BUENOS AIRES — There were going to be tears either way.
In the Colegiales neighborhood, speech therapist Angeles Usovich erupted into tears after the final penalty kick, falling to her knees on the pavement as she called her father to celebrate.
“Aguante Argentina,” she shouted into the phone. “Argentina endures.”
Indeed, many in this soccer-obsessed South American nation have said they badly needed something to celebrate. Soaring inflation has meant hard economic times for its 47 million residents, many of whom have had to forgo vacations or skip buying beef for their famed asados, or barbecues. The recent conviction and sentencing of Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on corruption charges has also further polarized an already divided political landscape.
On the sprawling Avenida 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, though, none of that seemed to matter: La Albiceleste had taken home its third World Cup — a crowning berth for Lionel Messi, the 35-year-old forward and team captain.
“We did it,” shouted 9-year-old Juan Cruz, wearing Messi’s last name on a sky blue and white jersey and carrying a bearded Messi mask. “He’s the greatest in the world.”
Widely considered one of the best to ever play the game, Messi had long been missing the biggest title in international soccer. That absence on his résumé had strained an already complicated relationship between Messi and his home country, which he left for Spain at the age of 13.
Some Argentines had criticized him for failing to bring them back a World Cup trophy since his 2006 debut, saying he was more European than Argentinean. They often placed him second to Diego Maradona, the brash soccer legend who led the selección, another name for the national team, to its most recent World Cup victory — in 1986, just before Messi was born.
No more. After Messi opened up the scoring in the first half with a soaring penalty kick over French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, several thousand people watching on giant screens in Buenos Aires’s Plaza Intendente Seeber could not stop cheering.
“Leo,” one person from the crowd shouted, “we love you!”
That penalty kick was far from enough to secure an easy win. France equalized the score with two quick-succession goals late in the second half, pushing the game to extra time. And after Messi scored another stunner in the 108th minute, Kylian Mbappé again tied the game and forced a penalty shootout.
Lola Del Valle, a 22-year-old college student, said Argentines would have celebrated Messi no matter the outcome of Sunday’s game. But his leadership of the team showed why Messi is, as she put it, “100 percent Argentinean.”
“Messi has been through everything. He’s tried a million times, he’s lost a million times, trying to live up to Maradona’s legacy,” she said. Even after momentarily quitting the team a few years ago, “he kept fighting and he finally did it.”
And that? “That’s why he has endurance,” she said. “That’s why he has aguante.”
The road to the finals in Qatar had been an anxious, intense, and often painful one. After a humiliating group-stage loss to Saudi Arabia, the team saw early leads collapse with a late-match close call against Australia and then another penalty faceoff against the Netherlands.
But Carina Molina, 37, said that was almost true to form for Argentina.
“We always try to get ahead, but there’s something that keeps us back,” she said. “We did it, though. My heart is about to explode out of my chest.”
Molina is not old enough to remember Argentina’s most recent World Cup victory when she was a toddler, but she played soccer for most of her childhood and adolescence. A longtime admirer of the national team, she emerged from her apartment crying, too.
“I’m just totally overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s incredible.”
Several hours after the match concluded, the streets of Buenos Aires were caught in a paralyzing standstill. Soccer fans blocked off many major roads, heading downtown in a blue-and-white procession to join the packed crowds at the Obelisk monument.
Many of the city’s subways were closed, and the few buses running were filled to the brim with fans heading there, too.
So as the crowds walked, they sang the soccer chant that has become the most popular way here to root on the team over the course of this tournament. It’s a lyrical mantra that places both Messi and Maradona in equal regard, with lyrics that go like this:
I can’t explain it to you, because you won’t understand
The finals we lost, how many years I cried
But that’s over, guys, now we’re getting our hopes up again
I wanna win the third one, I wanna be a World Champion
At the plaza earlier, 27-year-old Jorge Valderrama screamed as Gonzalo Montiel converted the final penalty kick. “Finally!” he exclaimed.
By the end of the match, he and thousands of others packed into this city-run viewing area were more satisfied than excited, perhaps worn out after a nail-biter that some have already called one of the most thrilling World Cup finals in history.
Nearby, an Argentine flag hanging on a railing had a message etched out in paint: “We deserve beautiful miracles,” it said in Spanish, “and they will happen.”
For Argentines on Sunday, it seems, they did.