By Jacob Poore
Thousands poured into the Plaza San Martín in Buenos Aires, Argentina hours before the start of the World Cup Final. Argentina came into the tournament with high expectations, especially with a weak group that included Iran, Nigeria, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, none of which are known for their soccer success. Spirits were high before the match, especially after close victories over Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands in the knockout stages. Plaza San Martín, named after General San Martín who liberated Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spanish rule, has been the place to be for Argentines and tourists alike during Argentina’s World Cup matches. The Plaza, located in the center of one of the world’s most beautiful capital cities, had a large screen that can be viewed by thousands at a time and provided an environment like no other. Leading up to the entrance to the viewing area, fans were greeted by vendors looking to sell Argentina jerseys, pins, flags, hats, beanies and vuvuzelas. Fans lined up to have their faces painted for five pesos for an Argentine flag on each cheek (equivalent to $1.25).
Most fans were dressed in Argentina jerseys, many with the number 10 on the front and either the name Maradona or Messi on the back. There is a continuing narrative in sports media that Lionel Messi is not loved in Argentina. This is simply not true; Messi is adored by fans here, and they make it very clear. During Argentina’s semifinal game against the Netherlands, numerous fans yelled “un besito para ti Messi!”–a kiss for you, Messi. A popular soccer chant in Argentina and other Spanish speaking countries, “Olé, Olé, Olé” is instantly recognizable around the world. Argentine fans have affectionately changed the chant to “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Messi, Messi,” among other variations.
Similar to other sport viewing venues, fans at the Plaza had to go through a security check. During Argentina’s game against Switzerland in the Round of 16, security was thorough with bag checks, asking fans to move sweaters or other items so that they could see everything in the bag. However, the number of fans entering the Plaza for the final match was overwhelming, and security had a much more difficult time doing full bag checks. Then, fans were greeted by a different form of security: federal and city police in full riot gear, complete with guns and rubber bullets. The numerous fireworks and explosions from bottle rockets was a clear indication that security was not as thorough as it could have been, perhaps because they only checked bags, not sweaters or pockets.
Navigating the crowd was close to impossible, as fans staked out their claims for the best view of the large screen possible, a view that was often still obstructed by people in front of them. Many fans tried to get a better view of the screen by climbing a makeshift fence that separated the crowd from cameras and other equipment for outdoor viewing. This angered fans whose views were obstructed, and calls for people to get down–combined with an excessive amount of swearing–encouraged the climbers to simply knock down the fence, satisfying the rest of the crowd and themselves.
A trend in Argentina’s quest for World Cup victory was low-scoring, close games, in spite of expectations that Argentina would rely heavily on Messi, Angel Di Maria, and Sergio Agüero to outscore opponents for theoretically high-scoring games. In short, Argentina’s best defense was supposed to be its offense. Part of Argentina’s success came from its ability to control the ball, preventing its opponent from mounting a clear offensive attack. Also, though offense and possession was Argentina’s strength, Sergio “Chiquito” Romero, Argentina’s goalkeeper, proved to be a stabilizing defensive force and did not allow any goals from the Round of 16 match against Switzerland to the semifinal game against the Netherlands.
The match itself was intense and hard fought until the end. Both teams had numerous opportunities to score early in the game but none were converted. Early in the final against Germany, Argentina was not able to control the ball as much as it had in previous games. Plaza San Martín exploded when Argentina finally scored a goal, but after an offsides call fans quickly realized what happened and cursed the screen and anything else around them.
The crowd was extremely lively throughout the match. Argentines created numerous songs and chants to cheer on their team, the most notorious being “Brasil, decíme que se siente,” a song created specifically for this year’s World Cup. The song taunts Brazil, Argentina’s eternal rival, asking it how it feels to have its father in its own house, reopening old wounds such as when Argentina knocked Brazil out of the 1990 World Cup. It ends with the most powerful statement: “Maradona es más grande que Pelé,” stating that Diego Maradona, the hero of the 1986 World Cup, is better than Pelé, the Brazilian footballer who is regarded as the best player of all time. Another favorite was created after the semifinal win against the Netherlands. The crowd began jumping and chanting, roughly translated, “you have to jump, you have to jump, whoever doesn’t jump is German.”
Despite the energy and optimistic feeling entering the game, Germany’s goal with only six minutes left in the second extra time completely stunned and silenced the crowd. There was a ripple effect throughout the crowd, as people who could not see the screen well slowly swallowed what they were not able to see. There was not only a feeling of shock, but also disbelief. Argentina was only six minutes away from penalty kicks, where they defeated the Netherlands in dominating fashion in the previous round. During the tournament, Argentina had been a master at outlasting its opponent and scoring late to secure a victory. This time seemed to be no different, except Germany delivered a late heavy blow in the same way Argentina had to Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Even with the late goal, Argentine fans recovered their hope and began chanting once again, willing their team to a goal from over 1,500 miles away. With less than two minutes left, fans began accepting reality, applauding both their team for their effort and Germany for its victory. Though the presence of riot police was alarming, people filed out of the Plaza without incident, still smiling, clapping, dancing and singing as they made their way to Calle Florida, towards the Obelisco and the Plaza de Mayo. There was no violent or extremely disruptive behavior, other than more fireworks being launched into the sky. Argentines continued singing that Maradona is better than Pelé and waved flags all the way to the Obelisco, where the festivities continued into the late hours of the night.
The celebration, at least immediately after the game, was a refreshing break from recent unruly World Cup celebrations, most notably those in Huntington Park, California following Mexico’s matches. Later in the night, police moved in at the Obelisco to quell the celebrations that became increasingly dangerous, and more police were sent to the Plaza de la República in the early hours of the morning. At least one bar was broken into and robbed, and by 11:30, at least 40 people had been arrested and eight police officers were wounded. By the time police moved in, most people had cleared out of the area. The biggest incident was a group of 15 fans that broke an antenna off a television news station’s truck, prompting journalists to flee the vehicle.
Despite the violent actions from a small group of fans, Argentina celebrated its World Cup success rather than its failures. The World Cup is an extremely grueling test of both physical and mental abilities, and Argentina came incredibly close to winning it all, winning six games in a row before the crushing loss in the final. Argentine fans clearly appreciated their team’s success and made it known following the match. The vast majority of fans celebrated by dancing in the streets, honking car horns, and making sure that Brazil knows it will never forget the time its ‘father’ placed higher in its own home.
Photos by Jacob Poore