Messi tries to end a losing streak for Argentina : La última copa/The Last Cup With the disappointment of the 2010 World Cup behind them, Argentines are hopeful that Lionel Messi might break their losing streak at the 2011 Copa America, the largest tournament in South America. Messi is prepared to give his all, looking for a way to deliver a victory for his home country. Meanwhile, host Jasmine Garsd makes the long journey back to Argentina after many years away and faces an unexpected tragedy.

Argentina hasn't won a World Cup in 36 years. Some fans think a curse is to blame

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JASMINE GARSD, HOST:

Hi there. Thanks for listening to THE LAST CUP. We'd love to know what you think about this podcast. Please help us out by telling us what you like and how we could improve by completing a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/lastcupsurvey.

THE LAST CUP is available in English and Spanish. This is the English version.

(Speaking Spanish).

Before we begin today's show, a quick language advisory - today's episode contains explicit language.

I'm going to tell you a secret - something that I've been holding in for a really long time. It's me. I'm the reason Argentina lost against the Germans in the 2014 World Cup final.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL CHUKI'S "AMARILLA MARACUYA")

GARSD: Yes, the one where Lionel Messi almost, almost turned us into champions of the world. So there's these really disgusting socks I have, right? They're ancient. They're lime green, with avocados printed on them. They might have actual guacamole stains on them for some reason. Anyways, I've made a deal with the universe that, if I wear these socks, Argentina will win. It's a heavy burden - the fate of an entire nation resting literally on my feet. But you know what? Heroes aren't born. They're made. Anyways, a few days before we played against Germany, it was really hot outside, and the socks just didn't go well with my outfit. I did not wear the socks.

SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: It is, and that is it. Germany are the champions of the world for the first time since 1990.

(APPLAUSE)

GARSD: Whew. I have been carrying this guilt with me for a very long time, and it's such a relief to get it off my chest. Everyone can stop blaming Messi because it was me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL CHUKI'S "AMARILLA MARACUYA")

GARSD: All sports have curses. The Red Sox went 86 years without winning a World Series because of the curse of the Bambino. In the NFL, it's well known that if a player appears on the cover of the Madden video game, they will have a serious injury. And perhaps one of the most international of curses is the Mick Jagger curse. He has been accused of jinxing a whole array of soccer teams in World Cups just by showing his support for them. Argentina allegedly has a curse of its own. It goes back to 1986. In preparation for the World Cup, the national squad trained in the mountain town of Tilcara, in Argentina. The players from the '86 squad vehemently deny what happens next, which is exactly what someone would do if they were responsible for a three-decade curse. But the townspeople - they say the team paid a visit to a local church to ask the Virgin of Tilcara for a blessing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAT GARCIA SONG, "TODOS TIENEN UN PLAN")

GARSD: HBO in Argentina eventually did an expose on this. They interviewed a local woman who worked with the team while they were there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LA MALDICION DE TILCARA - LA HISTORIA DE LA VIRGEN Y LA SELECCION DE 1986")

SARA VERA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She says the Argentine coach said to her, if we win the World Cup, we will come back and thank the Virgin on our knees.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LA MALDICION DE TILCARA - LA HISTORIA DE LA VIRGEN Y LA SELECCION DE 1986")

VERA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: And guess what?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Argentina has won the World Cup for the second time in one of the most dramatic finals in the history of the competition.

GARSD: With Maradona at the helm, Argentina wins the championship. And allegedly, none of them went back to thank the Virgin. Dudes, what were you thinking? That's not how it works. Anyways, ever since, they say, the Argentine national team has been living under the curse of the Virgin of Tilcara. The players from '86 denied the whole story ever happened. Here's Checho Batista.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGIO CHECHO BATISTA: (Through interpreter) I don't know who said this. They made this up, and we have nothing to do with this. I don't know what this whole promise thing is. We didn't promise anything, and we didn't go to the Virgin.

