So Far Away — and So Close

Why Germans and Argentines have so much in common, even in soccer.

Jamie Squire / Matthias Hangst / Getty Images
Jamie Squire / Matthias Hangst / Getty Images

Does the Argentine soccer team dance around its opponents to the rhythm of el tango? If so, they have the Germans to thank for it. For it was Heinrich Band, a little salesman from the Ruhr town of Krefeld who, in the mid-19th century, invented with the bandoneón, the very instrument that German sailors later on took to Buenos Aires and which, with its weeping sound, became emblematic of the tango. In fact, the two countries are so connected that Germans might almost root for Argentina — almost.

German Socialists fled to Argentina when Otto von Bismarck took over power in Prussia. German Jews fled to Argentina when Hitler took over power in the Third Reich. Nazis fled to Argentina when their 1000 years of power were brought to a premature end. One of them, Erich Priebke, responsible for some of the most gruesome massacres the SS committed in Italy, happily lived in the Patagonian town of Bariloche for decades, where he headed the German school, before anyone cared to find out.

Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón, who somehow wanted to establish Argentina as a third pole in global politics after World War II, lured German nuclear physicists to Patagonia to build him an atomic bomb of his own — only to find out after a couple of years that Americans and Soviets had only left la cuarta, the very bottom, of the German nuclear expertise up for grabs. And then, during the last military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, former Nazi officials helped the junta set up private torture chambers while companies like Mercedes Benz set up lists of trade unionists who were to disappear. They even bought incubators for the dictatorship’s elite, so that babies from "guerilla" mothers could be raised by decent, childless couples from the police and military. And by the way, Franz Beckenbauer and other prominent German soccer figures complained about the German media mentioning the dictatorship during the 1978 World Cup, famously claiming that he hadn’t "seen any torture chamber at all."

These two countries have had something going on between them for much longer than there even was a World Cup.

Yet the German view is a puzzled one of disparagement, too. So many cows. So much grass land. And so messy, so bankrupt. This is a perspective many Germans have on Argentina. Why can this country, about one century ago one of the richest in the world, never really profit from its potential? It seems to be infected by an energy-sapping melancholy — a nostalgic way of looking at the past, as in the tango’s lyrics and melodies.

And it is one way of looking at Argentina’s soccer. We envy and adore the genius who seems like he barely has to try, be it Diego Maradona or be it Lionel Messi. And then again it is unthinkable for Germans to romanticize a hero who has — like Maradona in the 1986 semifinal — scored a goal by unfair means, with the "Hand of God."

Even with Messi in the side, however, this tournament seems to echo Argentina’s unfulfilled potential. We ask ourselves, "Why has this country, with so many great players, played such a boring World Cup?" In a way, Argentina’s discipline and focus on a strong defense is compatible to the uninspiring philosophy of the old Nationalmannschaft, before Jogi Löw took over as a coach. There is more of us in Argentina than we think. And maybe this can only be explained by the many things our two countries have had in common — starting with the bandoneón.

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