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Jun 25, 2014

Houseman relives his Cup moment

BUENOS AIRES -- Rene Houseman won the World Cup in 1978, scoring a goal in the semifinal to help Argentina reach the final, and now he's sitting at the football club where he first played, a port of last resort, trying to bum enough money to buy a pack of smokes. Wearing an adidas sweatshirt, he holds a Marlboro Red between his thumb and index finger, smoking it down to the nub. He seems sober today, thinking about all the little treasures he sold over the years to fund his next drink, wishing he had those things back.

Only a few things remain.

"My gold medal," he says, "my mother-in-law has it, or else I would have sold it. Even if I asked her to please have it, she would not give it to me."

In a rare moment of lucidity, he gave her the champion's medal and the blue-and-white Argentina jersey he wore 36 years ago in the World Cup final. Those things she keeps for his grandson, as a reminder that legacies are what you make of them. The medal and jersey are safe from his daily needs.

"That was very smart," he's told.

"This time, yes," he says, sounding full of regret but also a hard-earned humor about the way it turned out.

Sometimes it's difficult to remember, during the madness of this month, that winning the World Cup isn't always a life-changing event. That's the popular narrative, that history is being made, and that the size and weight of that history somehow alters the arc of every life who passes through it. That's not true. Some champions end up Pele, and others end up living middle-class lives, and some spiral until they land back where they started.

Rene still remembers that night after the final, which didn't change his life but marked the moment it peaked. He remembers it fondly.

The game ended, and he needed to stop by his house on the way to the celebration because he'd forgotten to bring his suit. He lived just six blocks from the stadium, so he pulled a hoodie over his uniform and slipped into the crowd. People sang, and cried, and he got the rare gift of seeing what his work on the field meant to the people in the stands. When he made it home, he stepped onto his balcony and held up victory fingers, and the people cheered him. The echoes of those cheers, unlike all the things he sold, never fade, which is both their blessing and their curse.

"They're nice memories," he says.

His boyhood club, like its greatest player, has seen better days, but it is the place where Houseman feels at home. When he's by himself, he looks around and takes note of all the changes, and on rare occasions, when nobody is watching, he'll take a ball onto the field, like he did when he was a young man. "But as I have arthritis," he says, "I try not to be ridiculous if some boy is looking. Remember, I'm 60."

Much of the time, he sits in the bleachers of the club's indoor gymnasium, watching kids play 5-on-5 "baby football," as little league is called in Argentina. His 12-year-old grandson plays now, and he's got some talent. Rene isn't hard on him, like he was on his own son. He's learned a lot since then. Now he just enjoys seeing his grandson happy playing the game, which Rene Houseman knows is a beautiful, fleeting thing.