GARSD: But the legend of the curse has been so persistent. A few years ago, at a game played in Bolivia, fans unfurled this massive Argentine flag. And painted on it was a message for the squad of '86 - return to Tilcara. Fulfill your promise. From NPR and Futuro Studios, this is THE LAST CUP. I'm Jasmine Garsd. Today on the show, Messi tries to break a curse, but not all curses can be broken.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAT GARCIA SONG, "TODO ES CONECTIVIDAD")

GARSD: THE LAST CUP returns after the break.

If you ask me if I believe in the curse of Tilcara, I would respond that I'm a person who wears lucky socks. I'm not exactly at the apex of rational thinking over here. But look; if you do believe in the curse, then that's the reason we started losing so many big tournaments after 1986 - a losing streak that lasted decades. And that is the Argentine team that Messi walks into when he joins - a losing team. Messi is seen as the team's chance to turn things around because, by the late 2000s, early 2010s, he's becoming well-established as...

TIM STANNARD: The best football player in the world.

GARSD: The best player in the world.

STANNARD: Leo Messi from Barcelona.

GARSD: He's scoring record numbers of goals with Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Forty-seven goals last season, up and running inside 3 minutes in Santander.

GARSD: He's winning Ballon d'Ors - the highest honor in European soccer.

MARK ELKINGTON: You've got to remember he's only 25. In theory, he's not even at his peak yet.

GARSD: He's a household name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #4: Every little boy wearing his shirt - Messi on a million backs.

GARSD: He has endorsement deals with Pepsi, Adidas, KFC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMBA RASHI: Messi just signed my shirt, and he's my best player.

GARSD: People around the world are crazy for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I love you, Messi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Because he's one of the greatest players in the world, all right? And the next World Cup, he's going to lift the trophy for Argentina.

GARSD: But in Argentina - eh - it's not going that well. His track record with the national team - it's unimpressive. Let's go through some of it. He barely played in his first World Cup in 2006. He wins us the 2008 Olympics, but people don't care that much about the Olympics in soccer. In the 2010 World Cup, with Maradona as coach, he fails to score a single goal. So yeah, not the same soccer messiah that we were seeing play for Barcelona. Then, 2011 rolls around. Checho Batista was coach of the national team, and he says winning for Argentina meant everything to this kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BATISTA: (Through interpreter) Messi said it was always about winning something with the national team. He loved the country, loved the team, and wanted to win them something before he was done.

GARSD: So the pressure is on, and people's patience in Argentina - it's really running out.

FELIPE CARDENAS: They hadn't won a tournament since 1993.

GARSD: Felipe Cardenas is a writer for the sports site The Athletic. He says 2011 is seen as this big year for Argentine soccer. It was the Copa America, which is like a World Cup, but just for South America.

CARDENAS: Hosted, you know, by Argentina - it was like, this is the one. This is the one that Argentina's finally going to win it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #5: Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, Colombia, Paraguay and more will battle it out for the 2011 Copa America, live from Argentina.

GARSD: It was Messi's chance to become homecoming king. Coach Checho's plan that year was to put an end to the team relying on Messi all the time - be more strategic about how to deploy the best player in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BATISTA: (Through interpreter) The strategy was to let Lionel play where he feels comfortable - let him have fun.

(Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: But fun was nowhere in the picture. In fact, this Copa America - this is where I always felt that Messi lost Argentina. It happened during this one game against Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: It was a cold, foggy night at The Elephant Cemetery. That's what they call the Colon soccer stadium in the province of Santa Fe, Argentina - The Elephant Cemetery - because it's a place where the great teams lose. And right from the get-go, you can tell, tonight, the vibe is off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIMNO NACIONAL ARGENTINO")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: The players line up to sing the anthem. One of the star players, Carlos Tevez, is, like, really belting it out. Everyone's singing, except Messi. He just looks down silently. He seems, like, deeply unhappy. It's all downhill from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDENAS: You have midfielders that - they're not even looking at anyone else. They're just trying to figure out - how do I get the ball to Lionel Messi?

GARSD: Felipe Cardenas says the Argentina team during that time was stuck in Messi dependencia - Messi addiction. They were totally reliant on him. In this game, Argentina looks like zombies stumbling around in the fog.

