Soccer and I have an interesting history. I grew up in a time when kids’ soccer leagues were not an option. I’ve never played the game, I never knew anyone who played it and therefore I was never really interested. By the 2000’s, I was living in Portland, Oregon and a fun weekend outing was to buy incredibly cheap tickets to the local minor league soccer team and spend a day in the stands listening to the “Army”- the group of soccer diehards – banging their drums and chanting non-stop throughout the match. It was all very hilarious, but I still didn’t understand more than the basics of the game.

Then came 2006 when I was part of a group tour to Botswana, Africa. Our flight had a 12-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany, on the very day that Germany was playing Italy in the World Cup. The streets were electric as hundreds of thousands of fans were carrying their TV’s out into the street for the masses to watch and cheer on their team together. A week later, our group was on a safari in the middle of the Kalahari Desert and our tour guides, the San bushmen, were listening intently to the games on their satellite radios. I was in awe. Here was a sport that attracted fans and players from countries all over the world, and a tournament that truly electrified millions in a fierce competition for the world title every four years. I decided then that this sport was worth paying attention to.

Since that World Cup, I have watched games from every World Cup, and completely by coincidence, each from a different nation of the world. One year I watched the games from Guatemala, another from a snowed-in cabin in the Swiss Alps, and then ofcourse, in 2018, I watched the games from Ecuador. This year, Argentina is my home during the World Cup, or as it is whispered here in reverence, “La Copa Mundial”.

Watching the World Cup with my volunteer hosts and other volunteers

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, like I had, you may know that Argentina has a long history and love affair with fútbol. They did make the World Cup again this year, just as they often do, but much to the chagrin of their fanaticos, or fans, they haven’t won the big title since 1986. To explain this, Argentinians have found a lot to blame – namely their key player and team captain, Lionel Messi. And ofcourse, you have to know, there’s a curse.

Lionel Messi is considered by many as the best player in the world. There are legends of him coming of age on the dirt lots of Rosario, Argentina. He was like a magician, with the ball always glued to his foot. Unfortunately, he also came of age during the economic crisis of the 1990’s and there wasn’t much in his future except dreams of futból. Luckily, Barcelona, the powerhouse team in Spain, actually took notice of this 14-year-old prodigy. They had enough financial backing to seek out talented players from around the world. But as I understand it, taking on Lionel Messi was actually a huge risk because he was really small for his age. Doctors had previously discovered that he had a hormone deficiency and Messi had to inject himself daily with hormones to spur his growth. In the end, Barcelona took the chance and they invited Messi to play for their youth teams. They paid for him and his father to move to Barcelona, get his medical treatments, and dream of a better economic future for their family still in Argentina. It ended up being a great move for everyone.

Watching Game 1 against Saudi Arabia at 7am with the locals in a brew pub. They were serving coffee and pastries.

By the early 2000’s, Messi was a big name and Barcelona was winning a lot. Then came the preparations for the World Cup of 2006 and Spain asked Messi to play for them. After all he owed them, it was a surprise that he said “No”. In reality, his heart and his allegiance for the most coveted prize in the fútbol world was with Argentina, his homeland. He asked to play for them.

Since his first World Cup in 2006, and the one where I started to actually pay attention, Messi has been the glimmer of hope for the Argentina National Team. Like many other fútbol stars in the world today, he spends the regular season playing for one team in Europe (now Paris Saint-Germain), but returns to his homeland (Argentina) every four years for the World Cup games.

Watching Argentina beat Mexico in Game 2 at a local food cart pod

Unfortunately, he hasn’t yet brought home that coveted prize, and after waiting through four other World Cups, the fans all over Argentina have some complicated feelings for him. His name brings quite a quarrel in the brew pubs. First, they say that his heart isn’t really with Argentina. They argue that he’s really more European now. After so many years of polished play in Europe, he’s forgotten the scrappy sand-lot style of play that Argentina and other South American teams are famous for. The proof is in the pudding. And once, at the beginning of a game several years ago, he didn’t sing the national anthem. So that unequivocally proves that he doesn’t care about winning for Argentina. If he did, they would have won the World Cup with him as the lead by now.

But others argue that Messi helps Argentina win a lot of other games. They won the Copa America (which is the World Cup for just the Americas) in 2021. Messi can’t do it all, they reason. Perhaps the real problem is that the rest of Argentina’s players aren’t very good. And then there’s that thing about the curse.

Supposedly, in 1986, the Argentinian World Cup Team made a trip to visit the church in the community of Tilcara and begged on bended knee to win the World Cup that year. They did. But as the community members tell the story, none of the players ever returned to the chapel to thank and appreciate the Virgin of Tilcara. That was too disrespectful! The Argentinian National Fútbol team has been living in the shadow of her anger ever since. Now, somebody has to break the curse, and love him or hate him, everyone’s hopes are on Messi again this year.

Cheering on Messi and the Argentina National Team after one of their goals in Game 2

Lionel Messi is 35 years old now. This is his last World Cup to break the curse, and prove to the fans once and for all that he really does want to win for Argentina.

Game 1 against Saudi Arabia didn’t go so well.

Game 2 against Mexico went better.

Game 3 against Poland went even better. The team is looking strong. They’re working together, passing the ball and depending upon several players – not just Messi- to make their goals. This week, they made it to the Final 16 where they beat Australia. Each game is a win or go-home situation now so the tension around Argentina is really building. With each win, everybody is asking, can this finally be the year?

Fans pouring into the streets after their Game 3 win over Poland
As a converted fan, I now rearrange my schedule on game days to make sure I’m in a bar with cable TV. On this day, I was the only one watching the USA team lose to the Netherlands, but then I had a great seat to watch Argentina beat Australia. And yes, Argentina has turned me into a beer drinker, too!
Argentinian fans watch games very quietly and intensely until a goal is made. Then they erupt.
Spontaneous parades on game day! During the Copa Mundial, everybody is a fan in Argentina!

This Friday, Argentina plays in the Quarter-finals against the Netherlands. Ojalá, or God willing, as they say here, they will make it to the Semi-Finals, or even the Finals. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I hope Messi, the Virgin of Tilcara and the entire country of Argentina will rest happily again. It sure would be fun to be here for the party!