Argentina, the bankrupt world champion

Nadum Jwad*


Earlier this month, Argentina sworn in a new president after a bruising election.  Javier Milei, has vowed to lead his country out of decades of “decadence and decline” but said its punishing economic crisis would intensify over the coming months, as a “who’s who” of the global far right assembled in Buenos Aires to celebrate the radical libertarian’s inauguration.

Addressing tens of thousands of supporters outside Argentina’s turquoise-domed neoclassical congress, Milei – a mercurial former TV celebrity known as El Loco or the Madman – compared his shock election with the start of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of a tragic era for the world, these elections represent a tipping point in our history,” he declared, promising to “fight tooth and nail” to drag his country into “a new era of peace and prosperity”.

He warned, however, that Argentina – where annual inflation is expected to hit 200% this year and 40% of citizens live in poverty – faced an “emergency” situation. “The challenge before us is titanic … I’d rather tell you an uncomfortable truth than a comfortable lie,” he said (The Guardian, December 10, 2023.)

Of course Argentina is the world’s biggest debtor with a National Government Debt reaching 403.8 USD bn in June 2023, compared with 398.2 USD bn in the previous quarter.

Sovereign debt has been a longstanding challenge for Argentina’s governments. As recently as 2022, (former president) Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez secured an outline deal with the IMF to restructure US$44.5 billion of debt from a record 2018 bailout. In fact, since 2001, Argentina has defaulted on its international sovereign debt three times –the first time in December 2001 in the midst of a very serious financial crisis, in 2014, in the middle of a battle against holdout creditors and again in 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the same period, Argentina has gone through two debt restructurings. One that lasted from 2005 to 2016, and one that started in 2020 and was agreed much faster (Think Tank European Parliament. 26/9/2023.)

The new president of Argentina, Javier Mileis

A little more than a month earlier, and in an unrelated event, it was announced that the winner of the 2023 Ballon d’Or was the legendary soccer player Lionel Messi who has won a record-extending eighth award. The Inter Miami and Argentina striker, who played for Paris Saint-Germain last season, captained Argentina to the World Cup in Qatar last December, ending a 36-year wait for the South American country. Messi, 36, has won the award three times more than anyone else (Eurosports, October 31, 2023.)

Lionel Messi receives the Ballon D’Or 2023 Award

Of course, Argentina is the current soccer world champion after winning the title in November 2022 in a dramatic fashion in the Arabian Gulf state of Qatar by defeating France in the final.  Messi, who captained the Argentine team, played a pivotal role in his country’s win and was selected as the most available player of the tournament.

Argentina has a rich history of both economic calamities and of being a soccer powerhouse with many titles (won the world cup three times, and was a runner up twice) and legendary soccer players (Di Stefano, Mario Campese, Danielle Pacerella, and of course, the greatest of all times, Diego Maradona.)  The two phenomena seem to go hand in hand and, in a strange way, as we will see, suit the successive Argentine governments just fine.

This is not the first time Argentina elects a colorful president and in similar circumstances.  Between 1989 and 1999, Carlos Menem was a president of the country in a period of major economic crises and hyperinflation.

Carlose Menem, 1989

It is also noteworthy that he was a major soccer fan which (as we will attempt to prove in this article) used for his political benefits.

President Carlos Menem with the late soccer legend Diego Maradon. 1989

Dictators in Argentina and football

South Americans’ passion and love for football is an essential part of their lives and culture.  It is natural to assume that politics will be used to further the cause of politicians.  The case of Argentina and its sad and long history of dictatorships is a typical example of this phenomenon.

On March 29, 1976, Jorge Rafael Videla came to power in a coup d’état that deposed Isabel Perón.  He was accused and later prosecuted for large-scale human rights abuses and crimes against humanity that took place under his rule, including kidnappings or forced disappearance, widespread torture and extrajudicial murder of activists and political opponents as well as their families at secret concentration camps. An estimated 13,000 ( Una duda histórica: no se sabe cuántos son los desaparecidos”. 6 October 2003) to 30,000 (“40 years later, the mothers of Argentina’s ‘disappeared’ refuse to be silent.” 28 April 2017. Retrieved 23 March 2018) political dissidents vanished during this period.

