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A year after World Cup triumph in Qatar, Argentina commemorates the largest collective party in its history

Millions of people took to the streets of Buenos Aires on December 20, 2022, to celebrate the Albiceleste’s victory. The anniversary coincides with a protest against Javier Milei

Argentina
The Argentina team bus in Buenos Aires, December 20, 2022.Rodrigo Abd (AP)

Today’s Argentina — with more than 40% of its population living below the poverty line, annual inflation that will exceed 170% this year and with the recently inaugurated presidency of the ultra-right-wing Javier Milei — has greater needs and urgencies than resorting to nostalgia. But there is an exception: an anniversary involving a reminder of the country’s happiest day in recent decades. On Monday, a soccer-mad nation celebrated one year since the Qatar 2022 World Cup final — the sports channels broadcast the match against France, when the Albiceleste won its third World Cup, and the players, led by Lionel Messi, wrote evocative posts on their social media accounts — but Wednesday’s commemoration will mark the first anniversary of an even more extraordinary event.

On December 20, 2022, two days after Messi entered the pantheon of Argentine demigods in Doha, a crowd impossible to calculate but estimated at five million people took to the streets of Buenos Aires and its periphery to try to catch a glimpse, even if only from a distance, of the open-top bus in which the champions were traveling after their return to the country. Few similar congregations have ever taken place in Argentina, at least not to celebrate a sporting triumph, which in Latin America is almost a national vindication. December 20 could be declared “Argentine Fan’s Day,” if a recent proposal by the Argentine Football Association (AFA) bears fruit. The motion has already been submitted to the National Congress — each league club celebrates its own “Supporters’ Day” — and is awaiting debate.

That explosion of collective endorphins also acts as a bubble of happiness in a country with its hair standing on end. The first anniversary of that festive mobilization will be one of huge contrast in the streets. On this occasion, downtown Buenos Aires will be the scene not of celebrations, but of protests. “On December 20 the fight against the chainsaw adjustment against hunger begins,” warned picketers, labor unions and human rights leaders who will march on December 20 against the new economic measures imposed by Milei, who will face his first challenge in the streets. The tension is such that the Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich, announced a protocol that prohibits street blockades.

If a year ago the Plaza de Mayo, one of the iconic meeting places for Argentines, in front of the Casa Rosada presidential residence, was full of fans waiting in vain for the arrival of the world champions, on Wednesday thousands of people are expected in the same place on a date that resonates in the recent history of the country.

On December 20, 2001, police repression and the deaths of dozens of demonstrators marked in blood the end of the presidency of Fernando De la Rúa, who fled from the roof of the Casa Rosada in a helicopter. In 2022, on the other hand, the helicopters that flew over the celebratory crowds in Buenos Aires were carrying the players who had not been able to reach the Plaza de Mayo or the Obelisk by road. With the streets packed with fans, the solution was for the national team to leave the bus and attempt a lap of honor by air.

The relationship between Argentina and soccer has been umbilical since the beginning of the 20th century, but it has never witnessed — and probably never will — such an exceptional day as it did a year ago. While Argentina has three stars on its jersey, the World Cup is a quadrennial competition and the stadiums have become increasingly exclusive venues. December 20, 2022, marked the return of soccer to the streets, to its roots, without economic, social, or political divisions: players and fans united at the end of a World Cup that seemed to have had two venues — played in Qatar but lived in Argentina.

Following the national team’s first title at the 1978 World Cup, staged in Argentina under the dictatorship, the second star came in 1986. The day after Diego Maradona lifted the trophy in Mexico, a crowd gathered to welcome the champions at Ezeiza airport, around 20 miles from Buenos Aires. The bus that was provided to take the players to the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada, where President Raúl Alfonsín was waiting for them, took seven hours to complete a journey that usually takes 40 minutes. In fact, due to the crowds, the vehicle had to take an alternative route, but it eventually reached its destination. In 2022, it was impossible.

The Copa América won in Brazil in 2021 had already acted as a symbolic end to a long and painful pandemic: Argentina’s first title in 28 years, after the Copa América in 1993, inaugurated a chemical relationship between the fans and Lionel Scaloni’s national team. On December 20, 2022, Messi celebrated on the bus like any other Argentine kid: with a pitcher of Fernet and cola, a mixture of medium alcohol content that is very common in the country. Glasses of champagne, wine, and beer were passed from hand to hand among the rest of the players and the coaching staff, while the fans closest to the airport were lucky enough to get to the foot or the side of the bus.

At a snail’s pace, the team advanced slowly along the Ricchieri highway, in the province of Buenos Aires. Just before entering the capital, the bus took a detour to a state facility where there were helicopters. In the absence of sunscreen, and after several hours of slow procession, the players already had reddened skin and it was clear that they would not be able to continue moving forward by road. Their safety was also in question: a couple of boys, whose names were never known, threw themselves from a bridge onto the roof of the bus.

The millions of Argentines waiting at the Plaza de Mayo, the Obelisk, and the route the bus was supposed to take would no longer be able to see Messi and his team, but nothing overshadowed a date that had become a parenthesis of happiness amid the crisis, as it also is on its first anniversary.

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