturing of a team that had been barely holding it together even before the loss of both its poles -- Thiago Silva at the center of the defense and Neymar as Brazil's beating, young heart. If Christ the Redeemer is gravity itself, that game is already antimatter in Brazil, a humiliation so complete that it has become a kind of void, a hole in the calendar. July 8 doesn't exist here anymore, less a shameful memory than a bad dream.
The hated Argentines and their growing armies in the streets of Rio -- tens of thousands of them, migrating north like optimistic birds -- are the only reminder of the destiny that did not come to pass. Lionel Messi was static against the Netherlands, but for the second consecutive World Cup, the Dutch inexplicably decided to become cynical at just the wrong time. I will never understand how that team turns Robin van Persie's glorious header -- still the goal of the tournament -- into Jasper Cillessen and the rest trying to play someone else's part. Maybe more than any game I've seen, that one contained the most simple and obvious lesson: Do not try to be someone you are not. You will be finished before you have the chance to start.
* * *
At last, near the top of the mountain after two hours of effort, the chains and the cliffs give way to a winding stretch of paved road. The buses of tourists who chose to be passengers zoom past. They arrive at the top, fresh and crisp. I walked up the last of the road muddy and soaked but feeling superior for it. There is an elevator to the monument itself, and there was a long line. Or there are empty stairs.
I took those last few steps up into the low clouds. And there was Christ the Redeemer, or at least the vague shadow of him, lost in the mist. I could see only his feet and the bottom of his robe clearly. The rest of him was a ghost. There was something almost too metaphoric about his vanishing, something about the mysteries of the unseen.
There was still a crowd of Argentines around the pedestal upon which he stands, drunk in their faith, singing their hymns of devotion. There were no Germans. There is only one game that matters left, and it is between them. They will play here Sunday in the Maracana, and Christ the Redeemer will be watching through the hole in the roof.
The final result will be written. The future will become history. It will say there is only one winner, but I don't think that's true. The real blessing of the World Cup, of being here, is that even by watching, you are in some ways doing. You are making choices. You are seeing things that are beyond you, things that you and your country might never possess. But there are openings and opportunities within even the toughest games if you look hard enough. There are old men performing magic tricks and opera, and there are oceans of impossibilities to get lost in.
It doesn't matter if you climb the mountain and can't see what you expected or wanted to see, because that pushes you to search for meaning elsewhere, within rather than without. The fog forces you to redirect, to search and to wonder. The World Cup, like Christ the Redeemer, lives among our objects of gravity because of the grounding it gives us. It isn't just a chance for someone else to be the best. It is a chance for all of us to want to do better.