How Argentinean Culture Manifests Itself on the Football Field

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Is a football team reflective of a country’s culture?  Is a squad’s play a window into a society’s psyche?  There are some interesting coincidences that suggest conclusions can be drawn about a nation’s character by watching a game.  Is it any wonder that in the last World Cup Brazil collapsed so spectacularly at the same time the country was facing one of its worst political crises in decades? Or that Germany, which four years ago was not only at the top of its football game but also its political one, got knocked out of this year’s tournament just as Chancellor Merkel‘s coalition seemed to be on the cusp of crumbling?

It’s hard to say how much truth there is in these statements, and I am always skeptical of reaching broad conclusions based on minutia. But as an intellectual exercise, the recent implosion of Argentina’s national football team has given me something to think about. After a lackluster tie with Iceland and a spectacular loss to Croatia, Argentina’s behavior on the field has been eerily reflective of the country’s culture at large.

Argentina’s 2018 World Cup squad

What became excruciatingly evident as Croatia pounded goal after goal into Argentina’s net was that the national squad had been suffering from illusions of grandeur. This was not the capriciousness of highly paid athletes but rather the manifestation of a national ethos that views itself in the light of past triumphs.  Argentina is a country that looks backward rather than plans for the future. On the pitch, Argentina is equally content to rest on its past laurels, unwilling to put in the hard work and long-term strategic planning that go into making a world-class football program.

None of this is much of a surprise. Argentinian culture emphasizes the path of least resistance.  In business, it’s all about gita facil (making a quick buck), and in government, politicians attempt to correct major societal problems with the stroke of a pen.  From the administrations of Peron to the age of the plata dulce (sweet money), Argentinians spend a lot of time thinking of ways to game the system (ser piola) and idolize those who do, like Diego Maradona, whose famous “hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals is considered a shining moment in Argentinean sport’s history.

Easy money is a pervasive cultural concept in Argentina, as this float from the 2010 bicentennial demonstrates.

Unfortunately, the frequent outcome of cutting corners is that you are often left in a position that requires even greater energy to get out of than if you had merely put in the required effort in the first place. In such a situation, it is easy to see why Argentinians routinely retreat into bygone eras to escape rampant inflation, daily strikes, and stagnant real wages.

Nostalgia for the past combined with the economic and political inertia of the present has led to a profound sense of fatalism in Argentinian society. And that very same fatalism could be seen plastered across the faces of the country’s national team when they confronted Croatia in their second World Cup match.  The distracted looks, the lowered heads; they arrived on the field overwhelmed by the task ahead of them, expecting to lose, and to no one’s surprise, fulfilled the prophecy.

After the rout by Croatia, the rumor was that the players rebelled against their coach, Jorge Sampaoli.  It was an attempted coup of sorts against a man who no doubt bears much of the responsibility, but the problems with the squad go much deeper.

Lionel Messi, Argentina’s star forward, listing to his country’s anthem before playing Croatia

Argentina had four years to prepare for the Cup, to hone its tactics, and build cohesion. Severe defects were already self-evident during the qualification games, from horrific mistakes in the defensive end to an inability to utilize key players like Lionel Messi effectively.  The advancing age of its starting lineup was similarly never addressed. Instead, the team seemed to resort to santería (voodoo) to hold the line, imagining that like a good Argentinian wine, Messi would only get better with age. No wonder hinchas (fans) still invoke Diego Maradona in their chants, as if the long retired footballer will somehow appear on the pitch, a plump Santiago of sorts, to lead their team’s final charge to victory.

The lack of any serious self-reflection over the course of the team’s journey to the Cup and the complete obliviousness to its systemic problems is astonishing if not unexpected. Maybe that is why Buenos Aires boasts more psychologists per capita than any other city in the world.  This is not a country that enjoys honest introspection.

And yet Argentina manages to hold on, if just barely.  In their last group match, the national team surpassed Nigeria to earn a spot in the knockout round.  It was hardly a well-played game and could have easily taken a different turn.  But Argentina got its win, and by the looks of euphoria that erupted among the hincha here in Moscow, they may as well have won the Cup itself.

Meanwhile, none of the national team’s problems have been solved.  It still lacks leadership, a coherent strategy, and fresh talent.  Messi may have finally put one in the net, but it’s anybody’s guess if he will show up in their next match against France. Of course, none of that matters, not right now, not when there is a Pyrrhic victory to celebrate. And so the decadence continues. Vamos Argentina! Sabes que yo te quiero.

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