News for nerds

If you take a taxi in Argentina, the conversation will eventually turn to one of two subjects: inflation or football.

In Buenos Aires, the World Cup is inescapable. Signs hover above busy motorways screaming out “vamos Argentina, emocion mundial”. Bars, kiosks and bakeries are decked out with blue and white streamers. Messi’s face is plastered across subways and on beer cans. Even bags holding cement on the street bear references to the tournament.

When I touched down in the city three weeks ago it was buzzing with nervous excitement.

Since then, the emotion has only intensified as Argentina has progressed, suffering a shock early defeat against Saudi Arabia and then turning it around to win the next two matches.

As an Australian, my Argentinian partner was worried that if I watched the matches with him I would bring mufa (bad luck). “A los Australianos les falta la pasión” (Australians lack passion), he told me ahead of our first match.

The 3am crowds at Melbourne’s Federation Square say otherwise. But it’s true that Australia can’t compete with the incredible way in which football pervades Argentine culture.

When Diego Maradona died in 2020, there wasn’t a single Argentinian I know who didn’t shed a tear or pay him tribute in some way. That passion was alive again when we flew from Corrientes to Buenos Aires. That day, Argentina was scheduled to play against Mexico and the air hostesses greeted us wearing blue and white ribbons and face paint.

When we landed, the national anthem started playing and passengers clapped along, yelling out the occasional “vamos Argentina!” Then the scramble to get off the plane began.

Impatient to get home and watch the match, people began flagging down drivers halfway down the road before they arrived at the taxi rank. It was sheer chaos.

I was walking to the shops with my partner’s aunt later that day when guttural screams erupted from the balconies above and taxi drivers started blaring their horns.

“GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLL,” a group of Argentinians shrieked. Shopkeepers emerged from their businesses and started cheering.

Footage from social media showed thousands of people gathered around the city’s iconic Obelisco, drinking beer and singing.

“People are celebrating like we’ve already won the World Cup,” my partner told his friends later.

The same day, Australia won against Tunisia. We’d largely flown under the radar before then, but our victory kicked off a fresh new family rivalry.

My partner’s uncle messaged me: “Avisale a tus compatriotas que la pelota es redonda!!! Jaja” (Tell your compatriots that the ball is round!!! Haha).

Friends joked that Australia and Argentina could end up playing each other – the punch line being that Australia would surely lose against Denmark.

When Australia faced off against Denmark, I was at the dentist in Bragado, a humble country town three hours from Buenos Aires. We asked the receptionist to turn the match on and when Mathew Leckie scored, securing our survival in the cup, I held in a scream.

The Argentinian sports commentators were baffled at our win, calling it “a surprise”.

Fresh from a historic victory, I was no longer “mufa”. I headed to the home of my partner’s friend to watch Argentina play against Poland, sharing mate (a herbal traditional drink) and a picada (snacks).

The mood was serious and the room silent. This was make or break.

When Argentina scored their first goal, they screamed, jumping to their feet and hugging each other. “Argentina, Argentina, Argentina!” they yelled. After scoring another goal, Argentina was through to the next round to play … Australia.

My partner’s uncle picked us up in his ute after the game. Turning to me, he said, “Y ahora? Que hacemos?” (And now? What do we do?), while other friends joked that this will be a war against the kangaroos and carpinchos (capybaras).

Yesterday, a waiter muttered as he walked past our table that he hoped Australia would lose the match.

Win or lose, as a Socceroos fan in Argentina, I know the banter to come will be brutal. But like they say in Argentina: Que gane el mejor (may the best win).