World Cup: Lionel Messi mania diverts Argentina from its economic problems

Crowds in Buenos Aires regularly take to the streets in protest against Argentina’s economic problems, but the country’s thrilling football campaign has instead encouraged thousands to come out in expectation that their hero Lionel Messi will lead them to a third World Cup triumph.

Agustín Portillo joined revellers dancing in the rain on Friday as a tropical storm burst over Buenos Aires after Argentina beat the Netherlands to set up a semi-final clash against Croatia on Tuesday.

“Football is our salvation. Everything around us is getting worse, yet this week we’re all joyful,” said Portillo, 22, whose generation has never seen Argentina crowned world champions. Across the capital every inch of window space is filled with the national colours of sky blue and white, while in Qatar the team has been backed by one of the noisiest and most passionate travelling contingents.

Against a backdrop of a battered economy and political dysfunction, the weight of the nation of 46mn lies on Messi’s narrow shoulders.

Inflation in Argentina is expected to reach 100 per cent in the year to December. Poverty rates have increased, forcing some to move abroad. The centre-left Peronist government, cut off from international markets, is building up unsustainable debts on costly subsidy programmes, while supporters of vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner threaten further protests after her conviction last week on corruption charges.

Demonstrators protest in Buenos Aires against welfare cuts
Demonstrators protest in Buenos Aires against welfare cuts. Argentina’s problems could return with a vengeance once the World Cup is over © Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

If the team were crowned champions next Sunday in Qatar, fans say it would prove that Argentina “is right up there” with other countries and reflect well on how they see themselves as a nation — “courageous, driven and full of suffering”, as one supporter told the Financial Times outside a sports club in the inner-city neighbourhood of Palermo.

National pride is also at stake for Messi, the country’s one truly international hero. Aged 35, it is the last chance he will have to prove he can be compared to the late Diego Maradona, whose death in 2020 has cast a shadow over what will probably be Messi’s last ever World Cup.

To usurp Maradona as the greatest ever Argentine player, fans said, Messi must lead the Argentina team to two more victories in the same way Maradona steered the Albiceleste to glory at the 1986 World Cup.

“Diego is watching us from heaven,” Messi said after the match on Friday. “He is pushing us. I hope it stays like that until the end.”

Julio Roger, 51, head waiter at Caffé Tabac in Buenos Aires where Maradona was a regular customer, said the tournament had felt different this year because of both his death and the mounting economic challenges. People are placing “huge importance” on the event, he said.

“The illusion of greatness has returned with full force” even for those who do not care for football, Roger said. “We’re in a very bad [economic] state . . . this brings hope, relief.”

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi is playing for probably his last shot at winning the World Cup. ‘Diego is watching us from heaven,’ he says © Julian Finney/Getty Images

Argentina’s problems could return with a vengeance when the tournament has finished. President Alberto Fernández’s poor handling of the economy, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, has sparked popular anger.

His government faces plenty of economic challenges. Exchange controls have pushed the widely used black-market dollar to nearly twice the official level as confidence in the peso evaporates and central bank reserves run low.

Fixing the problem appeared to be less of a priority during the month-long World Cup. Last month labour minister Kelly Olmos said tackling inflation could wait and that the first priority was “to win” the championship. Olmos apologised for her comments following public criticism.

Meanwhile, the conviction of former president Fernández de Kirchner has divided public opinion. Prosecutors handed Fernández de Kirchner a six-year prison sentence and a lifetime ban from public office on fraud charges. She has claimed that she is the victim of political persecution by a ​​judicial “firing squad” and has called on her supporters to defend her.

As both vice-president and head of the Senate, Kirchner has legal protection and is unlikely to face jail time. Her right to serve and run for public office remains until all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.

The federal court ruling is already reverberating through Argentina’s fraught politics as the leftwing government prepares to fend off a challenge from the conservative opposition in presidential elections next October.

At the Caffé Tabac, Roger, who predicts a 1-0 victory for Argentina against France in the final, said the footballing triumph would be for the people rather than the political establishment.

“No one is going to take the trophy up to the presidential palace when we win,” he said.

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