POSTCARD: One Nation Under Soccer

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—The schools are canceled this morning, parts of subway stations shackled closed. Every store from the large supermarket to the one-man kiosk is locked and dark, and not a single car has passed down this once-busy avenida in minutes.

If it weren’t for the roar of the crowd, the showers from confetti cannons, and the requisite “Goooooooal!” over the load speakers in the plaza a block away, Buenos Aires would appear a fancy ghost town, not a bustling metropolis. The World Cup, or Copa Mundial, has emptied the city—the whole nation watches unified in anticipation.

Late to the game, I pry into the back of a crowd of nearly 15,000 gathered in Plaza San Martín to try and see at least part of the JumboTron. Attendees standing on the grass may be packed shoulder-to-shoulder—and some even closer—but I manage to move through the swarm of people now absorbed by the silence of apprehension. Looking down to check the time, I notice that the outside of my hand is chalked in light blue and white, rubbed off from the face paint of the boy to my side as I struggled through the crowd.

Game after game, this served as my Mundial ritual. I stood amid a nation gripped and united. Impassioned discussions of Manager Diego Maradona’s offensive-heavy strategy and star forward Lionel Messi’s inability to make a single goal replaced aimless small talk while waiting for the subway. Meetings at work were cancelled or postponed upon learning that the nation was to advance to the next game. Flags covered balconies across the city and street vendors temporarily gave up on selling pirated DVDs or jewelry to instead peddle Messi jerseys, vuvuzelas, and blue and white mohawk wigs.

Despite these anecdotal observations of national spirit, I struggle as an American to comprehend the scale at which Argentines energize and bond around the Mundial. Only 45 percent of TVs in the US were tuned into this year’s most watched television event, the Super Bowl; over 70 percent of Argentine TVs tuned into the last Argentina Mundial match against Germany while hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watched the game in cafés and in public plazas, like me, where many cities setup giant screens.

But in the time it took the referee in the quarterfinals game to blow the final whistle and declare Germany the winner with a score of 0-4, the captivation and unity of a nation evaporated.

The crowd thinned as the score ticked up to 0-3 with just 16 minutes left. Soon after, the flags came down, the blue and white scarves suddenly turned unfashionable, and the small talk—accompanied by silence—returned to the subway platforms. The restaurants and bars were filled like any Saturday the night following the game, but the camaraderie from a shared Mundial between Argentines, regardless of class, political party, retirement status, or any other possible grouping, never seemed to return in full.