BUENOS AIRES, JULY 8 -- As exuberant West German players were awarded the title of World Cup soccer champions in Rome, the streets of Buenos Aires fell eerily silent. In sharp contrast to the immediate explosion of cheering that burst out over the city with each of Argentina's four victories, today fans stared blankly at TV screens.
It took nearly 30 minutes for crowds to begin to fill the streets and cars to circulate, honking their horns in homage to the team that is now No. 2 in the world. While sportscasters for the national television station praised the West German squad as unquestionably the best team, the measured words for the "dignified" accomplishment of the home team was little consolation to Argentines.
Many fans, including President Carlos Menem, who watched the game on a giant television screen in Government House, agreed that West Germany deserved the victory. But they criticized the referee who awarded the penalty kick with six minutes remaining that allowed Germany to score its lone goal.
"Germany took the ball and dominated play," Menem said in a statement. "Argentina was an incomplete team and we lost with an unfair goal because the penalty was not merited."
Soccer-mania is part of popular culture in this South American nation of 33 million, hundreds of thousands of whom take over the streets and plazas every time Argentina wins a World Cup game. "Win or lose, we love the national team," chanted more than 3,000 fans who walked to the central Plaza of the Republic.
Argentina "was lucky to reach the finals and West Germany deserved the victory, but not that kind of victory, not on a penalty," said Jose Maria Pedrazo, who joined the celebration.
Argentina's national flag hung from windows and balconies of thousands of high-rise apartments and many Argentines organized parties around the game.
Sidewalk vendors occupied corners of every major street to sell national flags, hats, and banners with a likeness of Maradona, proclaiming him "Diego the Genius." Flags which sold for the equivalent of 60 cents on June 8, the opening day of the World Cup, cost $2 on today.
But it was a far cry from what might have happened had Argentina repeated the title it won in 1986 in Mexico City.
Not that Argentines lacked reasons to be pleased with their team. In fact, the miracle is that the team made it to finals.
Following the surprising loss to Cameroon in the first game of the month-long tournament, Argentines almost forgot that experts gave their team little chance of hanging onto the golden cup. Millions of armchair coaches developed theories to explain how their aging team, which entered the finals with four of its 11 starters plagued by physical problems, could win.
The second element that encouraged Argentina's dream of being the only team to win the World Cup twice in a row was Diego Maradona. The Argentine captain is beloved as one of the world's great players and as a pugnacious spokesman of the working class. But playing with an injured left knee, he failed to match his past brilliance in what he repeatedly said was his last World Cup.
Even had Argentina won today's final, the crowds around the downtown obelisk probably would not have matched those of the past. After the Italian match, violence broke out in the area for the first time. Gangs broke into and robbed more than 50 businesses. They were finally controlled by police using tear gas and water cannons. More than 200 were arrested. The Tuesday night outbreak stunned the nation.
More shocking still were Europe's hostile reactions to their team reaching the final. The nasty comments of Denis Tillimac in France's Le Figaro were read with indignation in Buenos Aires. Calling Maradona a "fat dwarf," the columnist declared "the categorical imperatives in this World Cup is to eliminate the Argentines."
Soccer-based friction is also appearing in the Argentine political arena. Monday is the country's independence day, and Menem has called for a military parade, the first since 1978. The Argentine players are being rushed back to appear on the balcony of the government house during the troop review, which the president says is a "demonstration of national reconciliation."
Lawyer Ricardo Kelly lamented the mixing of sports and politics: "It makes me feel ambiguous about our winning."