TIME Economics

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Argentina

Argentina Seeks to Skirt U.S. Ruling by Paying Bonds Locally
Axel Kicillof, economy minister for Argentina, speaks during a news conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Grossly oversimplified versions of history are regularly used as econ class morality tales

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I woke up a couple of weeks ago to an Argentina that had, against its will, defaulted on its sovereign debt. For those unversed in international finance terminology, that basically means a country is failing to make payments due to bondholders. These situations are often accompanied by economic chaos, but, fortunately, the day was anti-climactically lacking in catastrophe. The New York Times wondered if we were in denial.

Not a chance. National headlines proclaimed imminent disaster, while the minister of economy’s announcement of failed negotiations received reality-TV-worthy audiences. Every conversation since has hinged on the “default,” and whose fault it is. Government officials have taken flak for parsing definitions of default, but they have a point: more than broke, Argentina is caught in a judicial Catch-22. This isn’t denial, but it is uncharted territory. In Buenos Aires, where I have lived most of my life, some people have taken to calling the unique situation a “Griefault,” in honor of the New York judge, Thomas Griesa, who got us into this mess.

To make a long story short, after Argentina’s history-making default in 2002, the country successfully renegotiated terms with 93 percent of its bondholders, and has been meeting those obligations. But “hold-out” hedge funds in possession of some of the bonds demand full payment and convinced Judge Griesa to force Argentina to pay them in full if anyone was going to be paid at all. That is an untenable solution for Argentina’s government, which points out that the vast majority of bondholders agreed to renegotiate terms on condition that no one else get a better deal – which is what the New York court asked Argentina to provide the hedge fund plaintiffs. In the end, a deal that maximized the interest of almost all parties is how being held hostage by a small number of bondholders. (More detailed explanations of the convoluted story can be found here and here.)

Maybe when you’ve already lived through every sort of default, devaluation, inflation, hyperinflation scenario imaginable (all that and I am still only 31!), you start developing a thicker skin. You follow and opine on arcane financial developments with passion generally only reserved for our national soccer team during World Cup season. Competing inflation indices and their differing methodologies are legitimate dinner conversation fodder here. I can hardly understand my credit card statement, but I have spent the past month in heated debate with friends about obscure debt-restructuring contract clauses governed by New York law.

Our history also leaves us with a healthy fear of economic instability, because it eventually affects every aspect of our life and everybody around us, even if the immediate effects of “default” haven’t yet had an effect on people’s day-to-day lives. Though the jury is still out on exactly how it will affect individuals, the decline in international credibility caused by a default would reduce access to foreign credit for provincial and private enterprise, as well as lessen foreign investment in the country. These could cause a downturn in the general economy. Argentina has mostly been locked out of international capital markets for more than a decade, so what’s really a shame is that all the painstaking economic reconstruction over that period in this country of 40 million people is now in jeopardy.

Beyond its financial travails, Argentina remains stuck in the tiresome role of case study and cautionary tale to the rest of the world. Argentina is the smart teen who went off the track, the high school pothead parents warn you about.

Grossly oversimplified versions of Argentina’s history are regularly used as econ class morality tales: one of the early 20th century’s wealthiest countries that failed to develop, the International Monetary Fund poster child that blew up, the country that in 2002 committed the most spectacular sovereign-debt default in history and, now, the country that somehow was forced into another default by a judicial order.

But these vignettes are more interested in making the point that Argentina detonated its unbelievably bright future through some intrinsic character flaw than including all the relevant details about Argentina’s history. A Roger Cohen op-ed in the New York Times last February is fairly illustrative of the genre: they always start with a lamentation of what we could have been. The author compares our wealth 100 years ago to Sweden, France, and Italy. Then, tragedy strikes. He argues it came in the form of Juan Perón, who shaped “an ethos of singular delusional power.” That’s pretty dismissive of a thrice-elected president whose party continues to win democratic elections and define national politics to this day. Imagine talking about FDR that way.

