When it comes to the soccer World Cup, there are no two opinions on the Rio de la Plata: Argentina is the favourite. This can be seen, heard and read. Lionel Messi feels 'great' ahead of Saudi Arabia opener
It will be 5 am and the sun will not yet have risen on the Rio de la Plata. But eyes closed or open, all Argentines will dream. From the world title. At this local time, the preliminary reports on television begin, at 7 a.m. the soccer World Cup for Argentina too, when the Albiceleste, the sky-blue ones, start the tournament with their first group game against Saudi Arabia. The expectations are huge. Even if coaches and players keep a low profile.
Argentinians used the short form of the reasons in a chant that became a hit. "The finals we lost / How many years I cried for themBut that's over / because we won again in the Maracaná / in the final against the Brazilians / Muchachos / Now we have hope again / I want to win the third title / I want We see Diego in the firmament to be world champion / how he cheers on Lionel from there with (Diego's parents)"Truly Argentina had a cursed balance sheet after 1993 and the South American championship they had won at the time. From 2004 to 2016 they were in four out of five finals of the continental championship. They all lost, twice to Brazil, twice to Chile, and three times on penalties. At the 2011 tournament on home soil, they were eliminated by eventual winners Uruguay. In the 2014 World Cup final against Germany, Mario Götze snatched the title from them in added time.
Many see the team more balanced than in previous tournaments, and therefore with more staying power and better chances. There are experienced players like Nicolás Otamendi, Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María, as well as other stars in their prime, such as Inter Milan's Lautaro Martínez up front, Juventus' Leandro Paredes in the middle and Rodrigo de Paul. The Atlético Madrid midfield tractor set up Di María's title goal last year with a 40-metre pass to the front. They are joined by younger figures such as de Paul's club-mate Nahuel Molina at right back, Thiago Almada in attacking midfield, and 22-year-old Manchester City striker Julian Álvarez.
The night from Thursday to Friday has fallen, it is 1 a.m. in Buenos Aires. The national team's extensive training center is located at Ezeiza International Airport, south of the Argentine capital. The departure terminal is busy and noisy. About a hundred fans have arrived with trumpets and drums, they sing and dance, saying goodbye to Almada, who is traveling to Qatar. Some hold up shirts from Vélez Sarsfield, one of the many clubs in the capital. The 21-year-old played there until the summer before moving to Atlanta FC in the USA. Police officers routinely observe the scene, taxi drivers and other cars honk their horns, several radio stations report live on the departure of the follower and the emotion of the fans. It's not only there to see. The sports channel TyC broadcasts live through the night before the opening game, shops will open later because nobody would come anyway, and someone has sprayed on a wall in the 16-million-strong metropolis of Buenos Aires: "The title or I die." In a poll, one in ten Argentines said they would rather see the Albiceleste win the World Cup than see inflation stopped. Currency depreciation is now almost 90 percent, it is one of the highest in the world. The World Cup is undoubtedly the biggest media issue in the country. But how she came to Qatar, the human rights violations in the emirate, the dead workers, all the things that have accompanied the tournament preparations for years and overshadowed the sporting are only marginally discussed. This undoubtedly has something to do with the social situation. For many, the football of the Albiceleste means the longing for joy, a feeling of togetherness and a distraction from everyday worries. More than a third of the population is concerned about having enough to eat. The poverty rate is over 35 percent. Looking back, Argentina, football and human rights have a complicated relationship. At the 1978 World Cup, General and de facto President Jorge Videla waved from the stands, the whole country cheered at the end of the first title, while his military junta kidnapped unwanted people, tortured them in secret centers, drugged them and threw them into the sea from flying helicopters. By the end of 1978, around 15,000 people had disappeared or been killed in what had been an "anti-subversive operation" for almost three years, and the same number again by the end of the dictatorship in 1983. But that was a long time ago. Only a small legacy of this was seen by Argentinian TV viewers in the opening Qatar-Ecuador match, when public TV covered its programs with black armbands. Hebe de Bonafini, a human rights activist from the dictatorship and co-founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, died on the same day.
Of course, the media often talks about Messi, the nucleus of the mission in the Middle East. On Monday, 24 hours before the start of the tournament, the alarm went off in the Argentine media. Wasn't there a bump on Messi's right ankle under the socks? "la pulga" was hit there a few days ago. But the number 10 himself reassured the first questioner at the final press conference: He felt "personally and physically great". Otherwise you just have to watch from game to game. The last title of a South American team was 20 years ago. Back then, Brazil won the final against Germany. Argentina last lifted the most important trophy in world football in 1986, also after beating Germany. Should that happen again this time, the signs would have been clear: a World Cup in the Argentine spring, the Albiceleste as reigning South American champions, and a playmaker named Messi, who in his last World Cup and the first with Diego Maradona in the sky won the third title for the country. Alongside Messi, Argentina's coach Lionel Scaloni also tried to curb expectations at home. Winning the title often depends on details and, in general, football will always remain a sport, a game and nothing more than that. There should be quite a few who contradict him 14,000 kilometers southwest. Wherever this leads, hopeful anticipation has gripped Argentina. And there's a word for that: ilusión.