They say if you leave Argentina for 10 days, you might return and feel you’ve been abroad for 10 years, and if you leave for 10 years, you might return and feel the country is just as it was when you left it.
I was away from Argentina for exactly 20 days. When I boarded a flight to Qatar, on November 30, the national team was about to play the decisive match against Poland, with qualification to the round of 16 at stake. Streets were empty. The fear could not be measured in words. What if Argentina didn’t even qualify for the next stage, just as it happened in 2002?
When I came back – on December 20 – five million citizens thronged the streets of Buenos Aires, and millions more came out into the streets across the country. It was probably the world’s biggest sports gathering. Lionel Messi – finally – had become the country’s most admired man. Seen and celebrated as a deity, he had reached the shrine where Diego Maradona was for so many years standing alone. Argentina was crowned world champion and there was finally a reason to celebrate and be united. It was a dream come true.
The celebrations were out of this world. A bus taking the team to the city centre could move only 12 kilometres in four hours, and players had to be evacuated in helicopters when their safety was at risk. Fans were trying to jump from bridges onto the bus just to touch them.
“Don’t try to understand it. With the good and the bad, Argentina, I love you,” posted Messi on Instagram.
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In those 20 days, a whole country had changed as they followed the events of Doha. If one goes by reputations and club form, the squad was perhaps the weakest in modern times. Few members of the squad were in top form, and only a handful could be considered real stars. Yet the bonding among the players helped them grab the top prize.
Four years ago, in Russia, the Argentine expedition had turned into a disaster. The core of the squad fell out with manager Jorge Sampaoli and the veterans organised a coup d’etat. The squad was fractured into two groups.
After the episode in Russia, nobody wanted to take over Argentina; it was like picking burning charcoal with bare hands. Lionel Scaloni took over as emergency pilot because he was the only manager contracted by the Argentine Football Association (AFA) who could travel with the U-20 team to the L’Alcudia tournament in Spain. The team won the tournament, and Scaloni was then requested to stay on as caretaker of the senior team even as the AFA sought a suitable replacement. There was none. With Messi’s blessings, Scaloni became the official manager, even if he had never coached a club in his career.
If Scaloni’s role had to be played by a Hollywood actor, it would have to be Tom Cruise. Scaloni was always in a good mood and smiling, but was a strong character. ‘Mister Cool’ convinced the players that they needed to be loved by the fans again. “The national team and its fans were simply falling apart. There was not real link, we needed to restore the love for the team, because it is the team of all of us. And this meant no privileges and open doors to every player that was born in Argentina or has the Argentinian citizenship,” he said.
Scaloni started the renovation that saw the irruption of such unknown names as Emiliano Martinez, Nahuel Molina, Christian Romero and Nicolas Gonzalez. He oversaw the rise of players, too, who were not in the radar of the national team – Rodrigo De Paul, Lautaro Martinez, Lisandro Martinez, Alexis Mac Allister, and Enzo Fernandez, among others.
Two players were sent home upon arriving in Qatar because they were not fit. No one dared to complain. ‘Mister Cool’ was not willing to take risks, but the team atmosphere was kept intact. Paredes and Di Maria did not start for Argentina in most matches of the World Cup, and kept cheering for their replacements. Dybala was benched and made his debut only in the dying minutes of the semifinal. But the decisions did not cause any internal conflict.
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Scaloni burned several commandments that footballers had learned by heart. He made changes in the team in every game despite the results. He chose not to rely on one tactical scheme, but chose to play with three, four, and five defenders, and three, two or one strikers, depending on the circumstances. Unlike his predecessors Cesar Menotti, Carlos Bilardo, and Marcelo Bielsa, Scaloni did not promote a football credo. “The only thing I know is that no fan could ever say that this team did not leave 100 percent on the pitch. We might win, we might lose, but if someone doesn’t feel moved by this team, then I don’t know anything about football.”
Turning the tide
The love for the national team had already been restored last year in the hearts of the people. Argentina had finally won a tournament after 28 years – the Copa America at Maracana against Brazil. It was a magical moment despite the lack of fans (due to the pandemic). The real fans of Messi were his team-mates. “I wanted to win more for Messi than for myself or for Argentina; he deserved it more than anyone,” admitted Emiliano Martinez.
Messi had lost four consecutive finals with Argentina. The curse ended in 2021. Now he has won three consecutive finals.
For years, Argentinian players were expecting to win by and because of Messi. Now, they were hoping to win with and for Messi. It was a substantial difference.
It wasn’t Messi the record-breaker but Messi the general who really made a difference. When Messi speaks, everyone listens. If Messi is O.K. with a decision, then no one would dare to question it. One small example: newcomer Alexis Mac Allister doesn’t like people calling him “ginger”, but when Messi heard that some of the team-mates were calling the player “ginger” and made a gentle appeal to players to stop calling him that, “no one called me like that ever again.” In the last three years, Messi has been more Maradonesque than ever: he was suspended for ranting about referees and claiming Brazil had arranged VAR in the Copa America 2019; he poked Van Gaal and called Weghorst “a dumb” on a flash interview, a phrase now printed in jerseys and tea cups, even if production can’t match the market interest.
It is one thing to support Messi in family dinners and never-ending debates about Messi or Maradona. And it is another to have Messi tattooed on your skin. Tattoo makers claim they had never made so many Messi-related tattoos as now. Argentina’s jerseys – with three stars and with two – are sold out. So are Panini stickers. The shortage of figurines became a matter of national priority, so much so that the government had to organise a meeting with the company and the kiosks union to understand why the stock was so limited. The World Cup fever was unprecedented; with it, the black market of figurines emerged. Just as it happens with the dollar.
Buying foreign currency has been prohibited in Argentina since 2019. In the weeks after winning the trophy, the peso lost another 10 percent. Argentina is a world champion in inflation rates and is in a league of its own, with only the likes of Zimbabwe, Turkey and Lebanon willing to compete.
After the victory in Qatar, the government saw an opportunity and declared a national holiday. But negotiations to have the world champions at the Government’s House backfired. Some of the players simply did not want to be used as instruments of legitimacy by the reigning power. It was the first time that a world champion was not greeted by the President.
Ten days after the victory in Qatar, traffic is just as bad and arguments as unfriendly as ever. Asking for a hike in the government’s assistance bonus, people under the poverty line protested by blocking the streets in downtown Buenos Aires – just as it happens on most of the working days. This time, for a chance, they chose to play football.
The iconic image of Lionel Messi lifting the World Cup – in the form of a newly inaugurated mural – now oversees the chaos of Argentina’s capital. It is the first painting of Leo in Buenos Aires, and many more will follow. The joy will never disappear – not tomorrow, not in 10 years.
Messi’s legacy has barely begun to be felt. Just as in a tango song, real love came too late, and the fear of losing him now overshadows the celebrations. But just as in a real tango, this love will last forever.
Martin Mazur is a freelance journalist