The clichés about Argentina – surely you’ve seen the musical – make for a good finger-wagging, “Don’t-be-like-Argentina” admonition that might keep impressionable countries in line, even if they say very little about Argentina’s reality. The caricature is predicated on flashes of fact: export riches, a wealthy elite, and massive immigration. Left out are the thornier questions of political culture, adverse international trading patterns, Cold War realpolitik and the like. Researching why Argentina couldn’t be more like Canada is like trying to figure out why a tadpole failed to develop into fish.

Yet, the misguided and dismissive commentary from abroad is mirrored by Argentina’s own domestic obsession with identifying the “wrong turn” in our history – a more nuanced sport than the one played at our expense by outsiders, but equally corrosive.

The never-ending quest for the source of our decline is nothing but a red herring. There’s no moment when our golden future came tumbling down, because the whole story is a fairytale. Alejandro Grimson, an Argentine anthropologist who explores this misguided belief, places the roots of Argentina’s delusion of grandeur and European-ness in the beliefs of Argentina’s 19th century elites who were, indeed, fantastically wealthy, although nobody else was. “As time passed, this idea took root, that Argentines had a magnificent destiny that we had not been able to reach, for some mysterious reason or through the fault of one group or another. Each decade we were further from that illusion,” he writes in his book on Argentine myths. A sense that we were powerless to stop this loss took hold even though Argentinians helped contribute to the decline by supporting a weak democracy, a trigger-happy military, and a polarized, highly politicized society.

And this is our own form of exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is predicated on the idea that Americans are number one; Argentine exceptionalism is predicated on the idea that we should have been number one, but were robbed (or blew it, depending on how you want to play the game).

Buenos Aires boasts impressive French-style façades and a tremendous cosmopolitan culture, making it easy for outsiders to continue being fooled, assuming we’re a nation comparable to Sweden. Argentina’s history and trajectory start to seem less exceptional and aberrational when you compare it to its neighbors: Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, though of course each country’s history has its own unique circumstances.

But no one, certainly not a people known for its quirky attachment to hyperbole, wants to be just another “normal” country. As Grimson argues, if we can’t be the best country in the world, we’re determined to make the case that we’re somehow the worst. And, of course, we’re quick to be offended when outsiders start making the same case and playing our “how-could-this-all-have-gone-so-wrong” game.

I myself refuse to keep playing. No matter what some New York judge says, and no matter what we could have, should have, might have been in the imagination of certain pundits, the Argentina I know is making its own future, with all the contradictions and difficulties endemic to democracy and our history. We’re not the French or the Swedes by a long shot – but that’s a good thing. I think we’re way better.

Jordana Timerman, a Buenos Aires native, is a member of La Fábrica Porteña, a Buenos Aires policy platform. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic’s City Lab, Foreign Policy, and The Nation. Ms. Timerman’s father, Héctor Timerman, is the foreign minister of Argentina.The views expressed in this piece are purely her own. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Argentina

3 of Pope Francis’ Relatives Killed in Car Crash

Pope Francis Visits South Korea - Day Five
In this handout image provided by the Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea, Pope Francis attends a Mass for peace at Myeong-dong cathedral in Seoul, South Korea Handout—Getty Images

The pope's 8-month-old and 2-year-old grand-nephews were killed in Argentina accident

Three members of Pope Francis’ family were killed in a car accident in Argentina Tuesday, CNN reports, including his 8-month-old and 2-year-old grand-nephews and their mother.

A Cordoba police spokesperson told news outlets that the pope’s nephew, Emanuel Horacio Bergoglio, crashed into a truck on the highway at 12:30 a.m. Bergoglio is currently in the hospital under serious condition.

The Pope’s spokesperson said he was “profoundly saddened” by news of the accident, BBC reports.

On a flight back to the Vatican from South Korea Tuesday morning, the Pope had been lightheartedly discussing his own mortality with the press, saying he expected to be in “the Father’s house” in some two or three years.

