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Latin Americans rally behind Messi — but not Argentina

Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Mexico during Group C play at the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar on Nov. 26. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
7 min

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — When the subject of Argentina comes up, Jimmy Becerra, like many Latin Americans, rolls his eyes.

The stereotypes about the South American country — and especially its soccer fans — have been handed down through the generations in this part of the world, including in Becerra’s family: The Argentines are arrogant, the 35-year-old Uber driver said. They think they’re superior to the rest of their continent. In soccer, he said, they’re insufferable.

But this World Cup, he doesn’t care about any of that. He’s all in for Argentina.

Well — for Messi, at least.

“It’s time for him to win one,” Becerra said. “Not only is he a great player. He seems like a great guy. …

“He doesn’t seem Argentine.”

Now, as Argentina faces off against France in Sunday’s final, its biggest star is rallying Latin Americans to cheer for a country they love to hate.

One reason: They’re out of options. Colombia, Chile and Peru didn’t make this year’s tournament. Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Uruguay couldn’t survive the group stage. Brazil was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Still, it hasn’t been easy. Argentina’s national soccer team — two-time World Cup champions — has long divided the continent, eliciting a combination of admiration, annoyance and jealousy. But in what is expected to be 35-year-old Lionel Messi’s last World Cup, the Argentine captain is somehow breaking through the region’s long-held misgivings about the country.

“People don’t seem to know what to do,” said Antonio Casale, a Colombian radio broadcaster. “They don’t want Argentina to win, but they want Messi to win.”

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It’s a complicated mix of feelings that extends beyond the sport, said University of Buenos Aires historian Martín Bergel, “an ambivalence somewhere between fascination and repulsion.”

Many Argentines resent the stereotypical depiction, based on a cartoonish simplification of the wealthy, supposedly arrogant porteño, or Buenos Aires resident — a trope lampooned in Argentina itself.

The origins of the image are hard to pin down. But Bergel suspects they can be traced back to the 19th century, to prominent Argentines such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. The president and prominent writer, credited with modernizing the country’s education system, “was arrogant,” Bergel said, “and had an almost prophetic idea of what Argentina could be.”

By the early 20th century, Argentina was an economic powerhouse, larger and wealthier than Canada, and Buenos Aires was a cultural and intellectual hub comparing itself to London and Paris, and developing icons from the tanguero Carlos Gardel to the architect César Pelli to the writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Argentina has long been viewed by Latin Americans as one of the Whiter countries in the region. In contrast to Brazil, which has at least rhetorically embraced its multiracial heritage, Argentina is seen as made up of and largely dominated by people of White, European descent (an image that fails to include the country’s Indigenous and mestizo populations).

Today, amid economic and political crises — Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was convicted of corruption this month and sentenced to six years in prison — the Argentine present is starkly different from its golden era. But the stereotypes linger — especially during international soccer games.

The home of soccer greats Diego Maradona and Messi, Argentina has been locked in bitter rivalry with Brazil, Latin America’s other soccer giant, the most successful team in World Cup history with five championship wins. The teams play each other annually. The match is called the Superclásico de las Américas.

In 2014, when Argentina advanced to the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, Argentine fans held back none of their gleeful pride in playing for the title on Brazilian soil. “Brazil, tell me how it feels,” Argentines chanted, “to have your daddy in your house?”

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Unsurprisingly, Argentina found little support from its Brazilian hosts that year.

“It was unthinkable for Argentina to win a Cup on Brazilian soil,” said Brian Winter, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly. “They believed the Argentines would be intolerable for decades or centuries to come, hanging it over their heads.”

This time, Winter said, “is clearly different.” He’s noticed a swell of support for Argentina, partly in appreciation for Messi, and partly in the hope that La Albiceleste can bring the Cup back to South America after four straight European wins. “That solidarity seems strong enough to overcome the fear that yes, Argentines will still brag and lord it over everybody for decades to come!”

In one recent survey, Argentina was the top pick among Brazilians to win in Qatar if Brazil didn’t. A Spanish newspaper called it “an unthinkable fandom.”

“It’s not about Argentina. It’s about Messi,” said Guga Chacra, a commentator for Brazil’s GloboNews who spent years living in Argentina and even has a dog named Messi. “Besides that, he’s a genius, he’s this normal guy. … His head is always down, like he has all of Argentina on his back.”

There’s also the fact of Argentina’s opponent on Sunday. France has defeated Brazil three times in World Cup play, once in a final. Brazil is the last country to win two World Cups in a row, in 1958 and 1962, when Pelé lit up the pitch. Brazilians certainly don’t want to see Les Bleus, the 2018 champion, match the feat, Chacra said.

Still, there are holdouts, beyond even Messi’s reach.

Eliezer Budasoff, an Argentine editor in the Mexico City offices of El País, assumed he would find at least some Mexicans supporting the Latin American side when Argentina played the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. He was wrong. When Argentina scored its first goal, he was the only one in the Mexico City bar to jump out of his seat and cheer. Everyone else was rooting for the Netherlands.

When the game went to penalty kicks, a friend grabbed him: “Let’s get out of here.”

“If it wasn’t for him,” Budasoff said, “I think I could’ve gotten beaten up.”

Budasoff has tried all week to convert his colleagues in his Mexico City office into Argentina supporters, with mixed success. Carolina Mejia, a 27-year-old photographer and video editor, is rooting for France. Argentina’s team is “arrogant,” she said. “They play in this very individualistic way.”

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Yet for many Latin Americans, Sunday is all about one individual.

“How much for your Messi shirt?” a man asked at a jersey store in downtown Bogotá.

Shopkeeper John Fernández, 35, has sold soccer jerseys in the Colombian capital for 13 years. He’s never seen so much interest in the blue-and-white striped Argentine shirts with Messi’s name on the back.

Of course, he roots for Colombia when the country qualifies for the World Cup. Otherwise, he supports Brazil, because Brazilians remind him of Colombians: “They’re cheerful, like us.”

But he felt he had to back Argentina this year. A Messi win would be good for business during a peak Christmas shopping week. His jerseys would fly off the shelves.

But that would also mean an Argentine win.

“Who’s going to be able to put up with them then?” said Becerra, the Uber driver.

He shook his head and laughed.

“Oh no,” he said. “I might regret cheering for Argentina.”

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.