CARDENAS: There wasn't a true identity of what the team really wanted to play like.

GARSD: Completely uncoordinated - missed passes, lost opportunities, players from the same team fighting for the ball. And Messi, the would-be curse-breaker - he's just walking around, looking lost on the field. And then he gets one last chance. By around the middle of the second half, Messi takes a free kick, which could actually turn things around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "A perfect chance for Messi," the announcer notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Except Messi doesn't just miss the kick - it's not even remotely close. It looks like he just kicked it angrily into the stadium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Into the clouds," says the announcer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #7: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "I can't believe what I'm seeing," he says. Messi covers his face with his arm. And this is when the crowd just starts whistling and heckling.

(WHISTLING)

GARSD: Have you ever seen a crowd turn? It's kind of terrifying. It's like a monster with a thousand heads that cannot be reined back in. It's a little hard to make out that the crowd, that thousand-headed creature in the stands, starts to roar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #8: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Diego, Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Diego, Diego.

GARSD: They are invoking Maradona's name, and they're singing it at Messi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #8: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDENAS: That was really - I think, you know, it was a turning point for Messi. The scrutiny from the Argentine fans throughout that tournament - you could feel in every game the - it was very tense. The anxiety was at a high level.

GARSD: In the stands, his parents, his girlfriend are watching it all go down. Also, somewhere in the crowd, Hugo Tocalli, Messi's first Argentine coach, the guy who brought him back from Spain, is watching, horrified.

HUGO TOCALLI: (Through interpreter) I was crying because I know how much he sacrificed to come play for the national team. When I got up to leave, I saw his father. I didn't want to go up to him. He left all the money in the world to play with us. And this is how we treat him. Spain would have given him all the money in the world.

GARSD: After six hours, the game finally ends. I'm kidding. It was 90 minutes, but I promise it felt like many hours of agony, and not a single goal was scored. Coach Checho says after the game, Messi was in bad shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BATISTA: (Through interpreter) It made you sad to see him like that. Just imagine how it feels. He's the best player in the world. He gives it his all, but can't seem to give the national team what the people want from him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAT GARCIA SONG, "CAMINO SOBRE PIEDRAS")

GARSD: After the game, a local network interviewed infuriated fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Do you know how much I paid to come out here tonight and watch them just walk around the field?" says one guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Messi is a loser," says the other one. "He's got nothing - no balls, no soul." Which is the name of my new feminist heavy metal band. "And another thing," says a third fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "It's really disrespectful that we compare him to Maradona. F off - he doesn't have the same blood running through his veins as Maradona."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Messi is a lie."

(SOUNDBITE OF DAT GARCIA SONG, "CAMINO SOBRE PIEDRAS")

GARSD: After the break...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: ...Argentine fans ask themselves, does Messi even belong here?

Coach Checho Batista knows, in Argentina, when you lose a game, you don't even leave your house. You don't go out to dinner.

BATISTA: (Through interpreter) You'll be out eating with your wife or your kids and strangers will pass by and insult you, yell at you because you lost a game.

GARSD: You aren't to be seen in public.

BATISTA: (Through interpreter) You know how it is here. If it goes well for you, you're a hero. But if it goes badly, you're worthless - nothing. There's no middle ground in soccer here. When I lost, they'd kill me.

GARSD: Felipe Cardenas.

CARDENAS: In South America, the fandom and the passion for the sport just is consistently crossing the line. It's just the way that we were raised. There was a statue in Argentina that was erected in honor of Lionel Messi. That statue was vandalized over the years when he wasn't winning games. I mean, just - it's an incredible turn of events for a player that all he ever wanted was to be loved and successful for his national team.

GARSD: And after that terrible game against Colombia, where tens of thousands of fans taunted Messi in his own home in front of his loved ones, Coach Checho started getting a little worried about him. He thought...

BATISTA: (Through interpreter) We lost him. That's it. We lost him forever. He's never coming back.

