Messi’s World Cup: Argentina, beset by woes, sees salvation in Qatar


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In early September, I sat down with Argentine Finance Minister Sergio Massa during a visit to Washington. Massa, dubbed a “super” minister for the multiple set of portfolios he holds while running his nation’s beleaguered economy, was in the U.S. capital as part of a broader effort to stabilize a perilous situation. Debt-ridden Argentina, its foreign reserves depleted, was on the brink of hyperinflation. There were trade deals to be brokered and International Monetary Fund negotiations to be hammered out.

At the time, inflationary pressures were swirling around Washington, too, and I asked Massa whether there were any lessons Americans could draw from Argentina’s chronic experience of fiscal crises. “We are always learning,” Massa told me bluntly. “We cannot teach anything to anyone.”

In the months since, Massa has held the line, staving off the worst fears of economic analysts. He is now one of the favorites to take up the mantle of the battered and divided Peronist political establishment in elections next year. But conditions are still grim: Inflation does not appear to be decelerating and almost 40 percent of the country’s population now lives below the poverty line.

“Today the economy is held together by a battery of price and exchange controls,” noted the Economist. “Even so, inflation will be close to 100 percent this year, and in the (tolerated) black market the peso is worth less than a quarter of its value three years ago. The government lives from week to week.”

Argentina advances to World Cup semis with part dazzle and part chaos

Enter the World Cup. For the past month, Argentines have themselves lived week to week, day by day, off the fortunes of their beloved national soccer team in Qatar. On Sunday, Argentina faces a date with destiny, going up against France in the World Cup final. Victory would mark a third World Cup title for the soccer-mad South American nation and the crowning triumph in the already peerless career of Argentine forward Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest to play the game.

The prospect of that victory has consumed the national imagination. Though they live thousands of miles away from the Gulf emirate, Argentines comprise one of the biggest blocs of fans who have traveled to Qatar — a reality that is audible to anyone attending or watching Argentina’s matches during the World Cup.

“The World Cup is an opportunity to recover enthusiasm in a country that is enormously frustrated and filled with an overwhelming feeling of failure,” said José Abadi, a psychiatrist in Buenos Aires, to The Washington Post before the World Cup began. “It’s a chance of winning for once and attaining global recognition for how good our soccer is rather than for how much money we owe.”

So great was the mania for the tournament that, in the weeks prior to it starting, a shortage in collectible baseball-card-like stickers generated a genuine political crisis. “The government had to make a special meeting on how to deal with the shortage of stickers because it was affecting the people’s mood,” Argentine journalist Martin Mazur said on a recent podcast. “And now even with the high inflation, thousands of people are trying to be [in Qatar] for the semifinal and finals, literally putting all their money they have saved for many years just to be here and celebrate.”

For Massa and his allies, there’s a clear silver lining. “In Argentina, people are talking about nothing else,” wrote Federico Rivas Molina in Spanish daily El Pais. “Victory over Croatia last Tuesday in the semifinals has shaped the public discourse. Families discuss where they will watch the final against France on Sunday, and politicians are keeping their heads down to avoid attracting attention.”

The World Cup that left human rights behind

Soccer, likely more than any other sport, has a capacity for delivering moments of transcendence. Morocco’s run to the semifinals of this tournament triggered an astonishing outpouring of love and solidarity from across the Middle East, the Arab world and Africa, and will be remembered fondly in years to come.

Argentina still sits under the voluminous shadow of its late soccer legend Diego Maradona, who powered his nation to World Cup triumph in 1986 and, by sheer dint of his fame and irrepressible persona, built a legion of Argentina supporters all around the world. To the eyes of fanatics in countries as far away as India and Bangladesh, Messi is only walking in Maradona’s footsteps.

Indeed, Messi has been haunted by Maradona’s legacy. For all the trophies and accolades he won at the club level in Europe, Messi never engendered the same affection at home as Maradona, who achieved something that still eluded the sublimely talented forward. Messi faced crushing defeats, including at the World Cup final in 2014 and an ignominious exit in Russia in 2018. Tormented by failure, Messi even briefly retired from the national team.

But as the 35-year-old Messi nears the twilight of his career — he admitted to reporters this week that this is almost certainly his last World Cup — the fervor around, and love for, him has intensified. In the stadiums in Qatar, Argentine fans sing of their country as the “land of Diego and Leo” and seem almost to be willing him onward to the ultimate victory.

In the press box of the group-stage game between Argentina and Poland, an Argentine reporter put it to me that, for years, his nation waited for Messi to win them the World Cup. Now, he said, it’s the nation that wants to win it for Messi.

In this context, defeat against France, the reigning world champions, may be quite hard to stomach. Some in Argentina are trying to keep perspective. The country’s labor minister, Kelly Olmos, reminded reporters how little changed when they won the 1978 World Cup, hosted controversially in Argentina by the country’s military dictatorship.

“We were under dictatorship, persecuted, we didn’t know what tomorrow held, but Argentina became champions and we went out to celebrate in the streets,” Olmos said. “And then we went back to the reality, which was unrelenting.”

Argentina’s fans may be hoping for a greater reprieve. The magic of soccer is that “it gives us the possibility of a happiness that is both transient and eternal,” Argentine writer Ariel Scher told Agence France-Presse. “No problems will be resolved or eliminated but at the same time, even briefly, it dazzles us with something that leaves a lasting memory.”

How to handle that fleeting moment of grace, the thrill of an overwhelming glory, may indeed be a lesson Argentines want to teach the world.

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