Buenos Aires, Argentina – Marina Leon holds out a string of white and blue paper flags at her small, family-run bar, where the door is kept wide open in hopes of a gentle breeze wafting in and offering respite from the heat.
For the next few weeks, the flags will decorate the establishment in the middle-class neighbourhood 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.
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Today, it is in many ways a mirror to the brutal economic pain that millions of people in Argentina have endured over the past year and a bit – and to the dreams that many harbour as the national men’s team prepares for its first match at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The jerseys and football paraphernalia that adorn the bar’s walls are mostly donated, just like the pots and pans the couple cooks with and the mismatched cutlery resting on tables covered with white tablecloths. Leon and Lenoce pooled their resources to get the place up. They bought a large flat-screen television to broadcast World Cup games – they had to forego air conditioning. Now they wait, with their customers, for a month they hope to remember – never mind the humidity that Argentina’s capital is notorious for.
“I hope with all my heart that we win,” said Leon. “To give people a little bit of joy. People have really been struggling because of the economic situation we’re in.”
A prolonged economic crisis has eviscerated the value of the Argentinian peso and sent the annual inflation rate soaring to 88 percent in October. Argentinians are praying for reprieve, even if temporary, in the form of football glory.
Ever since their captain, superstar Lionel Messi, led them to the Copa America win last year, expectations have been mounting that the country might finally clinch its third World Cup after years of disappointments.
The jerseys are everywhere. Bakeries are opening before dawn on Tuesday for the team’s inaugural match against Saudi Arabia – which will be at 7am local time – screens on public buses are playing clips of epic moments in the national squad’s history and it seems like, everywhere you look, there is a likeness of Messi or the iconic Diego Maradona, who died in November 2020 of heart failure and pulmonary oedema.
At a recent sold-out concert of British rock band Coldplay in a football stadium in Buenos Aires, fans broke out in an impromptu serenade to Messi, while for weeks, a frenzy over collectable World Cup stickers dominated social media.
— Natalie Alcoba (@nataliealcoba) November 8, 2022
Criticism of Qatar as a host for the World Cup has not figured prominently in Argentina, where, for the most part, the focus is on the country’s team and its prospects.
“Argentinians have to think about how we’re going to win the World Cup with Messi,” President Alberto Fernandez said while in Bali, Indonesia, for the G20 summit earlier this month. “We have a great team and a great coach.” Lionel Scaloni, Argentina’s coach, was also in charge during the Copa America win in 2021.
Indeed, it’s hard for Daniel Rodriguez to think of anything other than the World Cup these days. Like many of his compatriots, the 50-year-old has his passion for football etched on his skin – literally. A tattoo of the local club he supports, Atlanta, is hidden under the blue and white national jersey he is sporting on a Saturday morning in La Paternal as he waits for his wife with his 10-year-old daughter.
He lowers his voice to reveal his allegiance since the neighbourhood is the home of Atlanta’s rival club, Argentinos Juniors, which was also Maradona’s first club. “For Argentinians, football means a lot. We wake up with football, we eat football and we dream of football,” he said.
At the auto parts manufacturer where he works, all eyes will be on the television set for games that fall during work hours, he said. Rodriguez is optimistic about the team’s chances, even if his predictions are measured. “As all football fans say, one step at a time.”
Alejandro Wall, an Argentinian sports journalist who has written several books on football and Maradona, said a few factors make this tournament stand out.
There is consensus over 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 absorbs everything”, Wall said, even if it will not change the stark realities people are living.
Speaking from Qatar, he said he has been personally touched by the ties that bind his squad to fans from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan he has met.
“It’s the Third World united. Or countries colonised versus countries that were colonisers. I think there’s something along those lines that is happening here, too,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s lovely to meet an Indian fan who has an Argentina jersey and is sending you good vibes.”
Back near La Paternal, there’s a different vibe – a spiritual one – that football fanatics come to 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 caretaker of the space that sprung up on a quiet residential street in the wake of the football legend’s death. Located in what used to be lawnmower storage for the Argentinos Juniors’ stadium – just outside La Paternal – it is covered in jerseys, posters, photos, signs, piles of rosaries and other memorabilia and is dripping in love for one of the country’s favourite sons.
There are three rows of church pews where fans sit in contemplative silence, staring at a large mural of a young, smiling Maradona. Vannucci points out recent additions to the memorial, left by visitors: A red poster of Maradona’s Argentinos Junior days; a Mexican 20 peso note; a small card from 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 is his larger-than-life personality that will be missed, suggested Vannucci.
“It feels empty, that’s the only way to describe it,” said the 45-year-old. “You know that Diego is not here. But on the other hand, you can feel him, accompanying us.”
To the final, Argentina will hope.