RIO DE JANEIRO -- The Argentines had gone 455 consecutive minutes without conceding a goal in the hardest football tournament in the world. Together, they had shut down what had seemed the whole of Western Europe -- first Switzerland in the round of 16, then Belgium in the quarters, the Netherlands in the semis and now mighty, relentless Germany in the final. The same team that scored seven goals against Brazil had so far managed only a post.
But deep into the second half of extra time, a dangerous cross sailed into the Argentine box off the foot of Andre Schurrle. It curled between two defenders, and little Mario Gotze felt it thud against his chest.
The ball hung in the air. Nobody knew it yet, but it had all come down to this.
With each successive win, with each step toward impossible dreams coming true, more and more Argentines had flooded north into Brazil, migrating in convoys of the hopeful. They were pilgrims. They eased their rattling cars into parking spots along the beachside streets of Rio, with their black license plates betraying their allegiance. They pulled thin, foam mattresses out of their cars and slept on the sidewalks. They woke up and assembled tiny gas cookers and heated up their breakfasts. Then they ran into the ocean in place of showers and began to drink and sing in the same streets where late in the night they would again make their beds. These were rituals of belief that they have long known by heart.
They were still singing when they rolled toward the Maracana on Sunday afternoon, packing into subways and thumping the seats to keep the beat. Mostly, they sang a song that mocked Brazil and their ugly World Cup fate. There is no love lost between these neighbors, the titans of South America. They are rivals far beyond the pitch, and when the Germans first took to it under the lights of the Maracana, the many Brazilians in the crowd cheered as though they were cheering for their own.
Against that twin assault the Argentines stood tall. The Germans out-possessed them and out-ran them, but they still somehow managed the better chances -- a succession of near-misses by their would-be heroes, Gonzalo Higuain, Rodrigo Palacio and Lionel Messi, most and worst of all. He carved wide shots that might have propelled his country to a different end.
After 112 minutes of stalemate -- and 455 minutes of miracle -- there was the ball, hanging in front of Gotze. He dropped down and caught it with his left foot before it hit the ground, and it ripped past Sergio Romero, stretched out. The keeper had time to turn his head and watch the shot tear into the side of his goal. Two penalties in the shootout against the Netherlands excepted, it was the first time he'd had to pick a ball out of his net since the Nigerians scored on him on June 25.
Imagine that -- in the cauldron of the World Cup, in your enemy's house, going 18 sleepless days without allowing a goal.
Claiming the World Cup, though, even given defensive near-perfection, requires you to score goals too, and the Argentines could manage only two in their past four games. That had been enough to advance, if barely, but it was not enough to win when there were no more games to go. It's amazing how something so big -- these months and years of effort, game after game after game -- comes down to something so small: a ball inside a post instead of outside it; an opponent's moment of perfection after however many broken chances.
Messi -- of course, it had to be Messi -- had the last meaningful chance to keep the big things possible, with a free kick outside the German box. Here was the moment those same pilgrims who had driven through the night to sleep on the street would receive their communion, when every verse and chorus of their songs would come true.
Instead, his free kick sailed into the crowd -- into the hands of German fans. They began to celebrate their historic victory, and the Brazilians began to celebrate their hollow one, and the Argentines, for the first time in this tournament, didn't make any noise at all. Their improbable run was over.
And yet the Argentines, these Argentines, were still standing in a wall after the final whistle blew. The players gathered in a small, blue bundle in the middle of the field. They stood maybe 10 yards from the ecstatic Germans. They folded their arms and let their eyes go red and forced themselves to stare. Occasionally they turned to hug each other, to kiss each other on the head. Then they continued with their watching of what might have been.
Finally, Messi was called forward, out of their midst. He stood near the sideline with his hands on his hips, alone. He looked into the middle distance, into the crowd of tearful fans, covering their faces with their flags. He followed Manuel Neuer, the towering German goalkeeper, up the stadium steps. Messi watched him receive the Golden Glove award for the tournament's best maker of saves.
Next, Messi received his prize of such limited consolation -- the Golden Ball award, given to the World Cup's most outstanding player. He looked down at it, and for the first time seemed as though he might join his countrymen in their tears. He returned to the field and led the rest of his teammates back into the stands. They walked between two lines of appreciative Germans, a touching little scene, and now the crowd really cheered for them, with maybe even a few Brazilians joining in, saluting the second-best collection of football players in the world. They received silver medals around their necks.
Messi was the first to take his off.
Then it was the Germans' turn to climb the stairs, and the confetti and the fireworks exploded into the warm night sky. The Argentines had stopped watching by then. They were back on the field, walking toward the far end of the pitch, having finally turned their backs on the paradise they had come so close to seeing. While the air lit up around them, they raised their hands to their fans, and the fans raised their hands in return, and then they applauded each other, the thousands raining down their affection on their favored 23. If only for a moment, if for the last time in their lives, the Argentines were glad for their hands to be empty.