This is the Argentine author's fourth world cup abroad, but his first as the father of two young boys.
I love soccer. But that’s not the only reason why the World Cup fascinates me. There are so many stories that can be told through this spectacular, emotional, exaggerated sport event, which — like life and parenthood — is intense and full of contradictions.
This is the fourth World Cup that I’m watching away from my home country, Argentina. Every experience has been different but, at times, Qatar 2022 feels a lot like Japan-South Korea 2002, the first one I experienced from abroad, when I was 20 years old and living in Spain.
Now, two decades later, living in Greece as the father of two children, some of those memories are reemerging vividly.
The unexpected 2-1 defeat in Argentina’s opening match against Saudi Arabia gave me the same feeling of orphanhood I felt when the Argentine national team, which was considered one of the strongest teams ahead of the 2002 World Cup, came to a draw one morning against Sweden and was eliminated in the first round.
Celebrating others' sadness
I watched that fateful match alone, outside the club where I worked at night in Mallorca. I was surrounded by mostly British and Dutch fans, who celebrated the Argentine defeat more than the Swedish victory.
Even then I was struck by the idea of celebrating the sadness of others: what’s behind a rivalry that leads someone to rejoice in somebody else’s defeat? Or, worse still, to celebrate when someone is suffering, like in the case of Neymar, who was injured in Brazil's triumphant debut against Serbia (2-0).
Neymar had already injured himself at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when he fractured a vertebra. What did a group of Argentine fans do then? They made fun of him.
Faced with Neymar’s latest injury in Qatar, many celebrated, even in his own country. His compatriot Ronaldo, a two-time world champion, wrote a message of support in which he asked: “How far have we come? What kind of world is this? What message are we giving to our youth? There will always be people against it, but it is sad to see society on the path of trivializing intolerance, of normalizing hate speech.”
Football and inflation
But back to that defeat against Saudi Arabia. At that time, Argentina was coming to terms with the economic and social explosion of December 2001. In contrast to what was happening inside the country, Marcelo Bielsa's national team arrived at the World Cup so strong that it arrived with huge expectations.
There was a widespread feeling that contemporary history and its injustice owed something to Argentina — a hypothesis as absurd as it was navel-gazing. Hope manifested in the certainty of winning the World Cup, something that seemed guaranteed although it was based — back then as it is now — mostly on desire.
There was back then, as there is now, a disproportionate expectation of what winning a World Cup could mean. If during the 2002 World Cup the country was bankrupt, Argentina is now facing an unbearable economic crisis: more than a third of the country lives in poverty and inflation has reached maddening levels, currently 88%, with estimates that it will reach — for the first time in 30 years — 100% by the end of the year.
“The last thing this country needs is for the national team to do badly,” a friend in Buenos Aires told me after the first defeat. Argentina eventually got through the first phase, coming first in its group, and are now in the quarter finals. From then on, like any national team, Argentina can be elimi... (I'd better not complete the sentence) in every game. That possibility — a reality — never seems to be enough for Argentina's dream of winning the World Cup again. Maybe, as they say, dreams do not understand reason and, then, any reasoning dissolves in the face of desire.
So, hanging by a thread, the longing remains. “Let's hope Argentina becomes champion for the good of the country” has been heard in conversations in Buenos Aires since Argentina won its second game.
In response, journalist Andrés Burgo recalled that the country did not fare any better after winning the title in Mexico 1986 with Maradona, and wrote that soccer can mitigate popular disenchantment but not solve it — perhaps in the hope that we Argentines do not deceive ourselves (so much).
Fans in Gaza enjoy the game between Portugal and South Korea
A soccer fan in the making
My eldest son, Lorenzo, who will be four years old in February, has only been to Argentina once (when he was one). All he knows about the country is what we — my partner Irene and I — have passed on to him, stressing that most of his family and many of our friends are there.
How many other things, without realizing it, will I be transmitting to him?
But without realizing exactly how, I somehow managed to infect Lorenzo with my fanaticism for Argentina in the World Cup. Over the last few days, while driving to the kindergarten, he asked me to play “Argentina’s song”. And he sings along with the most famous Argentine soccer chant — with a twist: “Vamos, vamos, Argentina / Vamos, vamos, a ganar / Esta banda turuleca / No te deja, no te deja calentar”. (“Come on, come on, Argentina / Come on, come on, let’s win / This turbulent band / Won't let you, won't let you get angry”)
It amuses me that Lorenzo, in his free adaptation of the original version, has changed several details, including mistaking the verb alentar for calentar — cheer on for get angry.