[CNN]

TIME Economy

Last Tango in Buenos Aires

Argentina’s debt snarl tells us how risky the global financial system still is

There’s a legal adage that goes, “Hard cases make bad law.” A recent U.S. court ruling against Argentina, which pushed the country into a new technical default on its sovereign debt, is a case in point. In 2001, Argentina defaulted on $80 billion worth of sovereign debt, the bonds that a country issues to raise money. It had to restructure, just as Greece had to more recently, and over the years, some 93% of creditors went along with the cut-rate deals, taking “exchange” bonds that paid 30¢ on the dollar. But some, like Elliott Management, the hedge fund started by Wall Street titan Paul Singer, held out. Tens of millions of dollars in legal fees later, Elliott won its case.

U.S. federal judge Thomas Griesa ruled earlier this summer that unless Argentina paid creditors like Elliott and other holdouts 100% of their claims, it couldn’t pay anybody else either. Paying Elliott in full would mean that, contractually, the country would also have to pay everyone else in full too–a $29 billion commitment. The case is full of gnarly legal and financial issues. But what it tells us is dead simple: the world financial order is still far too complex and opaque.

It’s tough to cry for Argentina–or the hedge funds. Elliott says Argentina’s claim that it has been victimized by “vulture funds” is a populist political strategy to drum up support for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s flagging party. “Argentina isn’t a poor country. It’s a G-20 nation,” says Jay Newman, Elliott’s Argentina-portfolio manager. “It’s chosen for political reasons not to negotiate a fair settlement with us or more than 61,000 other bondholders.” Certainly no one would argue that the Argentine government is a paragon of best practices; Argentina, which had the same per capita GDP as Switzerland in the 1950s, has defaulted eight times.

Then again, the vultures haven’t done so badly either. Many bought bonds postdefault for pennies on the dollar. Now they are eschewing an already rich return for a regal one, while setting a precedent that could make creditors reluctant to cooperate when nations default in the future. “This has become a morality play which has given rise to a host of new legal problems,” says Jonathan Blackman, the Cleary Gottlieb partner defending Argentina. Both sides are waging an ugly media war complete with ad campaigns, as thousands of other creditors and financial institutions around the world nervously await the final result.

The Argentine crisis says three important things about the global economy. First, the balance between creditors and debtors has shifted. As data from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) show, there’s more debt globally than there was before the 2008 financial crisis. But now, the largest portion of it consists of public-sector debt. “Debt in the economy is like a balloon,” explains Susan Lund, a partner at MGI. “When you squeeze it out of one place, it grows in another.” With the rise in public debt comes a greater risk of sovereign defaults, which can wreak havoc on the global economy. (Remember the euro crisis?)

Second, the global economy is becoming more fragmented. The fact that a federal court in New York City ruled in favor of the holdouts is a sign that the global economy is splitting along national and ideological lines: British courts tend to go with majority rule in sovereign cases, and local markets have any number of other ways of handling sovereign-debt deals. The BRIC nations, aside from increasingly cutting their own trade deals, have set up a new development bank, which may become a source of capital for countries like Argentina if they remain shut out of the Western credit markets. That could give Russia and China more leverage over, for example, Argentina’s natural resources. (The country has the world’s second largest shale-gas deposit.)

Finally, the case shows how much work remains to be done in making our financial system more transparent. In addition to establishing a single standard for sovereign default, we desperately need to make complex security holdings more visible. Academics like Joseph Stiglitz say Elliott Management actually stands to benefit from an Argentine default, since nearly $1 billion worth of credit-default swaps exist on the country; that’s insurance that will pay out now that Argentina has defaulted. While the Elliott subsidiary that went to court against Buenos Aires says it holds no such swaps, the hedge-fund firm as a whole doesn’t disclose trading positions, and the swaps holdings of individual companies aren’t public record. They should be. Knowing exactly who stands to gain–or lose–from fiscal turmoil that can affect all of us could help make the right fixes at least a little more apparent.