GARSD: In the years after the 2011 fiasco, Messi's performance with Argentina became a national obsession. Round tables of philosophers and psychologists would go on TV and pontificate on why. How come he plays so well in Europe, but he can't win for us? Maybe, some proposed, he needs to go to therapy. And it's not just intellectuals with beautiful scarves offering gentle, constructive criticism. This gets really vitriolic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLAVIO AZZARO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Meet soccer commentator and one of the loudest critics of Messi back in the day, Flavio Azzaro, who has straight up called for Messi to quit the team.

AZZARO: (Through interpreter) Messi never ever up until today has ever played for Argentina like he played for Barcelona - ever.

GARSD: Azzaro kind of looks like Michael Imperioli from "The Sopranos." He was a bit hoarse when I interviewed him - I suspect from smoking and screaming about soccer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AZZARO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Back in the day, he reported on Messi's fiascos with the Argentine team, which seemed to be the bane of his existence. Like here he is freaking out about Messi's constant sulking face on the field.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AZZARO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: His face, says Azzaro, is not a minor problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AZZARO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "This kid's face is giving me nothing." Azzaro couldn't stand Messi. He hated that the kid couldn't be bothered to sing the anthem, that he was so soft-spoken. He never got into fights on the field. He just walked around looking down at his cleats. He just lacked the swagger of his beloved Maradona. Where's my fur-jacket-wearing dirt field champ? Where's my Robin Hood and his men in cleats?

AZZARO: (Through interpreter) The problem with Messi is when he's faced with adversity, when things don't go his way.

GARSD: Azzaro felt like Messi - he wasn't even really trying. He was just phoning it in.

AZZARO: (Through interpreter) Argentina would be lagging behind, and Messi - Messi would be like (groaning) walking around the field. Son of a bitch, you're the best. Yeah, I'm going to ask more of you because you're supposed to be the best.

GARSD: "Stop walking the field with your resting melancholy face."

AZZARO: (Through interpreter) And with Messi, Argentina would lose, and it was as if nothing happened.

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish).

"Is that what bothered you?" I asked him.

AZZARO: (Through interpreter) Of course it did. It bothered me and 70% of Argentinians in 2011.

SIMON KUPER: I dispute that he doesn't play well for Argentina.

GARSD: Journalist Simon Kuper has written a lot about Messi. And he thinks Azzaro has it completely wrong. Messi has taken Argentina to five World Cup and Copa America finals combined. For any country, that's a great record. We just have crazy expectations.

KUPER: He's not as good for Argentina as Barcelona because the players he plays with aren't as good. He's played with a lot of very mediocre people whose names I won't mention during his Argentina career, shockingly mediocre performance. And he takes them to World Cups.

GARSD: If anything, Kuper says, we should be thankful that Messi is able to carry us so far. But not only were a lot of people not thankful to Messi. Back in those years, people were questioning whether he even belonged here. There was a sense, a fear that maybe he couldn't win for us like he won for Barca because he wasn't Argentine anymore. Almost like he'd rather win for Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AZZARO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Messi has nothing to do with Argentina," Azzaro says in this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AZZARO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "He's European. He was raised in Barcelona."

When I interviewed Azzaro, he repeated that sentiment.

AZZARO: (Through interpreter) Messi is European. He's an Argentinian who went to Europe and was raised in a society that is much, much calmer, where your money doesn't lose value every day. Messi has been taken care of since he was very small. He ate well. He had a nice house. He had good cleats. He never had to take the bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAT GARCIA SONG, "LA PLUMA DORADA")

GARSD: Azzaro is hitting on something real. For many Argentines, Messi inspired resentment. Like, what? You play well if you get paid in euros, but you can't be bothered for pesos?

CARDENAS: The fans were like, you don't feel the same things we feel. You don't suffer the same way we suffer. You fly in, and you play, and then you fly out.

GARSD: This is where his story really hits me personally, like, right in the gut.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAT GARCIA SONG, "LA PLUMA DORADA")

GARSD: I know. Messi and I - we live in two different worlds. He would lose a game and go think about it in Ibiza with his millions of dollars. I would watch the same game and go mope at my neighborhood bar. But this is a guy who had to leave his country as a child. And he longed to go back, but it had been way too long. I identified with that. It happens to so many immigrants. For me, the more time passed, I started asking myself questions like, can I ever go back? Will I be a foreigner in my own home if I do?

