No country entered this World Cup more stressed out than two-time champ Argentina, home to arguably the best player on the planet, Lionel Messi. The team failed to impress during the qualifying season, and many Argentinians have questioned the qualifications of their coach, Diego Maradona, a national hero, and headache. Maradona, whose brilliant play led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, shared a FIFA Player of the Century award with Pele. He’s also a former cocaine addict who was once committed to a psychiatric clinic, and owes back taxes to the Italian government from his playing days in Naples. As national team coach, he told critical reporters “to suck it and keep on sucking it” last October, and in March, he ran over a camera man’s foot. “How can you put your leg there where it can get run over, man?” Maradona yelled. He later apologized.
“He’s a gentleman that can be summed up in a single word,” says Ariel Kipinis, a social worker from New York City whose parents live in Argentina. “Epic.”
Kipinis was standing outside of Boca Juniors Argentinian Steakhouse in Queens, the melting pot borough of New York City. The joint is named after the famed Argentinian club for which Maradona once starred. “Boca Juniors is the most popular team in the country,” says Enrique Mehl, a psychologist from the Bronx, N.Y. who moved from Argentina to the United States 22 years ago, when he was 31. “They are the Yankees of Argentina.” In order to measure the Argentinian mindset, and get a taste of how futbol-mad immigrants keep a bond with their home country through the beautiful game – and have a great time doing it – I headed to Boca Juniors on Saturday morning to watch Argentina take on Nigeria in the opener for both teams.
Despite the 10:30 a.m. start time, Boca Juniors, whose walls are covered with pictures of Maradona during his glory days, was packed. Dozens of fans wore Number 10 Argentina football jerseys, about half with “Maradona,” the other half with “Messi,” stiched on the back. Over “cafe con leche,” empanadas, and the Argentine beer Quilmes – the morning start time was no obstruction – fans pounded drums and danced while cheering on the Albiceleste (white and sky blue). They sang the famous chant, “Vamos vamos Argentina.” Que esta banda quilombera no te deja de alentar, goes one lyric. Mehl provided the translation: “This troublemaker band is not going to stop cheering.” If American soccer wants to become really big, it needs more troublemaker bands singing about its players at 10:30 in the morning.
As Messi cut through the Nigeria defense in the first few minutes of the match, one guy chanted: “It’s all over, it’s all over.” The lone trio of Nigeria fans looked pained (these folks deserve major props for taking this adventure: they traveled to Boca Juniors from the Bronx, seeking a hostile environment. Everyone got alone fine). He was spot on: in just the sixth minute, the place exploded when Gabriel Heinze’s diving header found the top-left corner, giving Argentina a 1-0 lead, which it would hold the rest of the match. Some fans were justifiably worried the team didn’t win by a wider margin: Messi, for example, seemed to have about a dozen scoring chances, and he missed them all. Argentina should have won by a touchdown. But an opening win is sweet nonetheless.
During the game, relatively dapper Maradona – some said they had never seen him in a suit – stood with his hands on his chin, looking professorial. During the more tense moments, his arms flailed like a madman. FIFA would be doing the world a favor if they installed a “Maradona-cam” to capture his every exhortation. The Argentine attitude towards their iconic coach seems to be shifting a bit. “Coming in, I had my doubts,” says Rita Ricobielli, 38, a senior staff associate at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. She moved to the United States from Argentina when she was 25. “But it’s all about the garra. The passion, the heart. And watching him today, I know he has it. He has amazing garra.”
To others, it’s garra, schmarra. “I don’t see him as a coach,” says Mathias Conti, 19, the son of Boca Juniors owner Walther Conti. “He left off a lot of players who worked their ass off, and deserve to be there.” No one denies Maradona’s greatness as a player. For many Argentinian fans like Conti, however, only a World Cup title will prove that he can coach.
Below, some scenes from the Boca Juniors. If you’re in New York City over the next few weeks and Argentina is playing, I highly recommend heading out to Queens:
Above, fans living it up at halftime. Below, while taking in the second half. Further proof that the rest of the world does sports better than the U.S.:
The final moments of the game:
And how do Argentinians treat themselves after a big win? Like everyone else: