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Argentina's existentialist game

With a national team that is a microcosm of the country itself, on a high wire between agony and ecstasy, anything could happen for Argentina at this World Cup. By Rodrigo Fresan

Swept up in World Cup fever, the Folio magazine of the Neue Zürchner Zeitung commissioned a whole string of authors to elucidate on their respective teams' chances of victory. Read Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro on Brazil, Andrew Anthony on England, Herve Le Teiller on France, Robert Gernhardt on Germany and Leon de Winter on the Netherlands. More to follow as championship approaches...

One thing is crystal clear: in Argentina, football has temporarily displaced reality. It's like a breather in the history of a country otherwise so embroiled in conflict and in-fighting, like the eye of a hurricane. This is particularly clear in the run up to the football World Championships.

A few years ago, during the 2002 Championships, I saw an Argentinian advertisement on Spanish television which showed this perfectly, with that – seemingly unavoidable – aesthetic blend of heroic song and tears (In Argentinian football, crying is a very male activity). In the advertisement, a World Cup final is taking place between Brazil (joy) and Argentina (sadness). The score is still 0:0 (a state of uncertainty) when Argentina gets a penalty kick (the miracle). Time seems to freeze in front of the TV set (the possibility of the final blunder). At this moment there is a power cut (the crisis), and only an old man (wisdom) on the street with a transistor radio pressed to his ear – by the way, I could never understand how people could listen to football matches on the radio, abstractly deciphering a figurative game – hears the result and croaks "gol", after which young people (the future) stream onto the balconies, unfurling flags. The cry ("Argentina", "Argentina") spreads from mouth to mouth, swelling to a song intoned by a million throats.

The message is clear: only football can wrench Argentina from its present darkness, this country that once exported beef and now exports football meat. Needless to say, Argentina did not win the World Cup in 2002. But it was world champion in 1978 and 1986, and very nearly again in 1990, so hopes are high for 2006. One thing's for sure: if Argentina does win, it will be to revel in the tragic possibility of losing again in 2010.

It's a commonplace that every country has the government, and the football team, it deserves. The Argentinian team – representing an almost pathologically psychoanalytical country – will once again fluctuate between depression and nervous breakdown. It's an unpredictable team, at times weary with gloom, at times foaming over with ebullience, exposed at every moment to the blustering elements and doomed to existential catastrophes.

The team selection represents all Argentinians, with their extreme historical cycles, their ups and downs, their triumphs and turpitudes. More than that: it embodies the Pavlovian desires of Argentinians to yell doggedly "Argentina! Argentina!" (the call of salvation alluded to in our national anthem) without really knowing if it is love or horror that makes them so hopelessly devoted to football and their country. In short: everything is possible with this team.

Argentinian team profile

Rodrigo Fresan was born in Buenos Aires in 1963. Today he lives and works as a writer in Barcelona. His recent novel "Kensington Gardens" is about J. L. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan.

This article forms part of compilation of writings originally published in the Neue Zürchner Zeitung magazine Folio on May 2, 2006.

Translation: jab

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