(SOUNDBITE OF DAT GARCIA SONG, "LA PLUMA DORADA")

GARSD: I still ask myself these questions. When I traveled back to Buenos Aires to do this podcast, I brought them up with my best friend, Gabby (ph). He's the person who knows me the best. Gabby lived in my neighborhood. Like me, he was a huge nerd. We met when we were 15. We spent most of our time hanging out at this park near my house, drinking soda, smoking cheap, counterfeit cigarettes and talking about boys we had crushes on.

This was our Friday night, Saturday night plan.

When I went back home recently, we hung out at our old spot. Producer Julieta Martinelli was with us.

This is like...

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: ...Being like - yeah.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Well, also, like, nerds without money. Remember? There was, like, this one school year that Gabby showed up with, like, a tiny Superman T-shirt (laughter).

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Yeah, he had a Flash Gordon backpack, and he was like, this is my year. I'm going to get laid.

(LAUGHTER)

JULIETA MARTINELLI, BYLINE: Did you?

GARSD: No.

GABBY: No, of course not.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKIE MENDOZA SONG, "DE LEJOS")

GARSD: Gabby and I were inseparable. Whenever I was grounded, he'd come talk to me through the window like I was a South American Rapunzel. Gabby dreamt of traveling, which is why he had a secret collection of stamps from around the world that only I knew about. The day I left Argentina in 2002, he came over to my house. As a parting gift, I gave him my most prized teenage possession - my sparkly, burgundy platform shoes. Gabby, a gay man with impeccable taste, was horrified.

What did you do after I left? Where did you go? Do you remember?

GABBY: To my house. I was crying.

GARSD: So you just - you walked away crying with some sparkly platform shoes in your hands?

GABBY: Yes.

GARSD: Gabby was and still is my brother. Leaving Argentina and him was my first heartbreak. His feelings were more complicated - heartbroken, yes, but also kind of...

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish). Left out.

GARSD: ...Left out.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: I was just the first to go. My departure prepared him for the tidal wave of people who would leave in the months after me.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: In his mind, I was starting over. To him...

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: ...I was going on a great adventure while he was staying in a broken country. That's how he describes it. He thought...

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "There'd be no great adventure for Gabby." Meanwhile, my great adventure in the U.S. was minimum wage and exhausting. I used to have this really weird recurring nightmare in which I had enough money to travel back home. But home was no longer there. Buenos Aires had been bombed. And I was no longer me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE SONG, "LET'S DANCE")

GARSD: I was David Bowie in his "Let's Dance" era. I was now a British dandy. And I'd walk through the rubble in my elegant suit, twirling my cane under the serious moonlight until I found my grandmother's house. She'd answer the door and look up at me, this very tall Englishman. And perplexed, she'd say, (speaking Spanish). You must have the wrong address, sir. Who are you? I always woke up crying.

I finally saved enough money to visit home in 2011, the year La Copa America was being hosted in Argentina, the same one I was telling you about earlier. I arrived days before what would be the cursed final blow against Uruguay. I didn't tell too many people I was planning on coming back. I wanted it to be a surprise. I was bringing gifts - cheap headphones, a knockoff Kindle, silly plastic crap. When I arrived in Buenos Aires that night, I called the nursing home where my grandma lived. She's the one that used to blast her tiny plastic radio next to me in bed when I was a kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BESAME MUCHO")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: Hey. I have a surprise for you. I'm home. Home home? Home home. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to bring you facturas, breakfast pastries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BESAME MUCHO")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: The phone woke me up before sunrise. My grandmother's unconscious body had been found at the foot of the stairway in her nursing home. Her skull was cracked. She'd been rushed to the hospital. In my memories, I'm always running underwater. When I got there, I got lost in the hospital hallways. It felt like a fluorescent white labyrinth. And it didn't matter anyways. By the time I finally made the right turn, the police were already there. They wouldn't let me see her. She'd died. As I was informed, Senorita, this is now a police investigation. We need to look into whether violence or negligence occurred. It's standard protocol. I don't remember how I got out of there. I must have somehow found a payphone to call Gabby.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He was sleeping. I'm home, I told him. Home home? Home home. I'd planned to surprise Gabby but not like this. That night, I slept at his house.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He hugged me, and we cried.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: There wasn't much more to do. The next day, Gabby took me to the police station. My family had mostly emigrated. I was the most immediate next of kin.

