In June, Tomás Kuklis visited family in his native Argentina from his home in New York. When conversation turned to the upcoming World Cup, it brought back the happiest memories of his childhood. He was rocked by a wave of nostalgia for friends and food, but especially for his lifelong passion: football.
So, he took a bold decision: he would sell all his things and move back to Buenos Aires to watch the tournament. It was a choice some might consider radical. But in this South American country where football is arguably a spiritual experience, it felt like keeping the faith.
“It’s one of the things that I miss about living in the US, because it’s not the same,” he told the Observer at the sidelines of a match with some friends in the well-heeled Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Colegiales. It was Friday evening, and every restaurant, cafe and bar was festooned in Argentinian bunting, TV screens showing a clock counting down in the corner: 39 hours, 21 minutes and 15 seconds until the match to end all matches.
“People [in the US] are not as passionate as they are here. When we were talking about the World Cup, I said, ‘I can’t miss the opportunity to be with my family and friends for this.’” His loyalty has been richly rewarded so far: on Tuesday, Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 to score a place in the tournament’s final.
World Cup fervour has been palpable in Buenos Aires since before the first kickoff. Businesses are decked in blue and white. Electronic highway signs usually reserved for traffic updates now read: “VAMOS ARGENTINA.” During the team’s matches, shops shut, workers clock off early, and university lectures are suspended. But this week, it’s reaching fever pitch.
After a shock 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia and a nail-biting penalty shootout against the Netherlands, the latest victory of La Scaloneta, as the team is affectionately called, finally has Argentinians hoping that superstar captain Lionel Messi will take his team all the way.
After each match, growing numbers of fans have flocked to the obelisk in the city centre to celebrate. After the Netherlands, even a torrential summer storm wasn’t enough to clear revellers draped in flags, who appeared to take it as tears of joy from Maradona in heaven. Come Tuesday’s Croatia victory, impromptu block parties were breaking out all over the city.
“I think people really need to celebrate,” said Alexis Bellani, 36, who organises the Friday evening games at the Colegiales pitch. “We’re always in the news for bad stuff, politics and the economy aren’t going in the direction you might want, and it’s been a long time since there’s been a genuine reason to celebrate.”
He’s been playing football since he was a toddler. He is the proud owner of a vast collection of football shirts, which he cajoles friends into bringing from all corners of the world. As well as playing, he supports River Plate, and got tickets to the infamous 2018 Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate – although it was ultimately relocated to Madrid after crazed River fans attacked the Boca team’s bus. But he says all this doesn’t make him any more of a fan than the average Argentine.
“The day of the quarter-final with the Netherlands, I ended up with body pains, like when you exercise too hard,” he said. “Because here you experience it almost like a kind of ego, patriotism, a historic moment – your life depends on whether Argentina wins or loses.”
A victory would mean bringing home football’s most prestigious trophy for the first time since 1986, the year Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal knocked England out at the quarter-final stage. To say that Maradona is revered in Argentina is no exaggeration: Argentina is even home to a Church of Maradona.
Bellani plans to watch the game at his parents’ house, because it’s cábala, he says, using the word for the superstitions Argentinians develop as they watch the tournament. Some cábalas are personal, but others shoot to international fame. María Cristina Mariscotti, a 76-year-old woman from Buenos Aires, became a cábala after she started dancing in the street with the fans in her neighbourhood after games. They went viral, adopting the chant “abuela [grandmother] la la la la la!”, even though Mariscotti doesn’t have grandchildren.
If you change something about how you watch the match and the team loses, that’s mufa. Like cábalas, these can be anything – including, according to some, former president Mauricio Macri, who has been in Qatar for the tournament.
Pablo Noya, 29, a sports journalist who used to play football professionally for JJ Urquiza and Deportivo Español, said football was a way for Argentinians to escape the problems of their day-to-day lives. “It’s a moment where we’re all equal,” he said. “There are people who have nothing, but with football they can celebrate … there’s no social class, there are no economic problems. For me, that’s what football is.”
And his greatest hope for Sunday? His beaming smile says it all. He just doesn’t dare speak the C word – although he points out it ends in H-A-M-P-I-O-N in English – because any Argentinian knows that saying the quiet part out loud would be mufa.