With his eyes glued to the scrambling jerseys projected onto the big white sheet at the front of the Malbec Restaurant tent, Leandro Pampin absent-mindedly grabbed a piece of the blue-and-white flag hanging next to him. He watched his native Argentina rush again and again, trying to break an Icelandic defense that never buckled.
Pampin’s first memory of La Albiceleste was watching the World Cup back home with his family in 1986 when, on a run to the championship, star Diego Maradona beat rival England in the quarterfinals with an uncaught handball, later dubbed the infamous “Hand of God.”
The flag he rubbed between his fingers now had been carried by his friend, Brenda Elizalde, to the Vatican where Pope Francis, a fellow Argentinean, had blessed it.
“We had God in ’86,” the Sotheby’s realtor said. “Now, we have the Pope.”
The Pope had blessed the flag before the 2014 World Cup, so Argentina’s loss to Germany in the final that year forced Pampin to wonder whether their side needs somehow even greater divine intervention to win this Cup. He wasn’t the only Argentinean to suspect it either.
For this Cup, the blue-and-white may have megastar Lionel Messi, but Argentineans fretted that names — such as Messi, Eduardo and Maria — wouldn’t play well enough as a unit to derail the “nameless” machines of Germany or Belgium.
This year, the two presidents from the two largest Argentine club supporters’ groups — Sebastian Umerez of River Plate and Mariano Bossana of Boca Juniors — unintentionally mirrored their wishes of the national team when they set aside their domestic rivalry to co-host a national watch party for the first time.
“We’re under the same flag,” Bossana said. “This is the year.”
Nearly 150 spectators, some from as far as Minneapolis, came to the restaurant on 17th Street to eat pastries called facturas and drink mate, an herbal tea popular in Argentina. Together, they grew frustrated waiting for Argentina to bust through Iceland’s back line.
“We are a nation of 40 million coaches,” Umerez joked when the tent’s howls grew louder at missed chances.
Yet even Umerez noted this Cup feels different. Drawing Iceland, as Argentina did Saturday, seems somehow darker for Argentina than losing its 2014 opener. Pampin tugs the flag tighter. This is, after all, likely Messi’s last World Cup.
“It’s the last chance for this generation,” said fan Pablo Morales. “We will see.”
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