Argentina has made it to the semifinals of the World Cup without its usual tricks.
- By Daniel AltmanDaniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Let me start by telling a true story. A couple of weeks ago, in the early days of this World Cup, I went to an Argentine restaurant in New York to watch a match involving Argentina’s national team. Though I arrived an hour early, the line was already snaking out the door and down the block. Men and women were wearing Argentine jerseys, everyone was speaking unmistakably Argentine Spanish, and the mood was festive. But the line didn’t move.
I asked a bouncer what those of us in the line could expect. He said there was a private party inside, and the restaurant would soon empty out. Fair enough. Yet as kickoff drew closer, only a few people dribbled out of the restaurant. Soon some of us starting peeking in the windows, and a dismaying scene was revealed: Almost every table was full of people wearing Argentine jerseys.
A few minutes later, an Argentine woman who appeared to be a manager appeared in the doorway, also wearing a jersey. Don’t worry, she said, some people will leave. I pointed out that roughly 50 people were in line, and the folks inside didn’t look like departing before the match. She shrugged her shoulders.
As I walked back to my place in line, I was hailed by a middle-aged Argentine man in glasses. Hey, he said, there’s another place a few blocks down the road where there’s plenty of room. Really? Yes, it’s called Tango. How far is it? Well, maybe 10 minutes, but I can give you a ride — and he gestured to his waiting minivan, which was already half full.
A teenage boy was with him on the sidewalk. What are you doing here, I asked, if you’re going to watch the game at the other place? Uh, we’re just here to have a look, he said.
I lived in Argentina for several years, and I knew this game. I found the place in question on my phone and called. Yes, you can watch the game, a woman said, but there’s a tango show. You have to pay for that.
This is picardía. In Argentina, where trust in government and other institutions is notoriously low, people do what they can to get by. A little trickery is just part of life; some days you’re the trickster, some days you get tricked.
It’s true on the soccer field as well. At the World Cup in 1986, it was Diego Maradona’s "hand of god" goal. In 1998, Diego Simeone wound up David Beckham until the Englishman lashed out and was sent off. Four years later, Simeone tried again to put Beckham off before he took a penalty shot. World Cup fans will also remember Marcelo Gallardo, an actor of Denzelesque proportions when it came to faking injuries who could also talk a sky-blue streak. The picardía did backfire once in 1998, however, when Dutch goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar reacted to Ariel Ortega’s headbutt as though he’d been shot at close range. Had Ortega controlled his temper, he might have won a penalty for his dive in the 18-yard box immediately beforehand.
In 2014, the story has been refreshingly different. Argentina has played stolidly, except for an effervescent half hour in its match against Belgium, but on the whole cleanly. Of the eight teams that made the quarterfinals, only Germany picked up fewer yellow cards throughout the tournament. There has been precious little rolling around on the grass in mock pain, and no diving to speak of. So far, the team has mostly depended on gritty ball-winning and the superhuman skill of Lionel Messi, which needs no embellishment.
Of course, an important part of picardía is getting away with it. When Maradona scored with his hand, the deception was so complete that the commentators thought the outraged English players were protesting for offside. Still, I hope this recent change in the Argentine squad’s comportment is genuine. If it reflects a shift in attitudes among Argentines back home, so much the better — even if it doesn’t extend to the diaspora.