Argentina’s World Cup Hangover

Argentina’s World Cup Hangover

After its thrilling victory on the world stage, the nation of Maradona and Messi gazes into the political abyss.


Buenos Aires—The Argentinians along Avenida 9 de Julio were singing, as they had been for the better part of a month. On December 20, two days after their country won its third World Cup title—and first in 36 years—an estimated 5 million people poured into the byways of Buenos Aires to serenade each other with impromptu renditions of the national team’s unofficial anthem, “Muchachos.”

En Argentina nací
Tierra del Diego y Lionel
De los pibes de Malvinas
Que jamas olividaré
Ne to lo puedo explicar
Porque no vas a entender
Las finales que perdimos
cuantos años las lloré…

In Argentina I was born
land of Diego and Lionel
Of the young men of the Malvinas
Who I will never forget
I can’t explain it to you
Because you won’t understand
The finals that we lost
how many years I cried over them…

Closer to the Obelisk downtown, hundreds had clambered onto the roofs of bus portals while others sat defiantly atop the traffic lights and street signs like enormous birds of prey. Beneath them, where Javier Estalle leaned against a concrete divider, the air was thick with the smell of shaving cream, grilled meat, and thousands of men and women sweating into the blue-and-white striped uniforms of La Selección, each hoping to catch a glimpse of Lionel Messi, Julián Álvarez, and Emiliano “Dibu” Martinez. (The sheer size of the crowds would force the national team to abandon its parade for a helicopter tour of the city.)

“This means everything,” said Estalle, a 44-year-old from greater Buenos Aires, fighting back tears. “I’ve been unemployed for three years. I have my son here. It’s exciting because there have been so many problems. The country is not well. You want to be able to provide for your children, and you can’t.”

His voice trailed off.

“We’re in the middle of a very difficult moment,” said Lucila Suffardi, a 43-year-old mother of two from Entre Rios. “The economy is backwards, and all of our politicians are corrupt. At least the people can enjoy this.”

If the World Cup provided Argentina with a form of catharsis after years of economic devastation, illness, and death, it’s likely to prove short-lived. While inflation slowed in the months of November and December, it was still approaching 100 percent over 2021 by year’s end. A study from the Catholic University of Argentina, meanwhile, indicates that as of December 2022, 17 million people, or 43.1 percent of the population, were living in poverty—up from 40.8 percent prior to the pandemic. Exacerbating matters, the recent conviction of Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in a sweeping corruption scandal threatens to plunge the country into chaos. As in Brazil, following then-President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and the subsequent imprisonment of Workers’ Party leader—and recently reelected president—Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Kirchner’s conviction has created a power vacuum not only within Argentina’s center-left Frente de Todos (Everyone’s Front) but the whole of the country’s political establishment. And as in Brazil, which elected far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro president in 2018, the forces of anti-politics pose a dangerous if still inchoate threat.

On December 6, two weeks after Argentina’s first match in the mundial, an Argentine tribunal sentenced Fernández de Kirchner to six years in prison and banned her from holding public office for her role in la causa vialidad (the “road case”). The latest in a series of investigations into the former president, the probe centered around sweetheart public works contracts she allegedly extended to her associates over a 12-year period that began during her previous tenure as a senator representing the province of Santa Cruz. Fernández de Kirchner, whose husband, Néstor, first won the presidency in 2003, served two terms between 2007 and 2015.

The impact of the three-judge panel’s decision cannot be overstated. Although immunity as an active government official ensures that she will not serve any immediate jail time—and she is still legally eligible to run until the appeals process is exhausted—Fernández de Kirchner has already declared that she will not seek higher office in 2023, either as president or a senator for Buenos Aires.

The court’s decision is the latest blow to an administration reeling from a Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 130,000 Argentinians, and an ongoing war in Ukraine that has choked supply chains and deepened the country’s inflation woes. According to the website La Politica Online’s polling observatory, just 30 percent of Argentinians held a favorable view of President Alberto Fernández in January ahead of the 2023 election. (Adding insult to political injury, the national team ultimately declined an invitation to the presidential palace, La Casa Rosada, to celebrate its World Cup triumph.) Although Fernández de Kirchner consistently polls higher than her running mate, which has fed speculation that she might seek a third term, she too faces steep unfavorables—numbers that are only likely to climb in the wake of the court’s ruling.

“Public opinion tends to be tolerant of corruption in good economic times,” says Ignacio Labaqui, a Latin American politics and theory professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina. “This is not just in Argentina. In 2006, Lula was reelected in Brazil after almost the entire leadership of the Workers’ Party was prosecuted or jailed in the “Mensalão” vote-buying scandal. The economic situation was quite different in 2016 when Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) brought down the government.”

Then there is the question of Fernández de Kirchner’s guilt, which continues to polarize Argentine society even after the court’s decision. The opposition sees the recent verdict as a validation of its long-held beliefs about the Peronist firebrand. Fernández de Kirchner and her loyalists, which still include broad swaths of the poor and working class, maintain that she is a victim of lawfare—a media-judicial witch hunt aimed at removing her from the electoral playing field and kneecapping her political movement. For Agustino Fontevecchia, a columnist at the Argentine newspaper Perfil, the truth lies somewhere in between.

“When you look at the people surrounding the Kirchners, the increase in their net worth has been so extraordinary that it’s impossible not to have doubts [about Cristina],” Fontevecchia explains. “That goes for the Kirchner family itself, which she claims amassed its wealth before she and her husband went into public office. Maybe that’s true of her real estate investments—but not of the hotels where they were partners with businessmen like Lázaro Baez, her dollar holdings, and all the rest. There appears to be foul play in la vialidad as well, but that doesn’t mean the prosecution proved its case, and it’s clear that the decision was politically timed.”

