For the many millions who weren’t inside the golden bowl that the Lusail Stadium is, the closing moments of the World Cup final were being played on a split screen.
On one, Lionel Messi – the freshly-minted world champion following Argentina’s win over France via penalty shootout 4-2 in the greatest final of all time, which ended 3-3 after extra time– punching the air and celebrating like a man possessed, hugging his teammates one after another, sobbing. On the other, the scenes of delirium at the Obelisco, where thousands of strangers sang, danced, hugged, cried, jumped in joy and chanted the name of their hero. The kind of emotions only football can evoke.
They’d been planning this party in central Buenos Aires for days. The government put policy-making on hold. The Financial Times reported Argentina’s labour minister Kelly Olmos ‘said tackling inflation could wait and that the first priority was “to win” the championship.’
Big corporates paused their marketing plans until after the World Cup to gauge the mood of the nation.
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On Sunday, the streets in the country’s capital were shut. The supermarkets brought down their shutters well before the noon kick-off, local time. And a key trade association ‘advised’ businesses to take ‘precautions’ so that their employees aren’t disappointed and demotivated to work for the rest of the year – in other words, a directive to keep their premises closed during the final.
And they all descended upon Obelisco. Just like 1978. Back then, when Argentina first won the World Cup while the country was ruled by a military dictatorship, people would watch the games in cinema halls and then flock to Obelisco to celebrate the wins.
As the Albiceleste marched on to their third World Cup crown in a match they had to win thrice – Argentina went 2-0 up at half-time, allowed France to come back and make it 2-2, then went 3-2 up in extra time before Kylian Mbappe completed his hat-trick to make it 3-3 and eventually winning it in tiebreakers – the locals congregated at the ‘pilgrimage site’ after every match. The city centre turned into a sea of light blue and white.
Though not as dire as in 1978, Argentina’s triumph comes against a backdrop of political turmoil and deep economic distress. This month, inflation in Argentina is projected to reach 100 per cent, as per the Economist. The country’s vice-president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was last month convicted on charges of corruption. The Washington Post estimated that ‘almost 40 per cent of the country’s population now lives below the poverty line’, thus forcing people to move abroad.
Twenty-one years ago, a similar economic crisis forced many people to move out of Argentina – and Messi was among them. His family’s decision to move to Spain, which included many other factors including an offer from Barcelona, was for years seen as the root cause for the love-hate relationship between the Argentines and Messi.
In a way, Messi belonged more to the world than to Argentina.
But as the country grapples with another crippling crisis, Messi has pulled off a – pardon the pun – Messiah act for the nth time. This one, though, will define his legacy. Not just because he – in his final attempt – did what Maradona did: win a World Cup. But in doing so, he’s lifted the economic gloom and despair that’s cast over the country.
The fact that businesses, who often wait for nothing and no one, chose to wait, and the fact that the government mulled postponing important bills during the World Cup underlines the status football enjoys in the day-to-day lives of the Argentines, who themselves didn’t hesitate to dip into their savings amidst the financial stress to travel to Doha and support their team.
It isn’t a mere way of life for them. It is life.
“Football takes a lot of space and is very important in daily life here,” Argentine writer Ariel Scher was quoted as saying by AFP. “There is no guarantee that it can mask or make you forget problems … but it’s a place where you look for things you cannot find elsewhere.”
Intangibles like pride, for instance.
Brazil is seen as the soul of world football. Argentines, though, waste no time in reminding that it was their country which started organised football in South America – the country’s football federation was established in 1893, making it the eighth oldest in the world.
Against England, it’s often a matter of national pride because of the other subject that unites the country – the issue of Falkland Islands.
Little wonder, then, that their two biggest taunts during this campaign were reserved for their regional and inter-continental rivals. After Brazil were knocked out by Croatia, defender Nicolas Otamendi’s Instagram story showed the players singing: “Brazil, what happened? The five-time champion bowed. Messi went to Rio and took the Cup.” It was in reference to Messi leading Argentina to the Copa triumph last year.
Then, their focus shifted to England who lost to France in the quarters. “Damn the Englishmen. We never forget the Malvinas Islands,” they sang, referring to the Falklands.
On the field, they might be the most cynical team that lacks creativity, apart from the genius moments that Messi and Maradona have created.
But as the author of Soccernomics, Simon Kuper, noted in his Financial Times column, Argentina players ‘display the collective flaws of their nation’s football upbringing’. And the public isn’t shy of that.
Their only global icons in the truest sense are footballers – Maradona and Messi. There have been many legends – the Burruchagas and the Kempes’ – but only two went on to become Gods. It was Maradona until now. On Sunday, Messi was elevated to that status after giving the financially battered country a reason to forget its worries and celebrate.