A Gringo in Argentina

27 Dec 1994:  Portrait of Diego Maradona of Argentina with his World Cup trophy, boot and ball in Cancun, Mexico.  Mandatory Credit: David  Cannon/Allsport

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Americans’ soccer customs is our vested interest in other countries’ national teams. As a nation of immigrants, we sometimes have conflicted loyalties – root for the nation of my birth or the country in which I currently live? And even those of us born in the States may end up rooting for ancestral lands or marrying into a soccer-mad culture. For that reason, FFG guest writers will cover Brazil and Argentina’s World Cup hopes. Over the next two days each will introduce his relationship with the respective nations. We start with Ben Koch and Argentina.

The great irony of my first World Cup in Argentina was that it was 1994—the year it took place in my home country of the United States. I had traversed an entire hemisphere to the land where fútbol is a de-facto part of each citizen’s DNA, and it had switched places with me, plopping down in a nation where soccer was about as popular as holistic dentistry. I was young and recently married to my Argentine wife, teaching English in the very cosmopolitan capital of Buenos Aires. This gave me exposure to a wide spectrum of Argentine society and their outlook on the national sport.

My remarkable finding was that fútbol—at least La Seleccion (“The Selected”) in a World Cup year—trumps all other possible sources of conflict, regardless of class, race, religion or occupation. At game time, the “Pause Button” is pressed on a city of over 10 million. There we were, teachers and our students (doctors, lawyers, actors, accountants, shopkeepers, etc), the receptionist, the slick sales people, the sandwich delivery boy who happened to be there at kickoff, all crammed into the classroom wired with outside television, glued to every touch of the ball, riveted to every twist and turn of a new national mythology being composed before our very eyes.

And what a wonderful opportunity to expand my burgeoning Spanish vocabulary. Here’s a sampling of some usage I could have only picked up in a World Cup year:

La Albiceleste = “White and Sky Blue”; nickname of the national team, per their trademark striped home kit.

gol = “goal”; used when an opponent scores against you

golaso = “really good goal”; used when your team scores

boludo = “moron”; usually in reference to a referee

pelotudo = “stupid moron”; usually in reference to a referee

hijo de mil = “son of a THOUSAND bitches” (how is that biologically possible?); usually in reference to an opponent who has fouled your player or a referee

any combination of the previous three = you get the picture; usually in reference to a referee who has committed a travesty, like calling back one of your goals for offside

limpito = “super clean”; usually used in protest to justify a foul your player has committed

This tournament was also the last World Cup in which Maradona (pictured above) appeared as a player, making me part of one of the last generations to see him play “live.” Granted, he was becoming a slightly plumper shadow of his former demi-godness, but there were some real moments of magic in which you could see the brilliance that had captivated the world and earned him the only slightly disputed title of “greatest ever.” Sure, he never possessed the off-field character or composure of Pelé, but even the former Brazilian pros I know agree that in terms of outright magic on the pitch, Maradona wins hands-down.

Yet 1994 also proved to be a nightmarish exit from the world stage for Diego. He was expelled from the tournament when a blood test showed signs of ephedrine in his system. There were cries of conspiracy across the country, but the Albiceleste never quite recovered after that blow, and I remember well the ominous, unspoken but understood silence that engulfed the country after Argentina was eliminated by Romania in the Round of 16.

This year, of course, marks Diego’s return to the world stage—as a manager. While savvy sports reporters and analysts see him as easy pickins for tactical and personnel criticisms, the average Argentine is remarkably open and forgiving. And who can blame them for putting a little faith in the man who last lifted the cup—the greatest trophy in sports—to their trembling and grateful lips. Sure, it’s been 24 years since they last held the title of world champions, but when a legacy is passed by blood, you can always hear it ringing in your ears as fresh as yesterday. Plus, now there’s his heir apparent Messi—the “Little Flea”—whose bite just might bring down the giants.

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. robinoz0 says:

    Lucky dog, getting to experience another culture’s soccer enthusiasm. I sometimes wish i could watch the World Cup in another country. Most Americans just don’t seem to understand how great a sport it is.

  2. Rupert J Pelfrey says:

    I was in a pub in england for the last world cup games. It was amazing. The songs I learnt, the beer tasted better after a win, and the trip home was longer when everyone was pissed after a loss. It was a great atmosphere.

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