BUENOS AIRES — It began as a World Cup, has become South America’s, and the hope here is that it will end as Argentina’s. With confident play so far and brief glimpses of brilliance, the national squad has grounded the faith here in reason, and to see a well-coiffed Diego Maradona patrolling the sidelines in a suit makes one believe in the providential workings of the Hand of God.
With the recent and (here) delightful collapse of the French team, the struggles of Old Europe, the bizarre and card-happy referring which makes even NBA referees appear competent, the charming American exuberance, and the sincere concerns for the North Korean’s coach’s return home, the travails of Argentina’s qualifying campaign have largely faded from mind. I believe, however, that they do deserve a brief nod. Argentina suffered through a 6-1 thrashing from Bolivia (the second to worst team in the continent). It spent many long nights and days discussing why Lionel Messi — Argentina’s star and the world’s best player — could not replicate the form that graced his club play for Barcelona, risked seeing Coach Diego Maradona — the best player in Argentina’s history and among the best ever — suffer the indignity of helming this tragic failure, squeezed into the last automatic qualifying slot from South America, and sat through verbal volleys in the press from players, coaches, and administrators that mucked through the lewd to make their points. So Argentina can be forgiven her present excitement.
Besides offering irregular soccer commentary, in Buenos Aires I am working at the Argentina Council for International Relations where you’ll find my writing on the G20 Finance Ministers’ Meeting, Obama’s National Security Strategy, forecasts about European financial trouble, and a preview of the upcoming G20 conference in Toronto (sorry, but Spanish only). To whet your appetite and in case your favorite team books an earlier than expected flight home from South Africa, I’ll soon be covering (provided Argentina (or the US or Spain – I’m working the odds here) doesn’t do too well) the consequences of Juan Manuel Santos’ victory in the second round of the Columbian Presidential elections and Argentine debt and trade disputes. Please pace your reading so you don’t overload the servers all at once.
Let’s return to the game. Or rather, the game surrounding the game, as there is little of much interest to say about Argentina’s productive and solid victories against rather outmatched competition. As most of the matches fall here during normal working hours, many employers have taken to setting up televisions in the office for everyone to gather around, a clear-eyed concession to the reality that when the national team plays, everything stops. For those caught walking on the streets, a symphony of car horns keeps all abreast of an Argentine goal, and inside the slap of hands and shouts of joy match the sound. On television Argentina games merit hours of commentary and dissection with strategic considerations and player decisions receiving the full CNN election treatment of touch finger screens and images dragged in all directions.
In reading about the Cup I’ve comes across a quote from CLR James, a Trinidadian historian of repute, that I particularly enjoy. Motivating his famous autobiography which discusses cricket, Beyond a Boundary, was the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” From the inescapably charged discussion surrounding the use of vuvuzelas to the oftentimes enjoyable awkwardness and bad feeling when countries play their former colonial powers (and frequently win), the nasty commentary at some French players after the team’s poor showing to the wincing at a white American’s overdone enthusiasm for the African teams: when the camera cuts to the mugs of politicians and royalty watching their teams play, it’s a reminder that there are not just 22 men on the pitch.
Four geopolitical storylines involving Argentina deserve mention, one already in progress and three to play out. First, the poor showing by European and African squads and the dominance by the Americas, and in particular South America, whose five teams have not yet suffered a loss, seems likely to ignite pressure for reform of the qualifying system and FIFA rankings. Using the grass leaves from the pitch as clues to some larger commentary on national strength is as hackneyed as it often is wrong, but European failures can’t be welcome by politicians back home desperate for some good news during a brutal series of months on the economic front. Second, the emergence of Brazil as a world power and leader in South America has occasioned a noticeable inferiority in Argentina, another reminder of its past economic superiority and the accumulated toll of years of anemic growth. An Argentine victory in the Cup would be enjoyed, but a victory over Brazil particularly so. Third, Argentina and Uruguay have a longstanding dispute over a pulp mill on the Uruguay River. Though less present in the national consciousness, a game against Uruguay would invite reflexive flexing of nationalist muscles in some quarters. Finally, with Presidential elections a year away a fairly strong anti-Kirchner (referring to both the current President Cristina Fernandez and her husband, the former President Nestor Kirchner) mood has taken hold. At a gathering of diplomatic types I was told that some opposed to the pair are privately hoping for an early Argentine defeat to prevent soccer success from propelling the duo back into the Casa Rosada, the seat of the Argentine presidency, amidst a general national mood of good feelings. Though you have to imagine those doing so are not the most devoted of soccer fans.
That cautions one against the geopolitical instinct. Sometimes as Americans know well, it is tough enough just to know cricket. Though it’s difficult to resist imagining some friendly side-betting taking place between leaders at the G20 summit this weekend, when politics seems to intrude on soccer I generally prefer to imagine it the other way around, that soccer and sport intrude on politics, or more precisely, on the human lives that make up our politics. The world now is at play. Let’s enjoy it.