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RIO DE JANEIRO — So what if Argentine debt negotiators are getting kicked around on Wall Street and the country’s flopping economy is a giant red card?
The Argentine national team, La Seleccion, plays Germany in the World Cup final in a few hours, and nothing beats political and economic depression like collective soccer delirium.
“Everyone in Argentina is together,” said fan Maximiliano Gauna, calling futbol in his country “the mother of everything.”
Gauna, 26, and four friends had piled into a minivan for the trip from Buenos Aires to Rio, crashing in a makeshift fan camp where they took turns sleeping in the back of the vehicle.
Tens of thousands of Argentines have left their troubles back home and descended on Rio by bus, carpool and even old Vespa scooters to flood the beaches and streets with blue-and-white jerseys and a boozy swagger.
Win or lose, their national team has delivered a thrilling break from a steady drum of bad news. Inflation in Argentina is running near 40 percent. The country’s vice president is facing corruption charges. A recent U.S. federal court judgment has ordered President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government to pay back the creditors she derides as “vultures,” raising worries that Argentina will default on its debts for the second time in 13 years.
If only Argentina’s flatfooted political class were as skilled as its soccer stars.
“We have passion for football, and not for politics. Politics is not a passion for us. It is an embarrassment,” said Tito Bernal, 59, who drove up from northern Argentina in an RV. “We had years of bonanza, and it ended.”
The fraying dynasty of Fernández and her late husband, in power since 2003, has left Argentine society deeply split. Soccer glory has helped patch things up, at least for now, said Argentine fan Agustina Giménez, 22.
“Of course, the economy is difficult, and the problems don’t end,” she said. “But we are crying and shouting [together], every man and woman.”
As she prepared to paint her face with the colors of the Argentine flag and head to Copacabana beach to watch the game, Julieta Lozano, 23, predicted that Argentine leaders would use a World Cup victory to gloss over the country’s tribulations. “We are quite conscious of our political and economic problems," she said. "If we win, it won’t cover them up."
Winning the cup on Brazilian soil would be a special sort of triumph for Argentina, which has seen its self-image as South America’s most developed and prosperous nation eroded in recent decades, while rival Brazil has risen.
The two countries are major trading partners and political allies, but they aren’t exactly teammates. One joke making the rounds in South America helps illustrate the animosity: How do we know Pope Francis can work miracles?
He’s Argentine AND Brazilians like him.
Brazilian authorities blacklisted 2,435 Argentine fans from entering Brazil to ward off violence, but fans have brawled at some games and bars. The host nation is already sore from its thrashing Tuesday by the German team, but while Brazilians complain of having to stomach the sight of boorish Argentine fans peeing on their beaches and taunting them with jingoistic chants, most have resolved to keep their heads down while Argentines celebrate around them.
Brazil is no longer the star of its own World Cup. And its guests are having one heck of a party.
On Saturday, Argentine fans held an impromptu carnival on Rio’s fabled Copacabana beach, waving the flags of their national team and beating drums. Girls rode the shoulders of young male fans and blasted air horns. A giant banner declared GOD = MESSI and MESSI = ARGENTINA, in case anybody wasn’t clear about the celestial ranking of Argentina’s star player, Lionel Messi.
“The Argentines are a pain,” said Rio cabdriver Fernando Bohrer, 35. “I like Argentines when they come as tourists,” he said. But as soccer fans, he added, “they are provocative.”
He could barely countenance the prospect of Argentina winning. “If they win, our president will have to deliver the trophy to them. That is the worst. In our house, in our stadium, deliver the trophy to the Argentines,” he said.
“I am rooting for Germany to win.”