ROSARIO — It was the perfect way for a city and a country to celebrate its Independence Day. After two tense, scoreless hours, the catharsis came for Argentina as they outlasted the Netherlands on a 9 de Julio that will be remembered for decades to come and advanced to the World Cup final for the first time in over two decades.
As Maxi Rodriguez tapped the final penalty kick past Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen to send Argentina to its first World Cup final since 1990, the crowd with which I sat watching the match in a riverside bar on the banks of the Parana River in Rosario lost itself in elation. Patrons leaped into the air, hugged one another, the water works flowing freely from eyes that were still wide in disbelief at the events that had transpired over the past 120 minutes and through eight penalty kicks.
The oft-maligned Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero, not even the first-choice keeper at Serie A side Sampdoria in Italy, came up bigger than any goalkeeper for the Albiceleste since Sergio Goycochea led Argentina to the 1990 World Cup final in Italy and back-to-back Copa America titles in 1991 and 1993. Romero, guessing correctly to stop both Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder in the penalty shootout, fueled the victory after two hours of keeping a clean sheet against the high-powered Dutch offense.
There was Javier Mascherano, the tough-as-nails defender that had shaken off what might very well have been concussion symptoms to stay in the match and solidify the best defensive performance by the Argentine side thus far in the tournament. Mascherano, encouraging Romero before the shootout commenced, has been nothing short of a hero to people throughout the Santa Fe district. A local news station insisted on having breakfast with his parents after the match, and Twitter went ablaze with #maschefacts for days afterward.
Rosarinos have long had an outsized influence on Argentina’s performances at the preeminent national tournament. There was Cesar Luis Menotti, the manager that led the national side to victory in the controversial 1978 World Cup on home soil. Mario Kempes, the hero of that squad that scored a brace against the Netherlands in that year’s final, hailed from nearby Cordoba.
Over the years, Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central have churned out one national team player after another for Argentina. The current generation includes three of the four men who scored in the penalty shootout — Lionel Messi, the oft-maligned Barcelona goal-poacher that has metamorphosed into a figure of adulation for Argentinians over the past month; Ezequiel Garay, the tough-as-nails defender that coolly deposited the ball past Cillessen; and Maxi, the local boy still playing for Newell’s in the Argentine Primera Division that knocked the decisive ball into the net.
The city erupted after the goal, more than 50,000 people making their way toward the Monumental Nacional de la Bandera (commemorating the creation of the national flag in the city in 1812 by Manuel Belgrano) to sing and dance and watch the fireworks overhead. Serenades of “Vamos, Vamos, Argentina” and “Brasil, Decime Que Se Siente” roared into the temperate winter sky as the thousands assembled toasted the good fortune that had the country on the cusp of its third World Cup trophy.
Germany still awaits, but for one night there were celebrations ringing out in a city that had played a major role in the tournament to this point. Even with another favorite son, Angel Di Maria, sidelined with a thigh injury that may or may not be healed by Sunday’s final, Argentina has been uplifted in a way that few events besides the World Cup can cause. Two years away from the official celebration of the republic’s bicentennial, Messi and crew could create a sense of elation that was robbed from the Kempes-led team by the atrocities of the junta and that proved to be transitory during Maradona’s reign. And should the Albiceleste pull off the improbable against the well-oiled German machine at the Maracana in two days, the crowd will only get more insane as they flock to the Monumento for a celebration that will eclipse anything Wednesday could ever offer.