TO READ MORE BY RANA FOROOHAR, GO TO time.com/foroohar

TIME Argentina

Argentine Musician Finds Out His Biological Parents Were Killed by Country’s Dictatorship 36 Years Ago

Estela de Carlotto, Ignacio Hurban
Estela de Carlotto, president of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, right, and her grandson Ignacio Hurban, left, hug during a news conference in Buenos Aires, Aug. 8, 2014. Victor R. Caivano—AP

Ignacio Hurban's parents were killed by a ruling dictatorship, and he was raised by another family

It wasn’t until his thirty-sixth birthday two months ago that Ignacio Hurban was told he was adopted. But his was no regular adoption — it transpired instead under the most violent of circumstances.

His real parents, Oscar Montoya and Laura Carlotto, were arrested in November 1977 by Argentina’s ruling dictatorship because of their political activities, disappearing into the macabre system of death camps the military set up across Argentina. His father was secretly executed shortly after his arrest. But his mother, two months pregnant, was kept alive until Hurban was born in June 1978, after which she was also murdered.

Hurban’s case was by no means an isolated one. It’s estimated that some 500 infants suffered the same fate during the bloody 1976-83 Argentinian regime, during which some 20,000 mostly young left-wing political activists were murdered. The military made only one exception during its killing spree: Pregnant women were kept alive until they gave birth. Afterwards, the infants were handed over to military families or unsuspecting couples to be raised according to the “Western and Christian” values the military claimed to defend. These infants grew up completely unaware of their real identities.

“It’s a crime beyond all imagination,” says Robert Cox, a British journalist who lived in Argentina during those years, bravely reporting and even confronting top generals personally about the crimes they were committing. “I still don’t understand how men who are meant to be men of honor, military men, could fall so low. It’s the one crime above all others that wakes us up to the horror of what happened and how terribly evil it was.”

Two former dictators of that regime were eventually convicted for the systematic kidnapping of children. Jorge Rafael Videla died in prison last year while serving a 50-year sentence, Reynaldo Bignone remains behind bars. Various military couples who knowingly took in such children have also been convicted, including cases in which the “adoptive father” played a hand in the killing of the infants’ real parents.

After Laura Carlotto disappeared in 1977, her mother, Estela Carlotto, now 83, moved heaven and earth looking for the grandson she heard from death camp survivors had been born in captivity. In her search, Carlotto started meeting mothers whose pregnant daughters had also “disappeared” at the hands of the military. With them she founded the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo association, a group that has dedicated decades of work to its painful search.

Carlotto’s untiring quest turned her into a major public figure in Argentina. That brought her a notoriety tinged with the sadness, as even though the Grandmothers located 113 grandchildren of murdered parents, she had not been able in all that time to find her own grandson. Last week, then, when it was announced that the 114th grandchild to be “recovered” was Carlotto’s, practically all of Argentina exploded with joy. The story has dominated the country’s public attention ever since.

“I didn’t want to die without hugging him,” Carlotto told the press, practically in tears, last Tuesday after she got a call from the judge handling the case confirming the DNA match.

But in the end it was actually Hurban who found his grandmother. Until last week, Carlotto’s lost grandson had lived under the name Ignacio Hurban, the son of Clemente and Juana María Hurban, two retired farm workers in Olavarría, a small town in Buenos Aires province. Over the years, Hurban and his wife had raised a family of their own, with two small children. He became a music teacher and an accomplished fusion musician, mixing classical, jazz and Argentine folklore musical styles, and has played with some of Argentina’s leading recording stars:

Hurban, who according to Argentine human rights law must now change his legal name to the one his mother reportedly wished for him at birth — Guido Montoya Carlotto — first started having doubts about his identity four years ago.

“There’s a noise in your head, doubts like butterflies outside your field of vision, there are things you don’t know, but you know, and then you start asking yourself questions,” he said Friday at a press conference in Buenos Aires.

