The Joy and Anguish of Argentine Soccer

Following decades of economic turmoil and civic distrust, Argentines place the weight of their nation’s hopes on a World Cup win

Argentina fans cheer as their team plays Australia in Doha on December 3, 2022
Argentina fans cheer as their team plays Australia in Doha on December 3, 2022 (Amin Mohammad Jamali / Getty)

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Every now and then, I ask other Argentinians—friends, family, fellow journalists—which World Cup is the first that they remember. Their answers are a reliable reflection of generational differences. Most of my fellow Millennials, for instance, are too young to have experienced the exquisite joy of watching Diego Maradona kiss the trophy in 1986; our formative memory happened 15 years later, when the country’s economy collapsed.

In the decades since Maradona’s triumph, watching Argentina play in the tournament has evolved into a kind of national agony. We place a ridiculous degree of hope in the outcome, as though it will erase the economic problems and political corruption that always seem to haunt us.

After decades of high inflation, Argentina’s current inflation rate is more than 10 times that of the U.S., and is projected to reach 100 percent before the year’s end. More than 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. When asked last month about the government’s plans to address these matters, Labor Minister Kelly Olmos said that Argentina winning the World Cup was a more immediate concern. (She later apologized.)

Life is what happens in between World Cups, we say. During the tournament, there is cause for optimism.

The players on our national team understand the stakes. Emiliano “Dibu” Martínez tweeted after last Saturday’s win against Mexico that it was easier to play knowing that he had the support of 45 million Argentines behind him. But sometimes, it seems more as though he and his teammates are carrying the weight of an entire country that’s relying on them for some good news, at last.

Coach Lionel Scaloni has tried to alleviate his team’s burden. “It’s a football match—I don’t share the feeling that you are playing something more than a game,” he said as his assistant coach openly wept following the Mexico game. Scaloni has become known for reassuring his players that, “win or lose, the sun will rise tomorrow.”

But Scaloni’s efforts may be a lost cause. In Argentina, the World Cup is the one month every four years when we are allowed to dream big. The most hard-core of us will watch every single game, no matter how inconsequential it may be.

Above all else, international soccer tournaments like the World Cup are what brings my divided country together. When we lose, we collectively mourn. In moments of defeat, it’s become something of a meme among Argentines to tweet “nunca vamos a ser felices”—we will never be happy—in a most tragic tone.

We rejoice together, too, gathering to celebrate victories at the obelisk in downtown Buenos Aires. Although I now live in Washington, D.C., that instinct is still within me. When Argentina won the Copa América last year, I marked the occasion the only way I knew how: I went to the Washington Monument in the hope of finding someone else as fanatical as me. Eventually, an Argentinian couple passed by on a scooter, and we chanted together. Perhaps this World Cup will bring us all an even greater reason to be happy.