Bueno Aires, Argentina—Watching football icon Lionel Messi inspire Argentina to World Cup glory on Sunday made the economic suffering engulfing the country “worth it,” according to ecstatic fans.
Fireworks cracked, car horns sounded and fans draped in the national blue and white colors sang, danced and waved flags.
An estimated two million people converged around the iconic Obelisk in central Buenos Aires as the party raged long into the warm night on the shores of the River Plate.
Messi scored two goals against France as the game ended 3-3 after extra-time, with Kylian Mbappe bagging a hat-trick for the reigning champions.
Messi also netted in the shoot-out with goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez saving one penalty before Gonzalo Montiel banged in the winning spot-kick to send Argentine players and fans into raptures.
“This is happiness for everyone, for all these people. Today it was our turn and the joy is ours,” said hotel receptionist Julio Berdun, 50, from the capital’s Plaza de Mayo square.
“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” repeated Joel Ciarallo, 31, over and again before the final had even finished.
The final was a torturous affair for many fans as Argentina lost a 2-0 half-time lead to be forced into extra-time. AFP
France, just like the Netherlands did to Argentina in the quarter-finals, scored two late goals to prolong the match.
Having taken the lead again in extra-time, through Messi, Argentina were once more pegged back when Mbappe completed his hat-trick with another last gasp equalizer, condemning fans to the nail-biting drama of a penalty shoot-out.
“Epic, this is epic, all of Argentine history is suffering like this,” said a fan watching the game on a giant screen in the Centenario park in the capital.
“We were born to suffer, that’s how we Argentines are,” agreed beer vendor Manuel Erazo. “But we keep going, that’s the way the country is.”
‘Richly deserved distraction’
Watching the World Cup final and dreaming about winning has been a much needed exercise in escapism for citizens of a country that has suffered years of economic turmoil due to spiraling inflation.
Some 40 percent of the 45 million population lives in poverty while soaring inflation and currency devaluation has caused havoc with savings and disposable income.
Argentina “is going through an economic rollercoaster where it’s always hard to make ends meet at the end of the month,” said Agustin Acevedo, 25, a construction worker from Temperley, who came to Buenos Aires to watch the final.
But “it’s perfect, everything we’ve suffered has been worth it for this.”
“Let’s be clear, Argentina is in trouble, economically, socially, it’s bad. So this distraction is richly deserved,” said Acevedo.
As night fell, the Obelisk — the traditional site for sporting celebrations — was lit up, highlighting the swarms of people thronging not just the square itself but every street off it as far as the eye could see.
Ska band La Mosca played a concert in Buenos Aires with an updated version of the team’s official World Cup song “Muchachos,” with the lyrics tweaked to acknowledge Argentina’s third title.
The joy was tangible but there was also palpable relief after ending a 36-year gap since their last world title.
“I’m 35, I’ve been waiting 35 years for this moment in my life, I can’t believe it, 35 years waiting for this dream,” said Soledad Palacios.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life to enjoy the World Cup.”
In Rosario, the home town of Messi and Angel Di Maria, Argentina’s other final goalscorer on Sunday, fans of rival teams Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central buried their differences and cheered shoulder to shoulder.
“This national team brings everyone together. You see fans of Central and Newell’s hugging, singing. That’s the most beautiful thing there is,” said Nahuel Cantero, 21.
“This team deserves everything. This is crazy, more than anyone Messi (deserves it) because he never gave up and tried so hard,” said 23-year-old Martin Reina.
With the team due to arrive back in Argentina on Monday night ahead of an expected open-top bus parade on Tuesday, the locals in Rosario had just one wish.
“If Messi and Di Maria come to Rosario to celebrate, we will be delighted,” said Micaela Lourdes, 20, who watched the final with her mother.