When he was told two months ago for the first time that he was adopted, he decided to approach the DNA bank the Grandmothers have set up with samples of their blood, to see if he might be the son of a “disappeared” couple.

“Among the pieces that didn’t fit was my fondness for music,” said Hurban, commenting on the striking resemblance he now sees between himself and the pictures of his father he’s seen since his identity was confirmed by the DNA match. He said he was “shocked” to discover that his blood father, Oscar Montoya, was also a musician, and played in a group called “Nosotros y Ustedes” (Us and You) in his youth.

“I’ve found an answer to a question I get asked a lot: Why are you a musician?,” Hurban said.

The road ahead for Hurban — or Montoya Carlotto if he changes his surname — is not an easy one, says Victoria Donda, the 78th recovered grandchild, who today is a legislator in Argentina’s Congress. “It’s very difficult to process where you were born, how you were orphaned, to rebuild as an adult an entire biological family that you had never met, a different birthday, a different name,” she said in a press interview.

“I’m used to my name Ignacio and I’m going to keep it,” Hurban said at his press conference. “I also understand that there is a family who have called me Guido for 30 years. But I feel comfortable with what I’ve been given. I feel happy and grateful.”

When photographers at the press conference called him “Guido” to pose for a shot, he joked: “Come on, call me Ignacio.”

Still, a shadow still remains over the details of Hurban’s childhood. Carlotto has said that his adoptive parents were probably not aware he was the baby of a “disappeared” couple when they took charge of him. A court case has been opened to investigate the details of that adoption process. Urban described his adoptive parents as an “extraordinary couple” who raised him “with the greatest love.”

The happy ending to Carlotto’s long odyssey, meanwhile, has Argentina ecstatic. “There’s enormous euphoria now,” says Cox. “It seems a very wonderful ending, though it actually is a beginning really, it gives people a lot of hope for the remaining hundreds of still-unfound grandchildren.”

“This restitution is also a symbol,” said Hurban. “It’s a small victory within a big defeat.”

TIME Argentina

Argentina Defaults After Debt Talks Collapse

Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks to the media at a press conference at the Argentine Consulate in New York, July 30, 2014. Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks to the media at a press conference at the Argentine Consulate in New York
Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks to the media at a press conference at the Argentine Consulate in New York, July 30, 2014. Carlo Allegri—Reuters

The South American nation failed to strike a deal to avert its second debt default in 13 years

The last time Argentina defaulted on its debts it was announced at a packed session of Congress with the nation’s legislators hollering anti-imperialist slogans and singing the Peronist March, the battle hymn of the Peronist political party that has ruled Argentina for 24 of the last 31 years.

That 2001 default of $93 billion was considered a slap in the face of an international financial system that Peronism abhors and that it sees as saddling countries such as Argentina with unmanageable debt levels. But once the cheering died down, Argentina’s economy collapsed like a house of cards. All banks were closed by government order, destroying the life savings of millions and reducing Argentina to a cashless economy that for about a year relied on barter markets for the procurement of essential household essentials such as food and clothing.

By contrast, 13 years later, on July 30, Argentina went into default quietly, with its political leaders in a state of deep denial. “It’s not default,” claimed Argentina’s Economy Minister Axel Kicillof against all evidence at an improvised press conference in a small wood-paneled room of the Argentine consulate in New York.

Argentina’s blue-eyed 42-year-old minister, who has drawn sighs on the internet for his perceived good looks, disparaged the fact that the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s had earlier in the day downgraded Argentina to “selective default” for failing to meet a payment deadline on its 2001 debt. “Who believes in credit rating agencies at this stage?” Kicillof sharply demanded.

Turning a blind eye to evident economic realities has been the Achilles heel of the Peronist government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is facing a sharp economic downturn in the last 18 months of her second period in office. When inflation reared its ugly head a few years ago, Kirchner ordered the INDEC national statistics bureau to release grossly low inflation figures. Then she prohibited private economists from putting out their own more realistic estimates.

