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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-12-2022 15:26

After a brief moment of togetherness

Politicians and their associates have yet to make out what the reaction to winning the World Cup means for them. If only they could be fêted with such adulation!

Argentina has long had a thing about crowds. For many years they have loomed portentously in the national imagination. Radicals lovingly recall the impressive ones that, back in July 1933, bid farewell to Hipólito Yrigoyen and, half a century later, cheered Raúl Alfonsín on the final stage of his journey towards the presidency. Peronists counter this by going on about the multitudes that helped free colonel Juan Domingo Perón from the clutches of the military comrades who had arrested him, and others that successively gathered to cheer Evita, mourn her passing and then, amid gunfire, welcome back their leader after he had spent 17 years as an exile in friendly right-wing dictatorships.

It need hardly be said that, in the crowd-gathering business, football beats politics by a far wider margin that was needed for the national team to overcome France’s and win the World Cup. Though the enormous swarm that, to nobody’s surprise, surrounded the Obelisk on Tuesday may not have been the biggest in history (according to reports, tens of millions of Hindus regularly gather in Allahabad to throw rose petals into the Ganges), it was certainly sizeable enough.

For some people, this was something to be proud of. We may have our faults, the men and women who kept jumping up and down in jubilation seemed to say, but we too are able to astonish the world by playing bit parts in a feat which made the front pages or online news portals of most significant foreign media organisations. What they said about how wonderful it all was added to the satisfaction so many felt. Apparently, the sad fact that few of the millions who thronged the city centre that day could actually get a glimpse of the footballers was of minor importance. Being there was what mattered.   

No doubt it would be curmudgeonly to compare the Great Buenos Aires Happening — which, we are told, will be remembered forever, with old men and women telling wide-eyed infants how marvellous it was — with the dancing mania which periodically erupted in late mediaeval Europe and treat it as yet another example of collective hysteria in which habitually sober individuals feel obliged to show that their feelings are as intense as anyone else’s. The enthusiasm that for some reason gripped a few in Europe centuries ago, when religious beliefs provided people with identities much like those people now get from their adherence to a football club or the national team, proved so contagious that before long many thousands joined in and danced madly until they dropped.

Exactly what made them behave that way remains a mystery, but the same cannot be said about the massive street party the country treated itself to after Leo Messi and the rest of them brought home the golden trophy they had just won. Many participants explained that, because much of the population feels so depressed by the unhappy state of the economy it depends on and the inability of the political elite to do much about it, it gratefully welcomed a chance to take a short holiday away from what, alas, is the real world most have already returned to.

Politicians and their associates have yet to make out what the reaction to winning the World Cup means for them. If only they could be fêted with such adulation! After all, their counterparts of previous generations knew what it was like to be loudly applauded not only by people bussed in to make it look as though they enjoy public support, as so often is the case today. Much to their chagrin, virtually all politicians are regarded as disreputable characters who should be kept at arm’s length.

Even those among them who loathe the Kirchnerite government must have been worried by the decision of the victorious footballers to decline on principle an invitation to appear on the iconic balcony of the Casa Rosada, as had their predecessors in 1986 when Alfonsín was in charge. They must also have noticed that the crowds which danced for joy seemed to take it for granted that it would be shameful to let the trophy be touched by the grubby fingers of vote-chasing politicians on the make. Mauricio Macri had sense enough to refrain from taking advantage of his position as a senior FIFA official to get near the team. Alberto Fernández presumably hoped he would be given a photo-op, but he did do his best to keep a low profile, unlike the Interior Minister Eduardo ‘Wado’ de Pedro, a leader of La Cámpora, who tried to buttonhole Messi on his arrival at Ezeiza but got roundly snubbed.  

Luckily for almost everybody, the damage done by the millions who took to the streets of Buenos Aires was limited. While there were some unfortunate incidents, by international standards they did not amount to very much and it may be assumed that the Buenos Aires City administration will learn from its failure to do what would have been necessary to clear a path for the incoming footballers and prepare itself for the arrival of far smaller but much more bellicose crowds in the next few weeks.

With money running out, large numbers of people who rely on handouts, and, needless to say, politicians such as Juan Grabois who exploit them, are getting ready for battle. They cannot win because cash is in increasingly short supply, but they will continue their fight no matter what because that is the only thing they know how to do.   

Optimists hope that the footballers’ triumph, which they attribute in considerable measure to a combination of individual skill and team spirit, will somehow teach a lesson to the rest of the country so that henceforward it gets its act together and proceeds to do much the same on a much bigger scale. You do not have to be a pessimist to think this improbable. The way things are going, far too many people are likely to be among the losers of any attempt, no matter how coherent and well thought out, to put an end to well over half a century of economic and social deterioration so the country can eventually recover from its largely self-inflicted injuries. Patriotic fervour inspired by a sporting triumph is one thing, but a willingness to let oneself be sacrificed for what allegedly is the common good is entirely different, and there are plenty of people out there who cannot be expected to take kindly to seeing themselves deprived of what, often for very good reasons, they see as rightfully theirs.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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