17 July 2019
Argentina’s Lionel Messi is pictured with team mates during a training session at the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Argentina, which is battling a debt crisis, is looking to the national soccer team to lift people’s spirits. Photo: Reuters
Argentina’s Lionel Messi is pictured with team mates during a training session at the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Argentina, which is battling a debt crisis, is looking to the national soccer team to lift people’s spirits. Photo: Reuters

Soccer in Argentina: Always more than just a sport

Overcoming daunting odds, Argentina has made it to the knock-out stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Soccer fans around the world are mostly thrilled that Argentina is through, as it means superstar Lionel Messi can continue to play in the tournament.

As far as the Argentines are concerned, they treasure the political function of soccer even more than the Brazilians, a fact that often gives the Argentina national soccer team a lot of political baggage.

I remember I wrote a thesis many years ago on the image of Latin America in the eyes of the Chinese people, in which I said while the mainland media often puts developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the same category, many Latin Americans actually don’t like being compared to their Asian and African counterparts.

It is because many Latin Americans see themselves as the direct descendants of early European settlers, and hence their sense of superiority. And this sense of superiority and pride is particularly strong among the Argentines.

As a matter of fact, approximately a hundred years ago, Argentina was actually more prosperous than many European countries.

After it had gained its independence from Spain in 1818, Argentina quickly embarked on sweeping modernization programs and embraced free-market economy.

Unlike Brazil, the indigenous Indians only accounted for a relatively small portion of the total populations in Argentina. As a result, the country continued to draw a lot of immigrants from Europe throughout the 19th century.

Then in the wake of the First World War, when most European states were left in ruins, Argentina became one of the world’s 10 richest countries, and saw an even larger influx of European “dream chasers”, who were desperate to seek a better life in the New World.

Unfortunately, Argentina’s economic prosperity suddenly vaporized after the 1929 Great Depression, with the wealth gap in the country quickly widening.

The era of Eva Peron, the second wife of former Argentine leader Juan Perón and the first lady of the country between 1946 and 1952, not only formed the collective memories of the Argentines, but also marked the beginning of the country’s decline.

As far as soccer in Argentina is concerned, it was during the country’s golden era at the beginning of the 20th century that its national team began to rise to global prominence.

However, by the time Argentina won its first ever World Cup in 1978, the country had already gone into continued decline.

But even so, the sense of superiority over other Latin Americans still pretty much prevails among the Argentines even to this day.

In particular, for many Argentines, their capital, Buenos Aires, is not only the most beautiful and developed city in the entire South America, but also even dwarfs many European capital cities in terms of elegance and glamor.

And the mighty Argentina national soccer team, to a significant extent, has been serving as the main pillar that sustains the national pride of the Argentines and the country’s international image as a “great power” over the years.

That probably explains why whenever Argentina was in political turmoil, the Argentines would often have high hopes for their national soccer team.

And the two World Cups which Argentina won, in 1978 and 1986, carried a lot of political message and even conspiracy theories.

For example, in 1976, two years before Argentina hosted the World Cup Final and took the trophy by defeating the Dutch team, a military coup had taken place in the country and overthrown the government of Isabel Perón, the third wife of Juan Perón.

Rumors had it that Johan Cruyff, the star striker and soccer legend of the Dutch national team, boycotted the 1978 tournament, which severely undermined the strength of his team, not because, as he himself officially claimed, he wanted to protest against the military dictatorship in Argentina, but because his family members had received kidnap threats.

Despite the fact there were a lot of controversies surrounding Argentina’s victory in the 1978 World Cup Final, it did give the Argentines a shred of hope amid the country’s “dark ages”.

And later, the Argentina team led by Diego Maradona once again pulled off miracles and gave its countrymen a much needed shot in the arm in the aftermath of the country’s defeat in the Falklands War when it beat England in the 1986 World Cup Final with his famous (or infamous) “Hand of God”.

Now, at the World Cup in Russia, the Argentina team led by Messi is also on a mission to provide hopes for his compatriots and pull his country together at a time when the nation is struggling to keep its head above water amid a debt crisis and financial turmoil.

Shortly before the beginning of the tournament, the Argentine government managed to cut a deal with the International Monetary Fund, under which it would be given US$50 billion in economic aid. Meanwhile, Buenos Aires is also looking to China for help.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 28

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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