Buenos Aires, Argentina – Football is more than a game, they say. On Sunday, that truism came alive in the heart of Buenos Aires.
It was visible on the faces of the young men and women whooping from atop traffic lights, in dancing little girls with the nation’s flags painted on their cheeks, and in elderly men fighting back tears. In the embraces between strangers. The anthems that hovered over the city. The simultaneous pulsating of a sea of people to the drums of victory.
Football is hope, and hope is contagious.
Argentina’s hard-fought World Cup win over France in Qatar has triggered an outpouring of emotions in the South American country. Joy and relief are competing with deep gratitude to the national team led by Lionel Messi who was finally able to hoist the one coveted trophy that had eluded him. It was Argentina’s first World Cup victory since 1986 when Diego Maradona led the country to glory.
“Bien, Argentina, bien,” one man said quietly to himself, as he looked around at the throngs descending on the Obelisco de Buenos Aires – the capital’s iconic landmark – to celebrate the victory.
“It really is a sensation like no other,” said Marilé Oviedo, 32. “It’s happiness. That’s what it is.”
Tens of thousands of people flowed through the arteries of the nation’s capital towards the obelisk, chanting, singing, jumping and dancing under giant flags stretched across the width of entire avenues.
Anthems reverberated off the ornate balconies of Sante Fe Avenue, paying homage to Messi and the spirit of Maradona – who passed away two years ago – who many believe was looking down upon them today.
“Soy Argentino! Es un sentimiento que no puedo parar!” they sang. “I’m Argentinian! It’s a feeling I can’t contain.”
The World Cup final was as dramatic as they come. Argentina dominated play for most of the regulation 90 minutes, until French phenom Kylian Mbappé sunk two goals within a minute to draw his side level. A thrilling period of extra time followed, in which each side managed to score a goal, leading to the excruciating penalty kicks and the brilliance of Argentina keeper Emiliano “Dibu” Martinez in stopping two shots.
Messi had said before the tournament that this would be his last World Cup, although after this victory he told an Argentinian media outlet that he wasn’t done with the national squad just yet.
The victory set off a wave of euphoria across Argentina, where people have been struggling with an economic crisis and inflation at nearly 100 percent this year. The World Cup was, for many, a necessary reprieve from an otherwise brutal 2022 that had left people disillusioned and exhausted.
Near the obelisk, people climbed on top of bus shelters, scaled the foliage of a giant BA sign, set off firecrackers and sung the de facto Argentina World Cup anthem, Muchachos, Ahora Nos Volvimos a Ilusionar (Boys, now we’re excited again) on loop.
The phrase “World Champions” was projected on the obelisk, and a giant banner in the form of a jersey was unfurled down the resplendent Teatro Colón opera house. In Messi’s hometown of Rosario, neighbours gathered around his childhood home with flags and horns.
President Alberto Fernandez said he had no words to describe the moment, except to say, on Twitter: “Always together, always united”.
The team was also congratulated by leaders around the world on Twitter. “Your joy crosses the Andes,” wrote Chilean President Gabriel Boric. “This will be remembered as one of the most thrilling football matches!” tweeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The team will return to Buenos Aires on Monday, where crowds are expected to gather again to welcome their heroes – much like they did when the team won the Copa America tournament last year.
Arrangements are under way for official celebrations although local media are reporting that the team will avoid the obelisk and the presidential palace out of safety concerns because of the sheer number of people who will likely want to join in.
“We’re seeing an incredible effervescence, a display of pure joy,” said Mario Guarella, 80, who came out of his apartment on Santa Fe Avenue to get closer to the thousands of people marching to the obelisk. “It’s the culmination of all that sacrifice and effort.”
His eyes welled up with tears, talking about what it meant to his country to have won the trophy. “I’m feeling unity that I hope can serve to end the divide in our society,” he said. “The light blue and white is bringing us together, like it always has.”
María José Zeni, 43, with her toy poodle Carlitos in her arms, said she cried for almost the entire game. “We always have to suffer in order to enjoy it even more,” she said, standing on Santa Fe Avenue. “I’m happy for Messi, for the team, and for all Argentinians. We always have to struggle for things. Finally, this is some joy.”
Rodrigo Ronchetti, 40, was out with his family, marvelling at the endless stream of people hoping to get to the obelisk. He was quite certain his family wouldn’t make it there – crowds had started gathering the previous night in anticipation.
In a stroller, his daughter Amanda, not even a year old, squirmed in her Argentina jersey onesie. “Best day of her life,” he said, smiling.
Though Messi said he isn’t done playing for the national side, there is a sense among many Argentinians that the end of an era is near.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to see someone like that again,” said Rubén Barrionuevo, 42, watching from the sidelines in Buenos Aires. He took comfort in the fact that the next generation is in the wings.
“There are lots of kids on the little neighbourhood pitches that play really well. One day, someone is going to come out of there.”