Similarly, only last week Kirchner remained in sharp denial of the default deadline. “They’re going to have to invent another name for it because Argentina has paid,” Kirchner said.

Yesterday’s default came about after American hedge funds won a lawsuit ordering Argentina to pay them some $1.6 billion for bonds they bought at a low market price after the 2001 default. Some 93% of bondholders accepted a 75% reduction on the Argentine debt they were saddled with back then. But the remaining seven percent who refused the “haircut” took Argentina to court in New York demanding full payment. Two years ago they won the case and last month that victory was validated by the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear an appeal by Buenos Aires.

“That Supreme Court decision was like a lightning bolt out of a cloudless sky,” said Kicillof, who was in New York seeking a last-minute way out of the looming crisis.

President Kirchner has staunchly refused to pay the “vulture funds” that she says prey on weak economies with debt problems. She claims paying them would leave Argentina vulnerable to gigantic claims from the other 93% of bondholders.

“The vulture funds did not lend Argentina a single dollar, a single penny,” said Kicillof. “They are not lenders from 2001 who were cheated.”

Last night’s mini-default could have immediate financial consequences for Argentina, such as a possible devaluation of the Argentine peso and the drying up of investments. But economists expect the jolt for ordinary citizens will be far slower. Although the economy has hit a recession, the situation is nowhere near as fragile as it was 13 years ago.

Meanwhile, a consortium of private Argentine banks has been working on an original solution. At a meeting with the “vulture funds” in New York yesterday, the consortium offered to cover the $1.6 billion awarded by the US court. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a solution was found between private parties, including private bankers,” Kicillof said.

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TIME World Cup

Riots Erupt in Argentina Following World Cup Final Loss

Vandals threw rocks at storefronts and attacked police officers

+ READ ARTICLE

What began as a peaceful celebration of Argentina’s performance in the World Cup final against Germany on Sunday incited police response of tear gas and water cannons just a few hours later after the Albicelestes lost the game.

At least 30 people were arrested in downtown Buenos Aires Sunday, CNN reports, following outbursts of vandalism and violence.

Tens of thousands of fans were gathered around the Obelisk to commemorate the first time the team advanced to the World Cup finals since 1990. But the country’s dream of winning the tournament was dashed in the game’s 113th minute, when Germany scored the game’s only goal.

TIME World Cup

Messi’s Legacy Debate Continues

Lionel Messi 2014 World Cup
Lionel Messi of Argentina reacts during the 2014 FIFA World Cup match against Germany on July 13 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Mike Hewitt - FIFA—Getty Images

Messi missed the free kick in the 120th minute of play against Germany, sealing Argentina's fate

sportsillustrated

By Brian Straus

RIO DE JANEIRO – Time was slipping away, yet Lionel Messi still had plenty.

Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, who committed the 120th-minute foul that offered Messi the opportunity for one last look at goal, was receiving treatment a few feet away. The Argentine maestro took advantage of the pause. He stood quietly for a moment then bent over and pressed his fingertips into the ball, testing the air pressure.

On Top of the World: Germany Tops Argentina, Claims 4th World Cup Title

Messi was calm and deliberate, as if he hoped the measured pace of his movement would help clear his mind and calm any nerves. He was about 25 yards away and to the left of Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Argentina trailed, 1-0, in the dying seconds ofthe World Cup final at the Estádio do Maracanã and its fading hopes for a third title rested where they always had – at Messi’s feet.

It was an opportunity he’d surely rehearsed countless times – maybe as a boy in Rosario, where he was born the year after Diego Maradona carried Argentina to its second world championship. It became more realistic as Messi’s own star ascended in Barcelona, where he won every team trophy there is,along with a record four FIFA World Player of the Year awards. This was supposed to be Messi’s World Cup, the tournament where the sport’s most spectacular player, in his prime at 27, would end any debate about his place in soccer’s pantheon and in the hearts of his countrymen.