Jorge Rafael Videla, takes the oath of the presidency, 1976

This period of political unrest and the savage treatment of the opposition was dubbed as the “dirty war” and the Argentine regime did its best to deflect attention to its practices, and there is nothing better than football, a hugely popular sport, to do the job.  As it was later proven, Videla used the 1978 FIFA World Cup for political purposes. He cited the enthusiasm of the Argentine fans for their victorious football team as evidence of his personal and the junta’s popularity (The Story Of The 1978 World cup – BBC Article Author: Jonathan Stevenson (BBC Sports Presenter). Published 18 May 2010. Retrieved 19 May 2013.)

It was no secret that the American administration at that time was a good friend of the military Junta in Argentina, a vital south American country.  There was also a concern of dealing with a cuban-inspired leftist movement in that country (where the legendary revolutionary figure Arnisto Che Guevar was born.)   Newly declassified documents from the Department of State reveal that in 1976 “Doctor K” supported the “war” against “subversion” and urged the dictatorship to finish its job “quickly” so as to avoid future problems with the US Congress (Papelito (no date), Henry Kissinger at the 1978 World Cup, Videla’s guest of honor.)

Henry Kissinger guest of General Jorge Rafael Videla during world cup of 1978 in Argentina

Less than a year before the World Cup, in September 1977, Interior Minister General Albano Harguindeguy, stated that 5,618 people had recently disappeared. The infamous Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy (known by its acronym ESMA) held concentration camp prisoners of the Dirty War and those held captive reportedly could hear the roars of the crowd during matches held at River Plate’s Monumental Stadium, located only a mile away (Winner, David (21 June 2008). “But Was This The Beautiful Game’s Ugliest Moment?”. Financial Times. Archived from the original on 11 June 2010. Retrieved 15 June 2014.)

The controversy of Johan Cruyff and the 1978 world cup

Because of the political turmoil in Argentina, some countries, most notably the Netherlands, considered publicly whether they should participate in the event. Despite this, all teams eventually took part without restrictions. However, most notably, Dutch star Johan Cruyff, who won the Golden Ball in the previous 1974 FIFA World Cup, refused to take part in the 1978 World Cup, even though he earlier participated in the 1978 FIFA World Cup qualification. Allegations that Cruyff refused to participate because of political convictions were denied by him 30 years later-he and his family had been the victims of a kidnapping attempt a few months before the tournament. Several criminals entered his house in Barcelona at night and tied him and his family up at gunpoint (Doyle, Paul (16 April 2008,  “Kidnappers made Cruyff miss the World Cup”. The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 June 2008.)  Since then, there have been persistent questions of whether Cruyff was a victim of a random kidnapping attempt to extort money or a larger task of preventing him from participating in the world cup and, hence, enhancing Argentina’s chances of winning it.  No matter what the reasons behind it, Cruyff was adamant not to go even when the Queen of the Netherlands intervened to persuade him to change his mind, Argentina went on to win the cup beating none other than the Dutch by a score of 3 to 1.

Cruyff against Argentina, 1974

The world cup of 1978 and Vadila’s dictatorial regime, violence against opponents, and how it was used, was summarized by Will Hersey’s article “Remembering Argentina 1978: The Dirtiest World Cup of All Time”:  The other teams in Argentina and Hungary’s group were the much-fancied France and Italy, establishing the tournament’s toughest qualifying section. After the victory against Hungary, one junta official remarked to Leopoldo Luque that “this could turn out to be the group of death as far as you are concerned.” It was delivered with a smile. “Uppermost in my mind was that earlier that day, the brother of a close friend of mine had disappeared”, recalled Luque. “His body was later found by villagers on the banks of the River Plate with concrete attached to his legs. At that time, opponents of the regime were sometimes thrown out of airplanes into the sea” (Hersey, Will (16 June 2018). “Remembering Argentina 1978: The Dirtiest World Cup of All Time”. Esquire.)

General Videla handing the world cup to the Arentinian captain, Pacerella, 1978

Diego Maradona, the Falkland war, and the “Hand of God”

Although there was a transfer of power in March 1981 from General Jorge Rafael Videla to General Leopoldo Galtieri (acting president), the problems engulfing the country remained the same.  The Galtieri government, after a long and bitter dispute with Britain, invaded the Falkland Islands which were claimed by both countries.  The junta hoped to mobilize the long-standing patriotic feelings of Argentines towards the islands, diverting public attention from the chronic economic problems and the ongoing human rights violations of its Dirty War (Welch, David A. (2011). Painful Choices: A Theory of Foreign Policy Change. Google Books: Princeton University Press. p. 75. ISBN 9781400840748. Retrieved 25 January 2020) and bolstered the junta’s dwindling legitimacy.

