Argentina, again

Messi, Borges and the World Cup win

Yes! Argentina won the World Cup after a nail-biting game that seemed it would never end, and Messi got his dreamed and well-deserved prize. Fantastic!

I didn’t realize that Argentina had last won in 1986, because it got really close other times: it was two times vice-champion since then, first with Maradona in 1990, then with Messi in 2014. I have little memory of the 1986 victory (I was 13 years old) except for Maradona’s brilliant goal against England in the semifinals, but I remember very well the frustration after Messi’s team ‘s defeat in the finals in 2014 — although, to be fair, Germany deserved to win that time.

Besides being a great player, Messi seems to be a great guy; he’s certainly a less polemic character than the divisive Maradona, and he really deserved this win after a very long wait, and nearing the end of his career.

But I was thinking now about Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s most prominent writer, who didn’t care about football or sports at all. Borges once wrote that a country’s foremost writer tend to be very different from the stereotype of the population. He gave the example of Shakespeare, who with his emotional characters and baroque prose seems very distant from the more typically English understatement, irony and stiff-upper lip.

Well, it’s hard to think of anyone that, in appearance, is less Argentine than Borges. He was very humble, which is not a very Argentine character. He didn’t like soccer. And, besides his lifelong interest in tango and gauchos, that appear in many of his stories and essays, most of his universe revolved around vikings, saxons and ancient labyrinths. And yet, I’d argue that it is not possible to understand Argentina without reading Borges.

Argentina is a strange country; it went from being one of the richest countries in the world at the beginning of the 20th century to being a mostly poor, corrupt and disorganized one, for decades now. And yet, for years, many Argentines saw their land as a basically European country wrongly located in South America, although that was always more wishful thinking on their part. Sure, big central cities such as Buenos Aires and Rosario were heavily Italian and Spanish, but the rest of the country and in particular the Northern regions were always more indigenous.

Now, the country is changing again — there’s still lots of immigration, only now they come from even poorer neighbours such as Bolivia and Peru, but also from Asia. There’s many Chinese and Koreans in the country, who seem to dominate the grocery stores. A porteño will say he’s going to the “chino de la esquina” (the Chinese grocery in the corner) to buy his mate or his dulce de leche. It’s hard to find numbers, but some sources say that there are 200,000 Chinese immigrants in Argentina and perhaps 100,000 from Korea and other Asian countries.

Argentina had a large Jewish population since at least the beginning of the 20th century, but what’s new since the 2000s is the number of Israelis moving to the country, mostly to the Patagonian region. It is curious that many Argentines of Jewish origin moved and are still moving to Israel thanks to the Law of Return, but a few are traveling in the opposite direction. For many years, Argentina has been a popular touristic destination for Israelis after their military service, but some remain in the country and there’s even a few richer people who bought huge tracts of land in the South, giving raise again to the old conspiracy theory of the “Andinia plan”. It seems a baseless fear: due to the economic troubles, the number of Jews in the country is actually decreasing, with more choosing to emigrate rather than immigrate.

Other than that, the country has been in ups and downs since basically forever, so Argentines are used to living in an economic roller coaster.

Argentina’s and Messi’s victory in the Cup has put a temporary smile on everyone’s faces, but inflation, corruption, rising crime and poverty continue being a huge problem in the country, with no easy solution in sight.