The 2014 World Cup will likely be the most-watched event in history. All eyes will be on Brazil, but this tournament doesn't belong just to "the Land of the Palms." It's for all of us. With this in mind, Aaron Gordon is sending dispatches to Sports on Earth from all around the world this month, as he sees how each country makes the World Cup its own.
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BUENOS AIRES -- My taxi driver asks me what brings me to Argentina. I tell him I'll be watching Argentina's World Cup match against Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Big game for Messi," he points out.
Playing the dumb American, I ask him why, of all the things to say about the match, he says this. I don't completely understand his response -- my Spanish is good enough to order the correct item on the menu but inadequate for complex sociological issues -- but I repeatedly catch the words "Maradona" and "mejor." I try and simplify things and ask him what he thinks of Messi. "I am a Messi supporter." I massage the point further. "So you like Messi more than Maradona?"
It's 11 p.m. and we're doing 100 kilometers per hour down the highway that connects the airport to Buenos Aires. The driver replies, "You are either Messi," and holds up his left hand, palm raised, as if one side of an invisible scale, "or you are Maradona" and he raises his right hand similarly. The engine revs as he speeds up with both hands in the air. We drift in the lane. A car behind us honks. The driver, undeterred, turns around to look me directly in the eye. "Never both."
Later, we discuss FIFA. He holds up his right fist and looks at me, once again unconcerned with basic driving safety. "Coca-Cola," one finger rises; "Vatican"; another comes up; "and FIFA," and now three fingers are in the air, representing a different kind of Holy Trinity.
We banter about where FIFA falls in that group. Are they more like Coca-Cola or the Catholic church? After some debate, he settles on soccer as a religious experience usurped for capitalist ends that no longer serves the people. In the spectrum of capitalism, Coca-Cola is on one end, religion on the other, and FIFA somewhere in the middle.
This is a helpful paradigm in trying to understand the Messi-Maradona dichotomy. Each one is the leader of their own group. Maradona is an evangelist, reducing his congregation to tears by revealing the purpose of existence, a pure and holy beauty. As the famous goal call by Victor Hugo Morales from his Boca Junior days goes: "Genius! Genius!... From what planet does he visit?... Thank you, God... for soccer... for Maradona... for these tears."
Messi has not inspired such religious awakenings from his countrymen. His supporters embrace his skill but don't view him as a savior, seeing him as a player very much of this world. As my driver pointed out immediately after saying he supports Messi, it takes 11 players to win, not one. Even Messi supporters are quick to outline his restrictions. Every way his supporters describe him is in the context of what he isn't: he won't lift a nation by himself and doesn't have a fiery temperament. The advertisements plastered around the city reflect this, as Messi is invariably in some tranquil position, either sitting perfectly still or staring blankly into the camera, never actually doing anything, detached from the game's romanticism. During these conversations, it's easy to forget we're talking about the best player in the world.
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Everyone I talk to says I should watch the game in a cafe. People like to eat and drink during the matches and there's no alcohol allowed at the public viewing at the San Marino Plaza. Nevertheless, I went to the plaza an hour before kickoff. There were almost as many vendors as people, selling everything from Argentina flags to bandanas and three different types of noisemakers. With face-painters and mascots, it quickly became clear this was an event for kids. I could hardly think of a more tortuous way to spend two hours than listening to hundreds of children get intimately familiar with vuvezelas.
I relocate to a cafe within a few hundred feet of El Obelisco, a structure identical in shape and contour to the Washington Monument. Several people tell me this is where the fans would go if Argentina won (none of them would say what would happen if they lost). In the cafe, nearly every named Argentina kit in the cafe reads "Messi". One man wearing an old Messi kit has written "Genius" across the middle and waves an accompanying flag with "Sí...sí...Messi" scrawled across the top.
When I arrive some 30 minutes before kickoff, the cafe is almost full. Within minutes, the manager stations a waitress at the door to turn people away. By kickoff, they have barricaded the doors shut with a piece of wood through the door handles, a violation of all the fire codes.
During the match, the cafe is mostly calm. A wintery silence chills the room as everyone absorbs the match. The people who couldn't gain entry turn into soccer barnacles, attaching their faces to the glass windows. Some tap on the glass trying to gain our attention, hoping one of us will go rogue and let them in. No one does.
Argentina takes the lead on an own-goal, but nobody is satisfied. The camera cuts to Messi after nearly every stoppage of play, whether he's involved or not, perhaps as a way of constantly evaluating his enthusiasm. When he spearheads a doomed attack, the people cry out or bang the table.
Messi's goal is prototypical Messi: a perfect first touch allowing him to barrel through a tackle before releasing a perfectly-placed shot. After the replay, the cafe patrons audibly admire the goal. One fan repeats his assertion that it was a golazo. It was a perfectly executed one-two with Gonzalo Higuain, but Messi did all the hard work. It was his goal and his alone. Despite this, the front page of La Nacion the next morning reads: "[Argentina] played very badly in the first half and better in the second, when Gago and Higuain entered to help Messi."
Minutes after the goal, a Messi run that didn't quite pan out was met with the same frustration as prior to the goal. They don't just want Messi to shoot and score, but they want him to share their passion, to crave attention and glory. Messi is the ideal superstar for modern soccer, one governed by billions of sponsorship dollars, requiring blank slates on which to paint their products. Maradona comes from a different era, where exuberance and flamboyance were their own currencies.
After the victory, the cafe clears out as the celebration spills into the square in front of El Obelisco. One man holding a fake World Cup trophy tells me it was a good goal, but Messi will never be Maradona. I wonder what more Messi could do for this man and those like him to become as beloved as Maradona. Maybe winning the real version of this tinfoil trophy won't be enough. The people have already accepted Maradona as their Lord and Savior. There's no room for another.