Buenos Aires, Argentina – Marina Leon holds up a row of white and blue paper flags at her small, family-run bar, where the door is left wide open, hoping for a gentle breeze to blow in and provide respite from the heat.
For the next few weeks, the flags will decorate the establishment in the middle-class neighborhood of La Paternal. Leon, 62, and her husband Tato Lenoce, 65, opened the bar a year and a half ago after being forced to close their previous bar during the pandemic because they were behind on their rent.
Today, in many ways, it’s a reflection of the brutal economic pain millions of people in Argentina have endured over the past year and a bit – and the dreams that many cherish as the men’s national team prepares for their first game at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The shirts and football paraphernalia that adorn the walls of the bar are mostly donated, as are the pots and pans the couple uses to cook and the mismatched silverware that sits on the tables covered with white tablecloths. Leon and Lenoce have pooled their resources to restore the shop. They bought a large flat-screen TV to broadcast World Cup games – they had to do without air conditioning. Now they’re waiting with their customers for a month they’ll hopefully remember — not to mention the humidity Argentina’s capital is notorious for.
“I hope with all my heart that we win,” said Leon. “To give people a little joy. People are really struggling because of the economic situation we are in.”
A prolonged economic crisis has gutted the value of the Argentine peso and pushed the annual inflation rate to 88 percent in October. Argentines are praying for reprieve, albeit temporary, in the form of football glory.
Ever since their captain, superstar Lionel Messi, guided them to Copa America victory last year, expectations have been rising that the country could finally win their third World Cup after years of disappointment.
The jerseys are everywhere. The bakeries open Tuesday before dawn for the team’s opening game against Saudi Arabia – which takes place at 7am local time -. Screens on public buses show clips of epic moments in the national team’s history and it seems like there is an effigy of Messi or the legendary Diego Maradona, who died of heart failure and pulmonary edema in November 2020, everywhere.
At a recent sold-out concert by British rock band Coldplay at a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, fans erupted in an impromptu serenade for Messi, while a frenzy for collectible World Cup stickers swept social media for weeks.
— Natalie Alcoba (@nataliealcoba) November 8, 2022
Criticism of Qatar as World Cup hosts has not played much of a role in Argentina, where the focus has largely been on the country’s team and prospects.
“Argentinians need to think about how we want to win the World Cup with Messi,” President Alberto Fernandez said while attending the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia earlier this month. “We have a great team and a great coach.” Lionel Scaloni, Argentina’s coach, was also in charge of the 2021 Copa America win.
Indeed, Daniel Rodriguez has a hard time thinking about anything other than the World Cup these days. Like many of his compatriots, the 50-year-old’s passion for football is literally on his skin. Hidden beneath the blue and white national jersey he wears on a Saturday morning at La Paternal while waiting for his wife with his 10-year-old daughter is a tattoo of local club Atlanta, which he supports.
He lowers his voice to show his loyalty as the neighborhood is home to Atlanta’s rival club Argentinos Juniors, which was also Maradona’s first club. “Football means a lot to Argentines. We wake up to football, we eat football and we dream of football,” he said.
At the auto parts company where he works, all eyes will be on the TV for games that drop during work hours, he said. Rodriguez is optimistic about the team’s chances, although his forecasts are cautious. “As all football fans say, step by step.”
Alejandro Wall, an Argentinian sports journalist who has written several books on football and Maradona, said there are a number of factors that make this tournament stand out.
There is consensus on the strength of the team representing the country. It is also expected to be Messi’s last World Cup – his last shot at the coveted trophy. In Argentina, “football swallows everything,” Wall said, even if it won’t change the harsh reality people live in.
Speaking from Qatar, he said he was personally touched by the ties that bind his side to fans he met from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
“It’s the third world united. Or colonized countries versus countries that were colonizers. I think something along those lines is happening here too,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s nice to meet an Indian fan wearing an Argentinian jersey and spreading good cheer.”
Back near La Paternal, there’s a different vibe – a spiritual one – that football fanatics soak up at a permanent memorial dedicated to Maradona.
Diego Vannucci, Maradona’s godson – his father and the player’s agent were friends – is now the caretaker of the premises which was built on a quiet residential street after the football legend died. Located in a former lawn mower camp for Argentinos Juniors stadium – just outside La Paternal – it’s covered in jerseys, posters, photos, signs, stacks of rosaries and other memorabilia, and oozes love for one of the country’s most beloved sons.
There are three rows of pews where fans sit in contemplative silence, staring at a large mural of a young, smiling Maradona. Vannucci points to recent additions to the memorial left by visitors: a red poster of Maradona’s Argentinos junior days; a Mexican 20 peso note; a small map of Fiorito, the soccer star’s hometown.
For many in Argentina, this World Cup will be different simply because of the absence of Maradona, who was more than a player. It’s his larger than life personality that will be missed, Vannucci suggested.
“It feels empty, you can’t describe it like that,” said the 45-year-old. “You know Diego isn’t here. But on the other hand you can feel how he accompanies us.”
Argentina will hope for the final.