The free kick missed by miles, soaring over Neuer and into the crowd. Messi looked up toward the sky with an ironic, resigned smile on his face. That was it. The sport’s greatest goal scorer would be shut out for a fourth consecutive match, one he called “the most important of our lives” in a Facebook post. Argentina would lose the final and Messi, perhaps, his place alongside Pelé and Diego, if that ever was at stake.

Diego Maradona: Lionel Messi unworthy of Golden Ball

It could have been so much simpler. Messi already has accomplished at the club level what Maradona never could, and he played this World Cup under a spotlight that his predecessor couldn’t have imagined 28 years ago. Win it, dominate it, and the argument is over.

Maradona was regarded as supremely gifted – Barcelona bought him from Boca Juniors for a world record $7.6 million in 1982. But he hardly was a legendwhen that fateful World Cup rolled around in ‘86. He’d escaped the slums of suburban Buenos Aires andwon a couple of South American player of the year awards, one Argentine league title and a FIFA World Youth Championship. But he’d struggled with injuries and chemistry at Barcelona and hadn’t yet lifted Napoli to glory. No one expected or demanded a title when La Albiceleste arrived in Mexico. At 25, he wasn’t chasing immortality.

Messi was playing under a different sort of pressure here in Brazil and he rose to the occasion during the group stage. He scored in the opener versus Bosnia-Herzegovina, beat Iran with a stoppage-time goal then tallied twice against Nigeria. Messi then turned playmaker, setting up Ángel di María’s gorgeous game-winner in the round-of-16 matchup with Switzerland.

But as the tournament wore on and the opponents got tougher, Messi’s impact waned.Under manager Alejandro Sabella, Argentina has focused first on defense, starting with goalkeeper Sergio Romero and inspired by midfielder Javier Mascherano, who remains the squad’s soul if not its captain. Argentina’s soccer is far from the rhythmic, high-pressure, possession-based sort that Messi enjoys at Barcelona. Argentina had only 40 percent of the ball on Sunday, a statistic that might cause a riot at the Camp Nou.

Brazil Falls Short, but its World Cup Provides Unforgettable Theater

Messi’s contributions in the knockout rounds were intermittent and tactical. Set up to stymie Argentina’s primary threat, opponents made sacrifices in the attack. Games tightened up and scoring chances were at a premium. Sabella oftendeployed Messi in a deeper position. Hemight find the ball a bit easier there, but he was further from goal once he had it. In the semifinal against the Netherlands, Messi was shadowed effectively by Nigel De Jong and then Jordy Clasie.

On Sunday, he started behind one forward rather than two but still had lots of ground to cover when the ball came his way. And there were significant stretches when it didn’t. None of his four shots was on target, he was late arriving on a couple of counterattacks and he saw two promising first-half crosses cleared from danger after runs down the right. Messi’s best chance came in the 46th, but his left-footed shot whizzed across the face of the German net and past the far post.

Sabella refused to respond directly to a post-game question concerning Messi’s fitness, saying that he thought his captain had an “extraordinary” tournament and deserved the Golden Ball award handed by FIFA to the World Cup’s top player. Indeed, Messi led the competition in scoring chances created (21) heading into the final, a testament to his skill and efficiency. But that’s hardly a statistic they’ll be singing from the stadium terraces in Buenos Aires, and the glum look on Messi’s face as he accepted that trophy was clear indication that his dream had been dashed.

He described it in Saturday’s Facebook post.

“My dreams and my hopes are being fulfilled due to the hard work and sacrifice of a team that has given everything from match one,” he wrote. “We want to win, and we are ready.”

2018 World Cup odds: United States 33/1 to win tournament

He could have made it easier for the public and the pundits by scoring a couple goals on Sunday and carrying the more important hardware back to Buenos Aires. There’d be a three-way tie for GOAT. But it already was pretty simple for Messi, who’s famously shy and the polar opposite of the outspoken, effervescent Maradona. He doesn’t play for the history or the trappings. He’s been known to sulk when benched at Barcelona, which can happen during a game that’s out of hand or meaningless. He simply wants to be on the field.