(Speaking Spanish).

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: It was really cold. Gabby says there's something about July, which is winter in Argentina. The light - it comes in dim and oblique, and the humid cold seeps into your bones.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "We couldn't have gotten a worse police station," Gabby remembers.

(Speaking Spanish).

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: We waited a long time, a long time.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: We were told the police chief couldn't see us. He was busy. And we could hear him in the back.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #9: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: They were watching La Copa America, Argentina-Uruguay.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #9: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: I wasn't paying attention, but Argentina was losing to Uruguay and out of the Copa America yet again. It was only the quarterfinals, an embarrassingly early departure for the host nation. As I sat there, Messi was once again being cursed out by the crowd in the stadium. He just couldn't give us a win.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #9: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: You silly, silly kid. You really thought you could just stroll back in and after being gone all those years and break a curse, the real curse, the curse of leaving and becoming a foreigner in your own land? What - you thought you were going to ward it off with your KFC sponsorships and your Ballon d'Ors, with cheap headphones and a knockoff Kindle? That's not how curses work.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAT GARCIA SONG, "MILLONES DE ANOS")

GARSD: In the next few days, I went to the city morgue. Gabby went with me. As they rolled out my grandmother, Gabby grabbed my hand and whispered.

GABBY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Close your eyes. And he identified her body. This is the most important gift I have ever gotten - to not have to see her in that state, to be able to remember one of the people I have loved the most as I saw her last - my grandmother at her house, tiny plastic radio in hand, and me making the promise so many of us make and so many of us break. (Speaking Spanish). I'm going to come back home one day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ME DEJES CAER")

CAROLINA OLIVEROS AND XENIA RUBINOS: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: In the next episode of THE LAST CUP, Messi turns it around.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It's crazy how, in a span of a year, they went from, well, we're not sure how they're going to look at the Copa America, to legitimate World Cup contenders.

GARSD: With a little help from his new teammates. Do they have what it takes as they leave for Qatar? That's next week on the final episode of THE LAST CUP. As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, we'd love to know what you think of THE LAST CUP. Please help us out by telling us what you like and how we could improve by completing a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/lastcupsurvey.

THE LAST CUP is a co-production of NPR and Futuro Studios. This episode was produced by Marlon Bishop with support from Fernanda Echavarri, Julieta Martinelli, Paz S. Saravia (ph) and Liliana Ruiz. Our editor is Luis Trelles. Our bilingual team of producers includes Andrew Mambo, Schuyler Swenson, Juan Diego Ramirez, Nic M. Neves, and our intern for this series was Cameron Howell. Voice-over actors for this episode were Alex Marrero, Facundo Vasquez (ph) and Carlo Canales. Our engineer is Josh Newell, fact-checking by Sarah Knight. Mary Glendinning is the deputy chief of NPR's Research, Archives and Data Strategy.

Music for this episode provided courtesy of ZZK Records. And additional thanks to Xenia Rubinos and Carolina Oliveros for the music you're hearing in these credits. Katie Simon is the supervising editor for Embedded. Lauren González is a senior manager of the content development team. Our executive producers are Yolanda Sangweni for NPR and Marlon Bishop for Futuro Studios. Anya Grundmann is senior vice president for programming and audience development. We love getting feedback from listeners. You can send us a message at thelastcup@npr.org. I'm Jasmine Garsd. We'll be back next week with more from THE LAST CUP.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAROLINE OLIVEROS AND XENIA RUBINOS SONG, "NO ME DEJES CAER")

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