This is the sixth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
They say that the best business is to buy an Argentine for what he is worth, and then sell him for what he thinks he’s worth. Those who glean that joke’s meaning may have been shocked to hear Lionel Messi, Argentina’s captain and arguably the best player in the world, if not in history, declare that “we are not candidates” to win the FIFA World Cup just a couple of weeks before its opening. Such modesty would have been branded as defeatism in many a country represented in Russia. However, in Argentina—a soccer superpower ranked among the world’s top four teams, a finalist in the last World Cup (which it lost to Germany by a scarce 0-1 in extra time), and a place and culture foreign to self-effacement—defeatism might well be the most sensible choice.
It is not that Argentina nearly missed the chance to be in the Cup thanks to the team’s poor performance in the South American playoffs. The agony of qualifying has always been like that, a masochistic counting of every second till the end of the very last game, when—with astonished, grateful relief—we repeat in a daze what had seemed impossible: Argentina goes to the Cup. We’re in. We did it!
It’s not even the too-recent, humiliating 1-6 defeat by Spain this spring, in a “friendly” match that turned out to be not so friendly. No, it’s not the failures that torment us, but the almost triumphs: it’s that the team led by Messi has reached three finals—the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa América, and the 2016 Copa América Centenario—and lost them all. It is the very fact of our potential, the mathematical calculations foretelling that our team will be among the four semi-finalists; it’s the soccer-god Messi in our ranks, and our other world-class players. It’s the penalty kick in the match against Iceland, the first in the Cup. What could have gone wrong? We were level at 1-1 when Messi took aim… and then the Iceland goalkeeper, a film director when not playing soccer, saved the shot. So Argentina ended up tying with a team that had come to its first ever World Cup.
That real possibility that we could have actually won and didn’t, that we still can, is what makes the anticipation unbearable: the fear of a painful, ultimate failure that we’ve grown used to anticipating.
This is our national parable. There was a grand overture, the period between 1880 and 1930 when Argentina became the “world’s granary,” or at least Britain’s. Those were the gilded times in which the “Argentines with means,” as Cole Porter’s lyric had it, hurled butter that stuck to the ceiling of Maxim’s restaurant in Paris—and brought home Parisian-style boulevards to Buenos Aires—when Argentina was counted as the tenth richest country in the planet. And then came the 1930s crash. The money no longer pouring in, we watched the British turn their backs on us and march away. They left behind only games—the games their men had played while laying railroads all over the pampas, and that their sons had learned to play in their exclusive schools in Buenos Aires: polo, golf, tennis, rugby, boxing, and soccer. (They also tried to inculcate cricket, to no avail.)
Fittingly, in that year of 1930, the first World Cup took place in Montevideo, Uruguay. The British nations did not attend; Argentina made its way to the final. Ominously, we lost that game 2-4 to Uruguay.
And it was a sign. No longer would anyone use the expression “rich as an Argentine.” Our country’s golden age, in all its unparalleled splendor and abrupt end, was to be just the first of many cycles of boom and bust in our history—the roller-coaster ride we would be forced to take decade after decade, perennially aware that, no matter the glorious summits, it was bound to end in free fall and screaming.
From those brief crests Argentina succumbed to economic slumps, military dictatorships, hyperinflation, terror, default, poverty, decay—each crisis punctuated by a remote dictum from that superior entity referred to as the “international markets,” whose purposes are as inscrutable as the ancient gods’.
Hence both Argentines’ fatalism and their magical thinking. No matter what evidence there is to the contrary, we know that everything will turn out badly; yet we cannot help but believe that we have been, perhaps still are, a nation destined for great things. After a visit in the 1960s, the French writer and culture minister André Malraux was reported to observe, shrewdly, that “Buenos Aires is the capital to an empire that never happened.”
And so, we have two national narratives: one that says that we are the best people in the world, bound to succeed anywhere, but trapped in this hell of a place; and another answering this that the real problem is that we’re trapped with them, the others, those who have ruined everything. Accordingly, Argentina is divided between warring factions that hark back to the nineteenth century, and we’re always expecting a providential man or woman to save us.
We pour a distillation of this tense brew into our national sports, the games bequeathed us by our golden age. We look to our players for the chance to recover what we’ve lost, the triumph denied, anticipating both that the worse will happen and that someone, somehow, will rescue us in a burst of genius. Messi is but the last in a long line of sportsmen and women (Luis Ángel Firpo, Carlos Monzón, Nicolino Locche, Oscar “Ringo” Bonavena, Guillermo Vilas, Gabriela Sabatini, Diego Maradona, to name but a few) who have carried this burden, either embracing it or trying to escape it.
As our national team was departing Buenos Aires for Barcelona, for its training camp en route to Russia, the players received a send-off from our president, the millionaire Mauricio Macri. A providential man of the right who came to power when Argentina’s last boom, funded by massive soy exports to Brazil and China, gave way to the usual bust, Macri might well be better at hurling butter in Maxim’s than ruling the country. He has tackled the slump with the old conservative recipe, cutting social spending while begging Wall Street and the IMF to support the sinking peso. Facing his own downward-spiraling approval ratings, the president consolingly said to Messi and his comrades: “It’s not true that if you don’t get the Cup you are a failure. Such madness doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
He may be right. But that doesn’t change the fact that for the president, Messi, and the twenty-three other team members who are trapped in the country’s cycle of inflated expectations till the Cup is over, there’s no escape. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in an almost daily quoted line of his poem “Buenos Aires,” “What binds us is not love, but dread.”