Football frenzy knows no bounds in Latin America. Like the two super powers of football, Brazil and Argentina hold sway and not just amongst their southern American member-nations but all over the world. For four decades now, the great Pele has been a revered figure in Brazil and the Brazilian government and World Cup Organizing Committee has honored him with an official status for 2014 FIFA World Cup. In the on-going World Cup, Neymar has already become a cult figure and there are others. Despite year-long protests by various groups all over the country about billions of dollars having been spent in football infrastructure instead of alleviating poverty, updating education facilities and creating jobs, the first two weeks of the World Cup have been a roaring success. There is a simmering discontent here and there but the Dilma Roussef government has coped well thus far.
It is not any different in Brazil’s southern neighbor, Argentina, where football is the lifeblood of an average citizen across the length and breadth of the country. Reverence for top football stars is akin to that reserved for film-stars, saints and other celebrities. In the eighties, Diego Maradona achieved a god-like status in Argentina after he led the nation to a World Cup victory against Germany in 1986. Even after his retirement, Maradona is still a name to reckon with. Despite his scandalous life style, marred by drug and cocaine-related offences, a common Argentine is still in love with the diminutive footballer. Unluckily for the current Argentine captain, Lionel Messi, the common argentine does not have the same feelings. One and perhaps the only reason is Messi’s expatriate status since he has lived all his life in Barcelona, in sharp contrast to Maradona’s homegrown roots. But their attitudes may undergo a change with Messi’s stellar performance in the first three league games in which he has already scored 4 goals and the no.10 Messi jersey is a hot pick-up in street-side shops.
To watch Argentina’s last league game against Nigeria, almost 50,000 Argentines arrived in the World Cup city of Porto Alegre by Wednesday morning. They called themselves soccer pilgrims and they used different routes to land in the city. Some came via Uruguay, some took flights and many others came in their own cars. The motorists parked their cars at prohibited locations and created a major concern to World Cup organizers and local security force. One young woman, named Cintia Perri, drove for 20 hours from Buenos Aires and spent the night in her car at a camping site. The whole of Wednesday, she hunted for a ticket for Wednesday’s match but she was exasperated at the black-market rates of up to 1500 dollars, which was ridiculously high for a ticket that had been acquired for less than 100 dollars. Perri didn’t buy but many other argentines, who had the money, didn’t mind and took the tickets. All such fellows added to an already substantial presence of Argentinians in the stadium. The fans’ shift to liking Messi is slow but evident. The tone was set on Wednesday by Argentine defender, Pablo Zabaleta, who said Messi was their captain and the team revolved around him. Though Argentina had a clean finish at Group stage, there are several matches ahead.
Security was beefed up at several places in Porto Alegre and check-posts were erected about a mile from the stadium. Police patrol was everywhere to stop Argentine fans from indulging in hooliganism. FIFA Fan Fest at Porto Alegre was the gathering point and most ticketless Argentines crowded here. They had to be content in watching the match on a giant video screen. Many such screens were also put up in several other places in the city, which made it convenient for the fans. However, there was one ugly incident of an Argentine fan being shot in his leg on Tuesday night in a bar dispute. As per Reuters, six Argentine fans were arrested for trying to steal tickets to the match.
In another side-story, Luiz Suarez was suspended by FIFA’s disciplinary committee on Thursday for nine games and barred from all soccer-related activities for the next 4 months. The committee was convinced that Suarez had sunk his teeth on the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini in the last league against Italy. The Uruguay striker was also fined about $112,000. The Suarez ban is the longest World Cup suspension for an on-field action and it surpassed the one meted out to Mauro Tassotti of Italy for eight matches in 1994. It means Uruguay will play without Suarez in all their remaining matches in the tournament.