Buenos Aires, Argentina – Marina León holds a row of blue and white paper flags in her small family bar, where the door is kept wide open in the hope that a light breeze will blow in and offer respite from the heat.
Over the next few weeks, the flags will adorn the establishment in the middle-class neighborhood of La Paternal. Leon, 62, and her husband, Tato Lenoce, 65, opened the bar a year and a half ago after being forced to close their previous bar during the pandemic because they were behind on rent.
Today, it is in many ways a mirror to the brutal economic pain that millions of people in Argentina have endured over the last year or so, and to the dreams that many harbor as the men’s national team prepares for its first match in 2022. Qatar World Cup.
The soccer jerseys and paraphernalia that adorn the bar’s walls are mostly donated, as are the pots and pans the couple cooks with and the mismatched cutlery on the white-tablecloth-draped tables. Leon and Lenoce pooled their resources to get the place up and running. They bought a big flat screen TV to broadcast the World Cup games; they had to give up air conditioning. Now they wait, with their clients, for a month they hope to remember, regardless of the humidity that characterizes the Argentine capital.
“I hope with all my heart that we win,” León said. “To give people a little joy. People have really been fighting because of the economic situation we’re in.”
A protracted economic crisis has gutted the value of the Argentine peso and sent the annual inflation rate skyrocketing to 88 percent in October. Argentines are praying for a reprieve, albeit temporary, in the form of football glory.
Ever since their captain, superstar Lionel Messi, led them to win the Copa América last year, expectations have been rising that the country can finally win its third World Cup after years of disappointment.
T-shirts are everywhere. Bakeries open before dawn on Tuesday for the team’s opening game against Saudi Arabia, which will be at 7am. a resemblance to Messi or the iconic Diego Maradona, who died in November 2020 of heart failure and pulmonary edema.
At a recent sold-out concert by British rock band Coldplay at a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, fans erupted in an impromptu serenade to Messi, while for weeks, a frenzy for collectible World Cup stickers dominated. social networks.
— Natalie Alcoba (@nataliealcoba) November 8, 2022
Criticism of Qatar hosting the World Cup has not been prominent in Argentina, where, for the most part, the focus is on the country’s team and its prospects.
“Argentines have to think about how we are going to win the World Cup with Messi,” President Alberto Fernández said in Bali, Indonesia, for the G20 summit earlier this month. “We have a great team and a great coach.” Lionel Scaloni, Argentina’s coach, was also in charge during the Copa América victory in 2021.
In fact, it’s hard for Daniel Rodríguez to think about anything other than the World Cup these days. Like many of his compatriots, the 50-year-old has his passion for soccer etched into his skin, literally. A tattoo from the local club he supports, Atlanta, is hidden under the blue and white national jersey he wears on a Saturday morning at La Paternal as he waits for his wife with his 10-year-old daughter.
Lower your voice to reveal your loyalty as the neighborhood is home to Atlanta’s rival club, Argentinos Juniors, which was also Maradona’s first club. “For Argentines, soccer means a lot. We wake up with soccer, we eat soccer and we dream of soccer,” he said.
At the auto parts factory where he works, all eyes will be on the TV for games that drop during work hours, he said. Rodríguez is optimistic about the team’s chances, even if his predictions are measured. “As all football fans say, one step at a time.”
Alejandro Wall, an Argentine sports journalist who has written several books on soccer and Maradona, said a few factors make this tournament stand out.
There is consensus on the solidity of the team that represents the country. It is also expected to be Messi’s last World Cup, his last chance at the coveted trophy. In Argentina, “soccer absorbs everything,” Wall said, although it will not change the harsh reality that people live.
Speaking from Qatar, he said he has been personally touched by the ties his team has with the fans he has met from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
“It is the Third World united. Or colonized countries versus countries that were colonizers. I think something similar is happening here as well,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s nice to meet a fan from India who has the Argentina shirt and sends you good vibes.”
Close to La Paternal, there is a different, spiritual atmosphere that soccer fans come to absorb, in a permanent memorial dedicated to Maradona.
Diego Vannucci, Maradona’s godson -his father and the player’s agent were friends- is now the caretaker of the space which sprang up on a quiet residential street after the soccer legend’s death. Housed in what used to be a lawnmower depot for the Argentinos Juniors stadium, just outside La Paternal, it is covered in T-shirts, posters, photos, signs, stacks of rosaries and other memorabilia and is filled with love for one of the country’s favorite sons. .
There are three rows of church pews where fans sit in contemplative silence, staring at a large mural of a young, smiling Maradona. Vannucci highlights recent additions to the memorial, left behind by visitors: a red banner from Maradona’s days in Argentinos Junior; a bill of 20 Mexican pesos; a small card from Fiorito, the soccer star’s hometown.
For many in Argentina, this World Cup will be different simply because of the absence of Maradona, who was more than a player. It’s his larger-than-life personality that will be missed, Vannucci suggested.
“It feels empty, that’s the only way to describe it,” the 45-year-old said. “You know that Diego is not here. But on the other hand, you can feel it, accompanying us”.
In the final, Argentina will wait.