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JOHANNESBURG -- I haven't wanted the World Cup to end, and I certainly didn't want it to end like this.
This might prove to be my only World Cup final; this might have been my best seat -- Block 503, Row L, Seat 10 -- for my witnessing firsthand history. I wanted it to be memorable. I wanted it to be beautiful.
It wasn't those things, of course. I finished my own World Cup run with a story about a referee. After I sent it along, I felt nearly as cold and empty as the stadium. I felt as though someone had written the wrong words. Someone had blown the big finish.
But maybe I'd been putting too much faith into the players to make my experience for me. Why did the end of my World Cup have to coincide with the end of theirs?
From my seat high in the stands, I set my sights: the south-end goal, gleaming white at the Soweto end of Soccer City.
I walked down the first flight of concrete steps, and I remembered.
Just 55 minutes into the opening game, South Africa's Siphiwe Tshabalala ran onto a long feed and buried the World Cup's first goal: a left-footed strike into the top-right corner over Mexico's Oscar Perez -- a beautiful goal.
Then I ducked out into the concourse, and down the big ramps toward street level.
Luis Fabiano powered his magical short-range shot into that same goal, opening the scoring for Brazil against the Ivory Coast -- before he scored again in the second half, at the Johannesburg end, with the help of his hands -- driving an impossible ball into the roof of the net.
I kept walking down the wide concrete ramps, level after level, looking out into the night, at the hundreds of buses idling in the parking lots, at the taillights streaming away.
Germany's Mesut Ozil scored against Ghana from outside that same box, I remembered, a wonder strike, a left-footed volley into the top-left corner, one of the tournament's great goals.
I jumped over a short wall and down into the main concourse and entered the lower bowl. I walked down the narrow steps between the seats toward the field. A police officer stopped me. "You're not going where you think you're going," he said. I tried to explain to him that I just wanted to stand inside that goal. I just wanted to feel that grass under my feet, to touch that post, that crossbar. "No," he said.
In the round of 16, Argentina beat Mexico here 3-1, capped by Carlos Tevez and another miracle goal, facing south again, a right-footed blast from 25 yards into the top right corner. That goal, too, was on poor Oscar Perez. He probably doesn't see this place in his dreams. He probably doesn't want to return to it as badly as I wanted to find myself there for the first time.
In South Africa, there's always a way. I walked back up to the main concourse and around to the far side of the field. I walked down the steps to the edge, within a few feet of the corner flag. There were no police there, and the policeman who had stopped me before was looking the other way. I stepped onto the grass, and I walked out under the lights. Now I could remember everything.
Most infamously, this is the goal where Uruguay's Luis Suarez prevented the Ghanaian winner with his hands, and then Asamoah Gyan had rung his last-second penalty off the bar.
Now I was under that same crossbar. I reached up and touched it, where Fernando Muslera had struck it in celebration. I leaned against the post. I looked up the field. I stared into the lights.
I stood where Iker Casillas had saved Spain, where he had won his World Cup, and I saw then why he had cried -- why even before the game was over, he hadn't been able to stop his tears. I could see the ghosts of what he had seen. I had found what I was looking for. Now my World Cup was over. This was the end.
I walked back off the field the way I had walked onto it, back up the steps, and out into the night.
It was everything I had hoped it would be.
Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.