It was, if we're being honest, not a great Copa America final. Argentina were tepid and stodgy, Chile were more enterprising but not much more productive, and both sides spent as much time kicking one another as they did the football. And the penalty shootout wasn't exactly a classic either: Lionel Messi aside, the albiceleste made a mess of the whole business, their capitulation encapsualted by Gonzalo Higuain's meek scoop into empty space and ignominy.
But we came away with two precious things. One, the joyous occasion of Chile's first major tournament triumph. And two, Matías Fernández's penalty, the first of the shootout. For it was perfect. In fact, it was better than perfect; it was perfection three times over. A trifecta of perfection. Tremendousness in triplicate. Top, top, top.
Why? How? Three? Glad you asked.
Perfection the first: practical
The most important thing about any kick from the penalty mark is that it goes in. Such is the inherent banality of the thing. Plenty of penalties are, on the face of the thing, pretty rubbish, and yet as long as the keeper flies off in the other direction, in they dribble. So, Matias Fernández, job done. On a scale of 1 to 0: nailed it.
Still, there's a little more depth to the business of the shootout. Chile were going first, and the team going first has an advantage. Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a professor of game theory, calculates that "the first team begins with a 60.2 percent chance of winning." But what happens if they miss that penalty? "The probability drops 26.9 percent to 33.3 percent." In short, going first matters, but you need to make the most of it.
Oh, and he did well to have a little shout about it afterwards. According to psychologist Geir Jordet — as cited by Ben Lyttleton in Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty — when one player celebrates a scored penalty, the next player in their team is more likely to score. Lyttleton calls this "emotional contagion;" here, by analogy, Fernández made sure to sneeze all over his teammates' faces.
This was, ultimately, textbook stuff. Score the penalty; by scoring the penalty keep the initiative, and by celebrating the penalty keep spirits high. Tick, tick, tick.
Perfection the second: aesthetic
OK. Not quite perfection. Absolute perfection would have been the ball crashing down off the bar, because all goals are better if they crash off the underside of the bar. But we'll let that slide, just this once.
There is a pleasure to a perfectly placed penalty. This is a pleasure that derives from observing precision, from the sight of a calculation brought to life. This is a knowing pleasure, one that manifests in nods and smiles. This is the pleasure that comes from an expertly weighted cross-court lob, or a perfectly squared-off dove joint, or that moment when the crumpled envelope doesn't even touch the edges of the bin and you feel, just for one blessed fraction of a second, like the greatest human being in the history of the universe.
There is also a pleasure to a penalty that is not so much placed into the net as apocalypsed. The ur-penalty here is Julian Dicks against Manchester United, which passed by Peter Schmeichel's head at a distance of a couple of feet and a speed of a couple of Mach. This, by contrast to the above, is a messier and more visceral pleasure, akin to watching a demolition crew take down an industrial chimney, or stacks of amplifiers doing funny things to your digestive system. It provokes fist pumps. Shouting. Maybe even a little uncontrolled shaking.
Fernández achieved both, and that's just silly.
Perfection the third: symbolic
These days, men's international football is a wounded beast. Though the World Cup still bestrides the sport like a gaudy honking colossus, the on-pitch fare has been superseded in quality by the best of the European club game, while the endless fractals of off-pitch corruption have been bleakly depressing.
But there's still some good stuff, and some of the best stuff in recent years has come from Chile. Given an identity by Marcelo Bielsa, refined in that identity by Jorge Sampaoli, they have been teetering on the edge of brilliant for a while and they (and their fans) lit up the 2014 World Cup (quite literally, in the fans' flare-wielding case). They kicked Spain while the champions were down, they came within the width of a crossbar of beating Brazil, and they did all that while playing slick, confident, hyperactive football. They are, and it's impossible to overstate how important this is, not only decent. They are fun to watch.
One of the major problems faced by international teams is that their players spend almost no time actually playing together; football, despite what the marketing might suggest, is still a team game. The 11 players that started the final against Argentina came from 10 different clubs; this should, in theory, be a recipe for mutual incoherence and stodgy football. Yet through the imposition and cultivation of both a team identity — in terms of style of play — and a ferocious team spirit, Chile have managed to invert the problem. This, with one or two exceptions, is a team of club journeymen who play better for their country than they do their club.
So while it's Arsenal's Alexis Sánchez and Juventus' Arturo Vidal that draw the eye on the team sheet, they were both (arguably) outplayed in this tournament by Eduardo Vargas, who spent last season baffling everybody at relegated Queens Park Rangers. And they were both outpenaltied — yes, that's a word, and yes, Sánchez's Panenka was rubbish — by Matias Fernández, who arrived in Europe in 2006 to some fanfare, yet has never quite managed to make that final step up. Except here. In his country's shirt, in the final, he stepped up, he hit a penalty as well as a penalty has ever been hit, and he broke Argentina in half. Nothing could sum up this team better.