For the next few weeks, flags will decorate the establishment in the middle-class neighborhood of La Paternal. Leon, 62, and her husband, Tatu Linos, 65, opened the pub a year and a half ago after being forced to close their previous pub during the pandemic because they were late paying rent.
Today, it is in many ways a mirror of the brutal economic pain endured by millions of people in Argentina over the past year and little – and of the dreams many have as the men’s national team prepares for its first match at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The football jerseys and paraphernalia that adorn the walls of the pub are mostly donated, as are the pots and pans with which the couple cook and the mismatched cutlery set on tables covered in white tablecloths. Leon and Linus pool their resources to get the place. They bought a big flat screen TV to broadcast the World Cup matches – and had to give up the air conditioning. Now they wait, with their clients, for a month they hope they will remember—no matter how humid Argentina’s capital is famous for.
“I hope with all my heart that we win,” Leon said. “To give people a little bit of joy. People have been really struggling because of the economic situation we are in.”
The prolonged economic crisis has devalued the Argentine peso and pushed the annual inflation rate to 88 percent in October. And Argentines are praying for a reprieve, if only temporarily, in the form of football glory.
Ever since their captain, superstar Lionel Messi, led them to victory in the Copa America last year, expectations have been growing that the country might finally win a third World Cup after years of disappointments.
T-shirts everywhere. Bakeries open before dawn on Tuesday for the team’s opening match against Saudi Arabia – which will be at 7am local time – Screens on public buses display clips of epic moments in the national team’s history and it seems that everywhere you look there is a Messi-like image or Diego Maradona, who died in November 2020 due to heart failure and pulmonary edema.
At a recently sold-out concert by British rock band Coldplay at a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, fans erupted in an impromptu serenade of Messi, while weeks of frenzy over collectible World Cup posters dominated social media.
– Natalie Alcoba (@nataliealcoba) November 8, 2022
Criticism of Qatar as host of the World Cup has not featured prominently in Argentina, where the focus is mostly on the country’s national team and prospects.
“Argentines have to think about how we can win the World Cup with Messi,” said President Alberto Fernandez while in Bali, Indonesia, for the G20 summit earlier this month. “We have a great team and a great coach.” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni was also in charge during the 2021 Copa America victory.
In fact, 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 a passion for football etched into his skin – quite literally. The tattoo of the local club he supports, Atlanta, is hidden under the blue-and-white national jersey he wears on Saturday mornings at La Paternal as he waits for his wife and 10-year-old daughter.
He lowers his voice to reveal his loyalty because the neighborhood is home to rival Atlanta club, Argentinos Juniors, which was also Maradona’s first club. “For Argentines, football means a lot. We wake up with football, eat football and dream about football,” he said.
At the auto parts factory where he works, he said, all eyes will be on the TV set for games that fall during business hours. Rodriguez is optimistic about the team’s chances, even if his expectations are measured. “As all football fans say, one step at a time.”
Alejandro Wall, an Argentine sports journalist who has written several books on football and Maradona, said that some factors make this tournament stand out.
There is a consensus on the strength of the team representing the country. The World Cup is also expected to be Messi’s last – his last chance to win the title. “Football in Argentina absorbs everything,” Wall said, even if it doesn’t change the stark realities people live with.
Speaking from Qatar, he said he was personally touched by the ties his team had with the fans from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan he met.
“It’s a unified Third World. Or colonial countries versus countries that were colonized. I think there’s something going on here, too.” “It’s nice to see an Indian fan wearing an Argentinian shirt and giving you positive vibes.”
Back near La Paternal, there’s a different – soulful – atmosphere that football fanatics come to soak up, at a permanent memorial dedicated to Maradona.
Diego Vanucci, Maradona’s godson – his father and the player’s agent were friends – is now the space keeper that appeared on a quiet residential street in the wake of the football legend’s death. Housed in a space that once used to store lawn mowers for the Argentinos Juniors stadium – just outside La Paternal – it is covered in T-shirts, posters, photos, banners, piles of pools and other memorabilia as it drips in love with one of the country’s favorite sons.
There are three rows of church pews where fans sit in contemplative silence, gazing at a large mural of a young, smiling Maradona. Vannucci points out the recent additions to the monument left by visitors: a red poster of Argentina’s Maradona Junior days; 20 Mexican pesos; A little card from Fioretto, the soccer star’s birthplace.
For many in Argentina, the World Cup will be different due to the absence of Maradona who was more than just a player. It was his larger-than-life persona, suggested Vanucci, who will be missed.
“It feels empty, that’s the only way to describe it,” said the 45-year-old. “You know Diego isn’t here. But on the other hand, you can feel him accompanying us.”
To the final, hope Argentina.