BOGOTA, Colombia – With a reputation for arrogance and illusions of European-styled grandeur, Argentines have long been the objects of scorn and the butt of jokes across Latin America.
But for at least 90 minutes on Sunday, when Argentina takes on Germany in the World Cup final, most Latin Americans will put aside their irritation with their proud neighbours as they look to Lionel Messi and his teammates to salvage what’s left of the region’s soccer pride.
A defeat for Argentina would be historic: Never has a European team been crowned champion on this side of the Atlantic.
But in the wake of Germany’s 7-1 thrashing of host Brazil even the most-devoted believers in the spontaneous and stylish Latin American brand of soccer are wondering if the region is outmatched.
“My heart wants Argentina to win, but my brain says Germany will,” confessed Alberto Ramos Salcedo, a Colombian journalist and author who frequently writes about soccer.
That Argentina has stepped into the role as the region’s flag bearer is a cruel reversal for many.
An online poll in 19 countries taken by YouGov together with The New York Times prior to the World Cup found that in most Latin American countries surveyed people said the team they rooted against was Argentina, which has won the title twice.
In the early days of the tournament, as Argentina was slow to come to life and underdogs like Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico rained goals on their opponents, a group of Mexican fans in giant sombreros could be seen on Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Copacabana Beach playfully provoking anyone dressed in Argentina’s blue and white who crossed their path.
The animosity toward Argentina stems from the country’s settlement by waves of European immigrants beginning in the late 19th century, a demographic marker that long fuelled perceptions of economic and cultural superiority over their more indigenous or African-descended neighbours. Even the Italian-influenced Spanish spoken on the streets of Buenos Aires is out of step with the language elsewhere.
Following a humbling 2001 economic collapse, Argentina has courted closer ties with the rest of the region and now looks with envy at Brazil’s economic muscle. Coach Alejandro Sabella’s motto of “humility and hard work” also stands in stark contrast to the flash and brash exuded by Argentina’s manager at the previous World Cup: soccer legend Diego Maradona.
But not everyone is dancing the tango, least of all fans in Brazil, who are still agonizing over their team’s shocking defeat. The mere presence of their eternal rival playing a final in Brazil’s soccer cathedral, Rio’s Maracana stadium, is for many a pill too hard to swallow even if they would like to see their loss to Germany avenged.
Brazil’s star striker, Neymar, said he’ll be cheering on Argentina, but only because he wants to see his Barcelona teammates Messi and Javier Mascherano take a world championship.
For soccer purists, there’s little doubt that Germany is the favourite to win.
“The truth is the Argentines are overvalued,” said Humberto Melendez, owner of a Mexico City bookstore that specializes in soccer called Futbologia. “But a World Cup in Latin America needs to be won by a Latin American” team.
Associated Press writers Jorge Sainz in Rio de Janeiro and Carlos Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed to this report.