Don’t Win for Me Argentina

The Argentine government’s exploitation of football would make a World Cup victory bittersweet.

Juan Mabromata / AFP / Getty Images
Juan Mabromata / AFP / Getty Images

BUENOS AIRES — Every four years, just after the start of the southern winter, 40 million Argentines fall victim to a fever brought on by the participation of our national team in the World Cup. The affliction pushes aside any aspects of public life that don’t have to do with football and offers our politicians a fantastic opportunity to escape the limelight.

If the Argentine team didn’t arrive in Brazil as favorites, it did have a superstar in Lionel Messi and, thanks to a bit of luck, a very favorable draw in the group stage. With no surprises and a decent job on the pitch, it was never going to be too difficult to reach the semifinals. Today, days before the final, the fever is full-blown.

Though I enjoy watching football and love playing it, I’ve done everything I can to avoid the contagion of temporary nationalism that has been infecting my country. It’s a strange and uncomfortable situation for me; at times I even feel compelled to disguise my lack of euphoria. I want Argentina to win, but at the same time I’m disturbed by how some might exploit the success of Messi and his men.

Last month, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government began the last 18 months of its second term, burdened among other things by an economy that has fallen into recession, a vice-president on trial for corruption, and a battle in the Federal District Court in Manhattan against American holders of its bonds that could again leave the country in default. Yet Fernández also controls the Argentine public’s favorite treat, with a monopoly on television rights to football across the whole country — not just for the top two divisions of the domestic league, but also the entire World Cup, for which it paid FIFA $18 million.

In May, a month before the tournament started, the government organized an event to preview its broadcasts. Almost as an afterthought, it also announced the names of the 23 players who would go to Brazil. The team’s coach didn’t even open his mouth; instead, the government’s Cabinet chief emceed the entire event and made the government’s big bet crystal clear. During the World Cup, said Jorge Capitanich, "no one will talk about anything except football in Argentina."

Just in case, however, the government has used halftime in all the matches — whether or not Argentina is playing — to pass along its own messages. Rather than selling the advertising time to companies in order to fund the broadcasts, it chose to put out political propaganda exalting its own work. Starting a few days ago, for example, viewers have endured a two-minute ad about a special session at the Organization of American States on July 3 in Washington, where the assembled ministers condemned the "vulture funds" holding Argentina’s debt.

Not wanting to be left out, the Ministry of Culture has installed huge screens in cities around the country to keep the mood festive and the public distracted. Yet these efforts can’t always stem the tide of bad news. Even if most Argentines prefer talking about football these days, the government’s faults are only magnified when the nation’s main newspapers surround their World Cup headlines with stories about its misdeeds.

On Sunday, after 24 years, Argentina will return to the World Cup final. But this time it feels different. Instead of winning thanks to the supernatural talent of our greatest stars, the team has defeated its rivals with little flair and by the narrowest of margins. Yet having triumphed through clean play and sheer exertion, this team is the one I want as a model for Argentine society. I hope they win on Sunday, and that the politicians finally take the right message from their success.

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