BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA—When Argentina defeated the Netherlands in a World Cup semifinal penalty kick shootout, the country erupted. In the capital city of Buenos Aires, masses clad in blue-and-white jerseys with Argentine flags tied around their necks poured out into major intersections and converged screaming, celebrating, beaming at the Obelisco on the city’s main drag downtown, Avenida 9 de Julio. (Coincidentally, the match took place on July 9, Argentina’s Independence Day.)
The city hasn’t seen that magnitude of people come together to cause such a ruckus since the spate of widespread pot-and-pan clanging cacerolazos (pot-banging protesters) protesting government economic policies in 2012. This time they were joyous.
Argentina, a soccer-crazed country with proud people, is a place that believes it always deserves the World Cup. This time around, the statue, title, and glory are things it acutely needs. Argentina’s economy is in flux and its future uncertain—all to be determined on the looming July 31 deadline by which the government has been court-ordered to pay back its debt holders, two funds of which are demanding full payment.
The status of the payments and all the back-and-forth negotiations have further tarnished Argentina’s reputation the world around, one already tainted for a series of criticized protectionist policies and questionable handling of the economy over the past few years, including allegedly manipulating inflation numbers. People at home are girding to potentially see their country default and their pesos dissipate for the second time this millennium—a mere two-and-a-half weeks after the World Cup final.
Many have darkly joked that it’s lucky all of this has been playing out at the same time as the world’s most celebrated and important sporting event, and one in which Argentina stands to take it all. It has distracted people from the domestic economic reality and dampened the outcry. There is much truth in that. In Argentina, when the selección plays nothing else matters—especially if they win.
Argentines proudly claim what is illustrious and what is theirs. The Pope is on that list, as well as—pertinent in light of Argentina’s semifinal game—Queen Máxima of the Netherlands. And in spite of occasionally doling out tough love to FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, Argentina’s golden boy obviously is included: there is even a government ad running that parallels Messi’s story with that of the now-state-run oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF) and the concept of returning home:
Argentina is a country that gives itself freely to romantic notions—after all, the tango dance originated along the Río de la Plata—and soccer is, at this stage of the World Cup, everything. The team is Argentina. That statement might seem grandiose, but it is easy to draw parallels: the national team of a highly efficient and organized country like Germany plays like a machine; and, as the head of emerging market strategy at global financial services firm UBS AG Geoffrey Dennis said, Brazil’s devastating 7-1 semifinal loss could be bearish for stocks and lead people to question the country’s economic health.
Should Argentina win it all, no matter how things might sour, the populace that kisses its jerseys, lets the tears flow freely, and throws its heads back to the sky when its team plays will have something all the world admires and respects to cling to and hold up. In keeping with Dennis’s train of thought, a win may even herald positive change and have people believing in a turnaround. Just as Messi powers down the field, always popping back up when knocked down and emerging with the ball even in the most unbelievable circumstances, Argentina is resilient.
Plus, no matter what happens, the Pope is still Argentine.