Last September, in the wake of a failed assassination attempt on the vice president, thousands took to the streets to voice their support for Fernández de Kirchner and reject an act of political violence that evoked memories of the military junta that ruled from 1976 to 1983. The panel’s ruling inspired no such protests amid the pandemonium of the Argentine national team’s World Cup run.

“The court was obviously thinking about its timing,” says Mark Healey, a history professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in Argentina and Latin America. “What surprised me was the shamelessness of the decision. It’s a very mysterious legal reasoning that allows a court to convict the alleged beneficiary of various illegal acts but acquit the actors who carried them out.”

Indeed, the timing of the judges’ verdict is not the only facet of the trial to raise eyebrows. Marcelo Leiras, an associate professor at the University of San Andrés who serves as an adviser to the country’s minister of the interior, Eduardo “Wado” de Pedro, notes that the chief prosecutor in the case, Diego Luciani, introduced evidence against Fernández de Kirchner that was not made available to the defense team. The court has similarly delayed publishing the reasoning behind its conviction for a period of several months—another irregularity in the Argentine legal system. What’s more, news in December of a clandestine gathering in the Patagonian town of Lago Escondido involving federal magistrates, media executives, and a former intelligence official has further fueled speculation of a political-judicial conspiracy.

“During the trial of the military junta, the prosecutor [Julio César] Strassera only spoke for a few hours,” Leiras adds. “Luciani’s case against Cristina was televised for days. Concern for the truth doesn’t seem to be politically relevant, and this is a serious matter. They’re convicting somebody who was a former president and who could have been running for a third term. I personally don’t buy any of this. Neither did I buy Lula’s conviction.”

With the election still nearly a year away, who might fill the void left by Fernández de Kirchner’s apparent exit from the political stage remains an open question. During the midterm elections of 2021, the socialist and anti-capitalist coalition Frente de Izquierda y de Trabajadores (Left Workers’ Front) won four seats in the Congressional Chamber of Deputies and earned more than 1.2 million votes nationwide—its best result since the party’s formation a decade before. Myriam Bregman, a national deputy representing the city of Buenos Aires, sees new opportunities for the left amid the country’s political crisis.

“Our challenge is not merely electoral—but to achieve a greater capacity for mobilization between the working class and various social movements that exist within the country,” Bregman wrote in an email to The Nation. “These include the women’s movement and the environmental movement against ‘extractivist’ projects like open-pit mega-mining, which have the support of both the government and the right-wing opposition.”

If the economy continues to falter, the most plausible scenario is still a return to power for the center-right Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change). Possible candidates include Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, former minister of security Patricia Bullrich, and even former president Mauricio Macri, who took out a record $57 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2018 and oversaw a steep rise in poverty during a disastrous single term. But looming on the periphery is a self-styled anarcho-capitalist whose libertarian party, Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances), has captured the imagination of the Argentine media class and who could, theoretically, advance to a second round of voting, despite polling between 15 and 20 percent.

Like other right-wing populists of recent vintage, it’s almost impossible to talk about Javier Milei without first mentioning his hair. If Boris Johnson sports a defective mop and Donald Trump his own luxury pelt, Milei’s do most closely resembles a heron’s nest, perched atop a pair of thick, brown sideburns. And like Johnson and Trump, his buffoonish appearance belies a set of policies equal parts radical and reactionary.

Milei swept into federal office in 2021 on a wave of discontent with both major parties, bellowing to his followers on the campaign trail that he “did not come to lead lambs but to awaken lions.” A trained economist with a deep admiration for the Austrian School, he has praised the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro while carrying the banner of their culture wars into the lower chamber of Congress, railing against Marxist indoctrination, and urging a loosening of federal gun restrictions. Milei has vowed to raze Argentina’s “political caste,” called for a dismantling of the nation’s public education system, and even speculated that the sale of children on the open market should be a subject of political debate—a position he ultimately attempted to walk back. He has also denied the crimes of the Argentine junta, openly questioning whether the dictatorship led by Jorge Rafael Videla systematically disappeared 30,000 people during its campaign of state-sponsored terror. As of October 2022, Milei had missed 41 of a possible 66 legislative votes.

“Argentina has been trying different things for three consecutive election cycles,” explains José Natanson, a political scientist and the Argentine director of Le Monde Diplomatique. “When there’s a feeling of frustration, of collective failure, of social impotence, it opens up a space for irresponsible and dangerous extremists. Does that mean Milei will win? No. It means that he could win. No one gave Trump or Bolsonaro much of a chance either. These are phenomena that can explode very quickly.”

On October 19 of last year, US Ambassador to Argentina Marc R. Stanley, an appointee of President Joe Biden, tweeted a photo of himself shaking hands and smiling with the congressman for the city of Buenos Aires. “Thank you Deputy Javier Milei for a very interesting discussion about Argentina, economics, and the US-Argentina relationship,” the tweet read. When asked via e-mail in December about the impetus for the summit, Stanley’s office declined comment.

“It’s like the Biden administration has no object permanence in its hemispheric, pro-democracy agenda,” says Healey. “They’ll send somebody to Lula’s inauguration, and they clearly played an important role in dissuading the Brazilian military from any golpista adventures, but then they’ll forget who the bad guys are.”

Lula’s inauguration on January 1 offers proof that there is a way back from the political abyss—even as Brazil confronts its own January 6-style insurrection and the legacy of Bolsonarismo. But just how far Argentina must travel will ultimately depend on the solidarity of its people. As the chorus of the song goes, “ahora nos volvimos a ilusionar.” (Now our hopes are up once more.) That would be a start.

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