BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Soccer has once again emerged as the patriotic touchstone that unites Argentines as they teeter on the precipice, this time threatened by a debt crisis, soaring inflation and the scandal-plagued end to a 12-year political dynasty that has polarized the nation.
The country’s World Cup semifinal victory over the Netherlands in a penalty shootout unleashed a collective catharsis on Buenos Aires’ streets Wednesday night the likes of which Argentines have rarely seen in recent times.
Coinciding with Independence Day celebrations, tens of thousands of Argentines dressed in blue and white partied well past midnight in cities across the country.
“We’re all in this battle together going forward,” said Osvaldo Darica, owner of a newspaper kiosk in Buenos Aires.
Darica said he is thrilled to see the recent torrent of depressing headlines about rampant crime and one of the world’s highest inflation rates replaced by front-page photos of goalkeeper Sergio Romero, or Saint Romero as he’s now lionized, deflecting two Dutch penalty kicks.
Soccer legend Diego Maradona also wrapped himself in the flag.
“Look at us there, there’s no distinction, we’re all Argentines,” he told Venezuela’s Telesur network while watching images of jubilant fans engulfing Buenos Aires’ iconic Obelisk. “How marvelous and beautiful it is to make people happy.”
Amid the nationalist fervor, one prominent voice has been missing: that of President Cristina Fernandez.
Sidelined the past week with a throat infection, the normally loquacious leader has yet to comment on Argentina’s dramatic win. Not even on Twitter, where she’s a constant presence. Late Thursday, she posted a letter declining Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s invitation to attend the final in Rio de Janeiro, saying she’s under doctor’s orders to reduce air travel and wants to spend the day celebrating her grandson’s first birthday.
Analysts say that Fernandez’s silence may be well-placed, and that any attempt to reap political benefit from the national team’s run is likely to be short-lived or even backfire given how low support for her government has plunged with a corruption scandal penetrating her inner circle.
Indeed, except for her jocular use of a few soccer metaphors to attack critics she accuses of trying to score with their hands, she has largely avoided jumping on the World Cup bandwagon.
“Sooner or later reality always returns,” said political analyst Rosendo Fraga, noting that Argentina’s last World Cup championship in 1986 didn’t help then President Raul Alfonsin’s government avoid an economic collapse or thumping in elections the following year.
One reason for Fernandez’s reluctance may be the memories of the 1978 World Cup hosted by Argentina, when the dictatorship in power spared no expense to whitewash its reputation and distract attention from the horrors taking place in clandestine, military-run jails. For the most part it worked, with even political opponents later confessing that they cheered on the national team from prison cells.
While Argentina’s current economic woes are much easier to surmount than the bayonets of the generals, they nonetheless represent serious risks.
Chief among those is a July 30 deadline set by a New York court to reach a settlement over some $1.5 billion in unpaid debts held by hedge funds or risk defaulting for the second time in 13 years. With dollars in short supply, such an outcome could prove devastating.
But with a third World Cup championship in sight, those problems at least for now have faded and in their place has emerged a can-do, collaborative attitude.
It’s also likely to boost support for Fernandez, who is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election in 2015 but wants to make sure her final year in office goes smoothly to preserve her legacy and that of her husband and predecessor, the late Nestor Kirchner.
“I’ve never seen Argentines celebrate like this, united and without political banners,” said 16-year-old Santiago Nardello, with an Argentine flag hanging over his shoulders.