“The only thing that matters is playing. I have enjoyed it since I was a little boy and I still try to do that every time I go out onto a pitch. I always say that when I no longer enjoy it or it’s no longer fun to play, then I won’t do it anymore. I do it because I love it and that’s all I care about,” he told ESPN’s E:60 in an interview prior to the World Cup. “I want to be world champion but not to change the perception of others towards me or to achieve greatness like they say, but rather to reach the goal with my national team, and to add a World Cup to my list of titles.”

Some Argentines feared his loyalty lay with Barcelona, or even Spain, where he moved at 13. His goalless 2010 World Cup (when Maradona was the coach) didn’t help. Messi suffered from a growth hormone deficiency as a child, and his family was unable to find an Argentine club willing to pay for his treatment, which cost more than $10,000 per year. The Catalans offered, so he left. He owes Argentina nothing but has continued to profess his love for his country. He’s already been capped more than Maradona and still has years left to play.

“I believe he’s in that pantheon. But he was there before,” Sabella said Sunday. “He’s been there for quite a while already, in the pantheon of the big ones.”

Germany coach Joachim Löw said he told substitute striker Mario Götze during the brief break before extra time, “Show the world that you’re better than Messi and that you can decide the World Cup.” Götze decided it, scoring the game’s only goal on a brilliant volley in the 113th minute.

Germany’s World Cup Title a Result of Revamped Development, Identity

But no one believes he’s better than Messi. He’ll never come close. Lifting theWorld Cup is about far more than a given shot, a single game or the bounces during a month-long tournament. Champions are forged in the long term through persistent work at the grassroots and league levelsand a focus on culture and player development.

Löw said Sunday that Germany’s route to the trophy started in 2004, the year he and Jurgen Klinsmann took over Die Mannschaft and Messi made his senior pro debut. The talent and depth on display in Rio was a decade in the making. As Germany accepted the trophy, Götze held up the jersey of injured winger Marco Reus, who many considered the team’s most dangerous player.He missed the tournament. Götze was a substitute. The man who passed him the ball, Andre Schürrle, also was a reserve. He’d relieved Christoph Kramer, who was the replacement for late scratch Sami Khedira. Messi has nowhere near that reservoir of talent with which to work. His silver medal is the reflection of a whole lot more than his (in)ability to master the moment.

Messi will move on. The next game will be the most important of his life. His legacy may be murky for some, but that’s the fun of sports. Those who want to debate it can do so. Those who are happy to let it go and are able to relax — or sit on the edge of their seat — and enjoy the remaining years of one of soccer’s most transcendent, exciting careers alsocan do so.

Messi will keep on motoring.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

Watch Every World Cup Goal in 1 Minute

TIME World Cup

Watch: The History Behind the Germany vs. Argentina Rivalry

This Sunday, Germany and Argentina will face off in the World Cup final. But this is not the first time that the two countries played against each other

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This weekend, the 2014 FIFA World Cup Trophy will go from the current holder of the gold statue, Spain, winner of the 2010 World Cup, to either Argentina or Germany. But this is not the first time the two countries have faced each other in a World Cup final.

In 1986, Argentina beat Germany 3-2, in a magic match where Maradona became Maradona. And it happened a second time in, 1990, when the Germans won 1-0 in what was considered at the time a less than exciting performance from the two teams.

Will Sunday’s match be a 1986-type final – energetic, surprising, memorable – or a 1990 final?

TIME’s Bill Saporito takes a look back at the rivalry between the countries.

TIME World Cup

The World Cup’s Moments of Strange Symmetry

In the game of two halves, sometimes history does seem to repeat itself

As an event that brings in people and cultures from all over the planet, a major part of the spectacle of the World Cup is its celebration of diversity, which makes the odd moment of symmetry all the more striking.

From full body suited fans to goofy goal celebrations, here are some oddly mesmerizing moments of similarity at the World Cup.

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