BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — Around 4 million Argentines flooded the streets of Buenos Aires to welcome home their World Cup-winning team after a pulsating and dramatic win over France.
A sea of supporters — approximately 10% of the population — draped in flags and dressed in a mosaic of national jerseys came out to create an electric atmosphere, charged by an endless supply of songs and sense of elation. Led by team star Lionel Messi, the Argentina team paraded the cup through Buenos Aires, which was cut short after the open-top bus struggled to get through the sea of supporters. After four hours, the team were helicoptered the rest of the route before heading back to the soccer association’s base.
The country has barely slept since Sunday's final against France when Messi crowned his legacy as the greatest to play the game as he lifted the world’s most iconic trophy. Carrying the weight of the nation for more than a decade, Messi finishes his odyssey to the summit of international soccer, retracing the steps of legend Diego Maradona who last lifted the World Cup for Argentina in 1986.
There are many countries where soccer is the most popular sport, but few where the sport is so embedded in the culture. In Argentina, soccer's influence reaches beyond the pitch. And when the national team plays, even those that don’t particularly enjoy the sport watch with anxiety levels rising to match the most fanatical supporter.
The atmosphere in Qatar, which hosted the 2022 World Cup, was a snapshot of the mood in Argentina — around 40,000 Argentines traveled to the Middle Eastern country hoping to see Messi finally lift the cup that has long evaded him and the country. The La Mosca song "Muchachos" captured the nation's spirit and caught on among fans as the team's unofficial anthem. It speaks of the pain of losing the recent finals and the hope of winning a third World Cup, invoking Maradona cheering on Messi from heaven.
Messi, who famously wore the No. 10 jersey, was part of the team that lost to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final. He also lost three Copa America finals, against Brazil in 2007 and Chile in 2015 and 2016.
It was after this fourth painful defeat in 2016 that Messi, who for over a decade had carried the weight of the nation’s hopes and expectations, briefly retired. After losing his first four finals with Argentina and reversing his decision to retire, Messi finally lifted his first international trophy in last year’s Copa America, beating fierce rivals Brazil 1-0 in the final.
Memories of Maradona’s triumph weave into a deeply emotional era — 1986 was the year he scored the "Hand of God" goal against England in the quarter-finals before scoring the "Goal of the Century."
The 1986 World Cup was also four years after the Falklands War with the U.K. Feelings around the conflict remained a painful memory that carried onto the pitch. Maradona’s masterclass and clear handball served as a sense of justice for much of the nation, with Maradona calling the Hand of God goal “symbolic revenge” for the war.
For Messi, the constant comparisons with Maradona may finally end with Sunday's win.
In very different circumstances, Messi has helped deliver euphoria to a country that is going through a deep economic crisis punctuated by yearly inflation of around 100% — one of the highest in the world. A precarious economy is pulling more and more people into poverty, with half of the country’s children living in poverty.
Argentines would say how they know how to suffer during the team's nail-biting moments in the World Cup: from the shock loss to Saudi Arabia in their first game, having to beat the Netherlands on penalties in the quarterfinal, and being 2-0 up in the final before conceding two late goals.
The feeling of turbulence from what happens on the pitch shadows the uncertainty that Argentines are accustomed to, living under economic crises. And while reaching the pinnacle of the world’s most popular game provides no solutions to a country’s problems, being world champions, for a brief moment, covers over the crisis and deep political division.
After the celebrations fade, the long road begins to defend Argentina's world title in four years, when the 2026 World Cup comes to Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
Courthouse News South America correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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