Thousands of Argentine fans gathering near the Obelisk monument in Buenos Aires following Sunday’s FIFA World Cup Final victory. Source: CONMEBOL/Twitter.
Before Sunday’s victory, Argentina had won the World Cup twice. However, it had been nearly 40 years since it happened last, when the glorious, albeit controversial, Diego Maradona led the nation to victory at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca in 1986. Over the last few decades, its failure to conquer the tournament—despite boasting arguably the world’s top player, Lionel Messi—came to symbolize the country’s national melancholy, a product of a decade of economic stagnation and repeated crises.
Today, everything feels different. The celebration began immediately on Sunday, with millions of Argentines nationwide pouring onto the streets to sing, dance, and spray blue-and-white smoke. On the evening of the triumph, the 9 of July thoroughfare, around the Obelisk monument in Buenos Aires, was awash in a sea of soccer fans. The World Cup provided a rare period of national unity, and Argentina’s win appears to be a step toward healing a country torn apart by partisan tensions. It was also a reminder to the deeply cynical Argentine public of the country’s capacity for greatness.
The World Cup title did not only bring joy to Argentines, but to the region as a whole at a time when Latin America is struggling to make it through difficult times. Last week, Peru’s president was impeached after he attempted to dissolve Congress. Supporters of Brazil’s outgoing far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, recently attacked the headquarters of the federal police in Brasília. Additionally, this week in Mexico, one of the country’s best-known TV anchors survived an assassination attempt—an escalation of the violence that has made Mexico one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.
When the penalty shots concluded and Messi kissed the World Cup trophy, political figures across the region sent messages congratulating Argentina’s president—including the president-elect of Brazil, Argentina’s fútbol archrival. Ecuador’s president said Argentina’s team had left Latin America’s soccer fans “drowning in joy.” Chile’s leader said Argentina’s jubilation had “crossed over the mountains.”
The unpopular government of President Alberto Fernández was particularly excited—and not only because of the national team’s success. For Fernández, the World Cup was a political gift. Its unusual, late-year scheduling fueled hopes that public attention might turn from soccer to the summer holidays, skipping the tradition of December protests that began during the 2001 crisis.
The tournament definitely helped. These days, the most relevant historical memories for Argentines—beaten down by almost 100 percent inflation—are the economic crises in the late 1980s and in the first years of this millennium. Lately, however, parents in Buenos Aires are telling their children different stories: about where they were for the World Cup final in 1986, and how they navigated to the Obelisco to join the celebration downtown. As the 2022 World Cup partying extends the national euphoria, Fernández will enjoy a far longer political pause. What’s more, when the political conversation resumes at the start of the 2023 election season, the president can hope that the country’s soccer stardom will have shaken the population’s deep pessimism.
If all that sounds like a lot to hope for from a single soccer game, then you do not know how important fútbol is in Latin America—especially to Argentina. The love for fútbol in Argentina is absolute. During the World Cup, that passion is all-consuming. Even though the streets are empty during Argentina’s matches, consumer spending rises. Messi’s Number 10 jersey became the national uniform, even for dogs, and large companies set up big-screen TVs so that employees still showed up to work. As the announcers repeatedly reminded Messi’s fans, “Muchachos, ahora nos volvimos a ilusionar”—Boys, we have our hopes up again—borrowing a lyric from the rock band La Mosca.
Of course, the victory in Qatar will not solve the country’s fundamental struggles. The 1986 triumph did not prevent the hyperinflation that led to President Raúl Alfonsín’s resignation, and this victory will not stop the supersized government from running on borrowed money. Yet the championship is a milestone of incalculable cultural importance and it has, at least for the moment, lifted Argentina out of its deep national malaise.
Benjamin N. Gedan is the Acting Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former South America director on the National Security Council.
Carl Meacham is a former senior staffer for Latin America on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee for U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar. Currently, he is Managing Director for Trade and National Security at FTI Consulting.