If you are going to be anywhere in the world when Argentina play France in the World Cup final, it might as well be Villa La Angostura.
The small, neat tourist town slotted between Lago Correntoso and Lago Nahuel Huapi in Argentina’s Seven Lakes region is postcard perfect. It’s all mountains with remnants of winter snow, garbed in forest lower down all the way to the waterlines of impossibly blue lakes.
I camped in a grotty little campground on the bank of Lago Correntoso. The scenic surroundings more than made up for the grubbiness of the amenities.
Sunday morning I rode the four or five kays into town for a late breakfast and some wi-fi. I was trying to find out when the final would start. Midday, as it turned out, so I didn’t have long to wait.
It was a beautiful day and the morning sunshine was pregnant with expectation. Locals and tourists alike strolled the main street as excitement built.
I sat out on the street and watched the passing parade over scrambled eggs and bacon (found, amusingly, under the ‘Salty Dishes’ section of the English version of the cafe’s menu). Greetings and cries of “Vamos Argentina” bounced from one sky blue and white-clad knot of people to another.
Breakfast done, I scanned for a place to watch the game. There was a telly inside the cafe, but I had about as much hope of getting a seat as Australia has of ever lifting the oddly phallic World Cup trophy.
The local servo looked likely. Inside the dining area (they all have them here) the chairs and tables were rearranged theatre style before a TV up on the wall. On the screen the usual pre-game bullshit was unfolding, so I grabbed the promo coffee and two medialunas (Argentine sweet croissants) deal, and managed to snag one of the few remaining chairs in the front row.
Around me waiting for the first whistle were intense looking young men, truckers with grubby shirts and round bellies that spilled over their jeans, young mums with energetic toddlers, older families with primary-age kids and young teens, a few single girls in their early twenties, a clutch of teenage boys and even a few oldies. The main street outside, which had been humming half an hour before, was very quiet with almost no traffic.
The game began well enough for Argentina. A Lionel Messi spot kick was hammered home, then the little master set up Angel Di Maria to slot in a sweet strike about 15 minutes later. Argentina were harrying the French, making constant incursions on their goal area. They looked hungry and motivated, while the French battled to keep them at bay.
The crowd in the servo was swinging with every twist and turn. Whenever a chance was taken, a good shot made or an effective tackle delivered, they clapped appreciatively. When the goals went in, they went nuts.
At half-time, the atmosphere was relaxed, with a whiff of tension. Their team was in charge, but there were 45 minutes left to go – or so we thought. The men went outside to smoke, talk on their phones and dissect the first half action like a convention of commentators.
Second half, and the game started to turn. Argentina started to look tired, while the French had found some legs, and some gaps. Kylian Mbappé earned a spot kick to drag one back, then struck again with an imperious, devastating volley to level up just a minute or so later.
In the servo, the crowd was deathly quiet. The game had been turned on its head and they had the migraine. There was a small, wiry man with skin like old brown leather sitting next to me, and I swear he was quietly sobbing.
Argentina mounted a fightback and found some of their first-half form, but the French defence was up to the task. This one was going to extra time.
Another exodus to the sunshine to smoke and chat, and then we were back. The sky blue and whites looked better and had the lion’s share of the attack. The French, however, would not give in and soon applied their own heat, forcing the Argentines to defend frantically at times. For the first 15 minutes of extra time and into the second stanza, the momentum was shoved back and forth like a bottle between two old winos.
Messi was here, there and everywhere, but the French had his number and were not as intimidated or bamboozled by him as they seemed to be in the first half.
Argentina launched another attack. The French looked all at sea. The ball pinged crazily from one man to another in the goal square before Messi – it had to be Messi – created order from chaos and poked it towards goal. A French defender gamely thrust his leg at the ball, but it had crossed the line. There was a moment of confusion then the servo stadium erupted.
Just a few minutes later it was deathly quiet once again. Mbappé cannoned in another spot kick, courtesy of an elbow ricochet from an Argentine defender that was judged a handball. This one was going to a penalty shoot-out.
While the teams on the telly received last-minute rev-ups from their coaches, the servo stadium crowd waited nervously. Stress dripped from the walls and curled around our feet like a fog.
First up was Mbappé. He went three from three with relative ease. Messi took Argentina’s first shot. Opting for guile, he feinting one way then prodded the ball gently into the opposite corner of the net once poor old Lloris had been completely sucked in.
The next French attempt was when things got really interesting. Martinez, the Argentine keeper, read the kick beautifully and lunged to his right to knock it away.
The servo went apeshit. The gas had been turned back up and the flame of hope was roaring once more.
Argentina found the back of the net again with their next shot. And when Martinez made a second save off the French, the locals and their team had victory in their grasp.
When their next shot was drilled home for good measure, that was it. Argentina were champions of the football world.
The reaction from the servo crowd was ecstatic, but also strangely reserved. I think it was relief.
This country is suffering, and it needed this win. It was like everyone just wanted to take a moment to soak it all in, to make sure it was real.
Their currency is losing value by the day, while inflation eats away at savings and earnings like an aggressive cancer. A previous president has just been found guilty of corruption, and faith in those institutions that buttress daily life is ebbing away as people struggle and scrape to make a living.
Yep, the Argentines – a lovely, friendly, welcoming people battered by incompetency and greed – needed this.
The victory procession began a few minutes later. Outside the servo, first one, then two, then a continuous stream of cars, utes, trucks and bikes carrying deliriously happy people passed by. They honked horns, blew trumpets, waved flags and revved engines. Others marched up and down the footpaths singing and cheering. The party had started.
I watched the river of elation flow past for a while, then got on my bike and rode back to the campground. There, you wouldn’t have even known there had been a World Cup final. It was quieter than it otherwise might have been on a sunny Sunday afternoon – no families roasting half cows over open fires and chattering contentedly like the previous days.
Instead, a few people lolled on the beach soaking up the rays. Here a couple bobbed on the blue water in a lime green kayak. There a trio of kids dug in the gritty black sand.
The mountains that stand guard over this lake don’t care about football. They were here long before the first ball was kicked, before the first player took a dive, and they will be here long after the game is forgotten. The lake doesn’t care either – its ripples not subject to tournament success or national pride.
Those in town may not sleep much tonight, but on the lake it is as lazy and peaceful as ever. If you are going to be anywhere in the world when Argentina win the World Cup, it might as well be here.