The Falkland islands war ended in a total defeat of the Argentine army which surrendered on June 14th, 1982, which is only one day after the beginning of the 1982 FIFA World Cup which was played in Spain between 13 June and 11 July 1982.

Leading to the tournament, there was some consideration given as to whether England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland should withdraw from the tournament because of the war.  It was decided at the end, however, by Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong to allow the British national teams to participate so that Argentina could not use their absence for propaganda purposes, reversing the intended effect of applying political pressure onto Argentina (“World Cup withdrawal considered amid Falklands War”. BBC Sport. BBC. 28 December 2012. Retrieved 28 December 2012.)

It was suggested that the ongoing war had a great negative effect on the Argentina team, the  defending champions, which were eliminated in the second round (finishing third and last in their group.)

Argentina national football team, 1982

The defeat in the Falklands war paved the way for the return of democracy in Argentina, but the tension and the bitterness of the defeat remained.  So in the world cup tournament of 1986 which was held in Mexico, the quarter-final between Argentina and England at the Azteca stadium took a different meaning.  That match featured two very different goals in the second half by Diego Maradona, captain of the Argentine team and probably the greatest player ever to plant the game.  The first goal was scored illegally, as he punched the ball into the goal past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The referee did not see the handball and the goal was given as valid. After the game, Maradona claimed the goal was scored “A bit with the head of Maradona and another bit with the hand of God”; it became known as the “Hand of God” goal. For his second goal, voted “Goal of the Century” in 2002 on the FIFA website, Maradona dribbled half the length of the field past five English players before scoring. With 20 minutes to go, the introduction of John Barnes as a substitute changed the tide of play in England’s favor, as he pinged cross after cross into the Argentine penalty area: with 9 minutes to go, Lineker got on the end of one and scored, then almost repeated the dose six minutes later but was just unable to reach the ball thanks to a timely block by Olarticoechea: 2–1 to Argentina was the final score. In Argentina, the game was seen as revenge for the Falklands War ( El Diego – Diego Maradona, Page 127, ISBN 0-224-07190-4), a sentiment shared by almost all argentinians.

Diego Maradona lifts the world cup in Mexico, 1986

The new Argentine president and soccer

In a recent article by Arthur Fernandes, he explorers the economic impact of his election on the Major Soccer League (MSL) in the USA.  The writer stated that With approximately 40 Argentine players already playing in the league, Milei’s economic policies could have a significant impact on the finances of MLS and on future signings of players from Argentina.  He went on to state that one of Milei’s most notable proposals is the dollarization of the Argentine economy, a measure that could positively impact the financial stability of soccer clubs in the country. With a more stable and potentially strengthened economy, Argentine players may become more attractive targets for MLS clubs looking to bolster their teams with international talent.

Furthermore, the elimination of proposed currency restrictions by Milei could facilitate financial transactions between Argentine clubs and MLS teams. The reduction of barriers could streamline the player transfer process and favor more efficient negotiations, benefiting both parties involved.

The privatization of deficit-ridden public companies and the promotion of a more liberal economy could also result in a more favorable business environment for Argentine soccer clubs. With potential improvements in the infrastructure and financial management of local clubs, the overall quality of Argentine players may increase, making them even more desirable for MLS teams in search of quality reinforcements.

However, it is crucial to consider the potential challenges that may arise from this changing scenario. The success of Milei’s proposals in Argentina could lead to an appreciation of the Argentine economy, which could increase the cost of transfers of Argentine players to MLS. Additionally, potential initial economic instability during the implementation of these changes proposed by Milei could create uncertainties in the transfer market.

With approximately 40 Argentine players already established in MLS, the American league could benefit significantly if Milei’s proposals result in substantial improvements in the Argentine economy. MLS clubs may find more attractive business opportunities, while Argentine players may become even more valuable assets in an ever-evolving international soccer market.

As the new Argentine government prepares to implement its policies, the eyes of MLS observers are keenly focused on potential changes in transfer and signing dynamics. The relationship between the Argentine economy, Milei’s proposals, and soccer in MLS is about to unfold, bringing with it expectations and challenges for the clubs and players involved (MSL Multiplex, November 19m 2023, “Javier Milei Elected in Argentina: Potential Impacts on MLS and Signings of Argentine Players”.)

The next few years will be challenging and trying for the new Argentine president given the economic difficulties he is facing from the huge debt, falling currency, hyperinflation to name a few, and whether he will use Argentinians obsession with soccer to his advantage, like some of his predecessors, remains to be seen.

Nadum Jwad* is a freelance political writer who lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada