But he doesn’t care about this World Cup. He is all in for Argentina.
Well, at least for Messi.
“It’s about time he won one,” said Becerra. “He’s not just a great player. He seems like a great guy. …
“He doesn’t look Argentinian.”
As Argentina takes on France in Sunday’s final, its biggest star is gathering Latin Americans to cheer for a country they love to hate.
One reason: they are out of options. Colombia, Chile and Peru did not make it to this year’s tournament. Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Uruguay could not survive the group stage. Brazil was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Still, it hasn’t been easy. Argentina’s national football team — two-time world champions — has long divided the continent, causing a combination of admiration, annoyance and jealousy. But in what is expected to be 35-year-old Lionel Messi’s last World Cup, the Argentina captain somehow shatters the region’s long-held doubts. about the country.
“People don’t seem to know what to do,” said Antonio Casale, a Colombian radio broadcaster. “They don’t want Argentina to win, but they want Messi to win.”
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It’s a complicated mix of feelings that extends beyond the sport, said University of Buenos Aires historian Martín Bergel, “an ambivalence somewhere between fascination and repulsion.”
Many Argentines dislike the stereotype, based on a cartoonish simplification of the wealthy, supposedly arrogant porteño, or resident of Buenos Aires – a trope satirized in Argentina itself.
The origin of the image is difficult to determine. But Bergel suspects they can be traced back to the 19th century, to prominent Argentines such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. The president and prominent writer, credited with modernizing the country’s education system, “was arrogant,” Bergel said, “and had an almost prophetic idea of what Argentina could be.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Argentina was an economic powerhouse, bigger and wealthier than Canada, and Buenos Aires was a cultural and intellectual center that compared itself to London and Paris, and developing icons from the tanguero Carlos Gardel to the architect César Pelli to the writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Argentina has long been viewed by Latin Americans as one of the whiter countries in the region. Unlike Brazil, which has at least rhetorically embraced its multiracial heritage, Argentina is seen as a country composed of and largely dominated by people of white, European descent (an image that the country’s indigenous and mestizo population does not includes).
Today, in the midst of economic and political crises, Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was convicted of corruption this month and sentenced to six years in prison — Argentina’s present is very different from its golden era. But the stereotypes linger – especially during international football matches.
The home of football greats Diego Maradona and Messi, Argentina is locked up bitter rivalry with Brazil, Latin America’s other soccer giant, the most successful team in World Cup history with five wins. The teams play against each other every year. The competition is called the Superclásico de las Américas.
In 2014, when Argentina advanced to the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, Argentine fans held back none of their joyful pride to play for the title on Brazilian soil. “Brazil, tell me how it feels,” Argentines chanted, “to have your father in your house?”
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Unsurprisingly, Argentina found little support from its Brazilian hosts that year.
“It was unthinkable that Argentina would win a cup on Brazilian soil,” said Americas editor-in-chief Brian Winter Quarterly. “They believed the Argentines would be unbearable for decades or centuries to come, hanging it over their heads.”
This time, Winter said, “is clearly different.” He notices a wave of support for Argentina, partly out of appreciation for Messi, and partly in the hope that La Albiceleste can bring the trophy back to South America after four European victories in a row. “That solidarity seems strong enough to overcome the fear that Argentines will indeed brag and rule over everyone for decades to come!”
In a recent survey, Argentina was the top choice among Brazilians to win in Qatar if Brazil didn’t win. A Spanish newspaper called it “an unthinkable fandom.”
“It’s not about Argentina. It’s about Messi,” said Guga Chacra, a commentator for Brazil’s GloboNews, who lived in Argentina for years and even has a dog named Messi. “Besides, he’s a genius, he’s this normal guy. … His head is always down, as if he has all of Argentina on his back.
There is also the fact of Argentina’s opponent on Sunday. France has beaten Brazil three times in World Cup matches, once in a final. Brazil is the last country to win two World Cups in a row, in 1958 and 1962, when Pelé lit up the field. Brazilians certainly don’t want Les Bleus, the 2018 champion, to match this feat, Chacra said.
Still, there are holdouts, even beyond Messi’s reach.
Eliezer Budasoff, an Argentinian editor in El País’ offices in Mexico City, assumed he would find at least some Mexicans to support the Latin American side if Argentina played the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. He was wrong. When Argentina scored his first goal, he was the only one in the Mexico City bar to jump out of his chair and cheer. Everyone else is rooting for the Netherlands.
When play went to penalty kicks, a friend grabbed him: “Let’s get out of here.”
“If it wasn’t for him,” Budasoff said, “I think I could have been beaten up.”
Budasoff has spent all week trying to mold his colleagues in his Mexico City office into Argentina supporters, with mixed success. Carolina Mejia, a 27-year-old photographer and video editor, is rooting for France. The Argentina team is “arrogant,” she said. “They play in this very individualistic way.”
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But for many Latin Americans, Sunday is all about one person.
“How much for your Messi shirt?” asked a man in a jersey shop in downtown Bogotá.
Retailer John Fernández, 35, has been selling football shirts in the Colombian capital for 13 years. He is never seen so much interest in the blue and white striped Argentina shirts with Messi’s name on the back.
Of course he roots for Colombia when the country qualifies for the World Cup. Otherwise he supports Brazil, because Brazilians remind him of Colombians: “They are cheerful, just like us.”
But he felt he had to go back Argentina this year. A Messi win would be good for that business during a busy Christmas shopping week. His sweaters flew out of the store.
But that would also mean an Argentinian victory.
“Then who will be able to endure them?” said Becerra, the Uber driver.
He shook his head and laughed.
“Oh no,” he said. “Maybe I’ll regret cheering for Argentina.”
World Cup in Qatar
The last: The World Cup came closer to its end on Saturday as Croatia took third place in the tournament by beating Morocco 2-1. France and Argentina will play for the world championship at 10 a.m. Eastern on Sunday.
Messi’s probably last World Cup: For Lionel Messi, the World Cup is a last chance to step out of Maradona’s shadow. For Argentines, a break from the relentless bad news.
Worldview today: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, the World Cup in Qatar will always be a controversial tournament. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to think differently.
Perspective: “America is no laughing matter for men’s football right now. It’s on to something, and it’s more aligned with what works for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture – without the benefit of the best of the best talent – into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer about the future of the US men’s national team.