It makes me laugh, I like it, but it also worries me: why do I have to instill in him a fanaticism for a country he hardly knows, and which I left? How many other things, without realizing it, will I be transmitting to him?
The contradictions of soccer and being a father are mixed. For example, I am delighted to have recently become Leon's father as well, even though the arrival of a second son implies physical, mental and financial efforts, and having to put on hold, even temporarily, some personal projects. Besides, and above all, it is becoming more and more evident that being a father puts me face to face with the risk of suffering — today and always — more than with anything else in life.
Is there anything worse than the possibility of a child's suffering? But I forget that when I'm exhausted by fatherhood, like last Sunday, when Lorenzo was having a day of impossible-to-fulfill demands. I've said it before: I love him, but sometimes I can't stand him. Anyway, in this context, I keep asking myself if I would seek a third child. Why?!
A vulnerable superhero
I like soccer, I have played it a lot, but I am aware of the unbearable machismo, the tremendous homophobia and the sad racism that coexist in this sport both at the amateur and professional levels.
Soccer educates and sanctions you at every step not to break away from the stereotype. Breaking away involves (gender) sanctions for not being man enough (not being macho, not having the stamina), followed by a lecture that, in the best of cases, comes in the form of a joke, irony or a weird look.
In this context, I want to celebrate that Dibu Martinez, the goalkeeper of the Argentine national team, openly said that he spoke to his psychologist after the painful defeat against Saudi Arabia.
The goalkeeper, who also plays for Aston Villa in the English Premier League, said that he suffered a lot and could not sleep. That is to say, after the second match, just after the 2-0 victory over Mexico, one of the stars of the national team showed himself as vulnerable instead of selling himself as a superhero.
Why does it matter? He is a star, super popular, a millionaire and talented. Even so, he dissociates himself from the discourse and behavior that reigns among men: he talks about not being able to do something, about suffering and asking for help. Although it seems simple, it is not. And that is why the news went viral in the media and social networks. It is a tiny thing, but at the same time a hopeful and necessary gesture.
Almost everything is a contradiction
The choice of Qatar as host country generated endless criticism: lack of individual rights (especially for women and the LGBTQ+ community), a scandalous investigation for corruption in the choice of the host country (the FIFAgate led to the imprisonment of leaders and businessmen, mostly Latin Americans), and, perhaps what had the greatest impact on the media beyond the rigor of the information, the mistreatment that caused the death of hundreds, or thousands, of workers in the building of stadiums.
Just as I feel overwhelmed by the World Cup, I can also allow myself to enjoy it.
As Ezequiel Fernández Moores wrote in La Nación daily back in Buenos Aires: “The World Cup as showcase. The World Cup as image washing. The World Cup as business. The World Cup as a possibility of change. The World Cup as a game. The World Cup as a boomerang. And the World Cup as hypocrisy. All that, Qatar, all that is a World Cup.”
All this is true. And it makes me think that soccer — like most of our cultural consumption or daily decisions — allowed me to take license to exercise with certain impunity that contradiction that so often occurs and in so many other ways: I do enthusiastically something that, if I think about it, seems wrong or makes no sense to me. Something that, like a joke when explained, loses its humor.
The examples would be numerous, inside and outside of soccer. Sometimes it seems to me that if I think deeply about the ways in which I live (we live) — technology, consumption, customs, way of working — almost everything becomes a contradiction.
So, as I am a fan of the Argentine national team, and a Messi fanatic, but also a father of two children and a journalist; just as I feel overwhelmed by the World Cup, I can also allow myself to enjoy it.
I understand that the personal is political, but I also believe that we have to choose which battles — and when — we want or can fight. Otherwise, we'd all be fighting all the time over everything (and nothing?).
Which brings me back to Qatar. When Lionel Messi scored a great goal against Mexico, Italian commentator and former soccer player Daniele "Lele" Adani exploded on public broadcaster RAI to celebrate the Argentine soccer star. In Italy, Adani was criticized for being excessive. I instead would like to salute his passion and the emotion behind it: being with others makes us not only happy, but thankful too.
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