Argentina’s National Sport

On the uses and abuses of melancholic nostalgia

On June 30, fans of football all across ahe globe were struck (but not really surprised) by the defeat of an Argentine national team at the hands of an explosive France at the World Cup in Kazan, Russia. All across the world, Argentines and their sympathizers watched in sadness as a powerful, frustrated generation of football stars failed once more to live up to the extraordinary expectations people had of them. Javier Mascherano, a brilliant midfielder and veteran on the world stage, retired; as did Lucas Biglia. All around, Internet speculation swirled concerning the future of the biggest star, Lionel Messi, along with that of Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria. Argentina, the country and the idea, was plunged into a familiar sort of public sorrow. After all, this is our national sport.

Not football, I mean, but melancholia. Indeed, Argentine public life is filled with a kind of soft pining, a kind of melancholy that is endemic, but one which can also be harnessed to great effect. Here I don’t just refer to the personal sort of melancholy, the sort that makes Buenos Aires the world capital of psychoanalysis. I aim at something deeper, something structural. The force that makes the tango (a kind of lament) our avowed national soundtrack.

In the Argentine imaginary, there is always a golden age to harken back to. More importantly, beyond the usual kinds of nationalistic nostalgia or pseudo-religious stories about a fall from grace, Argentines add a twist. For the Argentine, Argentina has the exceptional characteristic of being a nation endowed with the potential for greatness that has been irretrievably lost. When this nostalgia is being put to work politically, the greatness we-could-have-been is not seen as merely lost, but as squelched — or taken — typically by an opponent.

When it comes to football, the dynamic should be clear enough. Argentina has been a powerhouse at different times in the history of the sport since FIFA’s founding, though one might want to insist on the word “always.” This is especially true since 1978, when it first lifted the World Cup. What has followed has been an outpouring of high quality footballers to fill the ranks of European club teams and earn glory both as individuals and as members of the Argentine Selected, as they refer to their national team. This has led to a rising sense that Argentina is good at football. But this is an incorrect conclusion. The correct conclusion is that Argentina has been good, or, alternatively, that Argentina can be good. But this doesn’t play as well. Thus the nation that produced Maradona, Messi, and di Stefano (just to name a few) styles itself as a powerhouse not just in the past tense, but in the present and future as well. Along with perhaps the quality of its meat, footballistic glory is regarded as simply part of the national patrimony, somewhere affixed to the essence of Argentine-ness.

It is as a result of this essentializing of a contingency that Argentina can raise itself time and time again, in its own mind, to the status of a world powerhouse, and not so illegitimately. However, it is also on this basis that it can fail to register the gap between its idealized self-image and its reality, leading to neglect and thus to failures that become all the more painful because of their unexpected character.

For Argentines, this dynamic is not limited to the realm of sport. In fact, one can appreciate the extent to which this dynamic powerfully informs political discourse in Argentina. Understanding Argentina’s melancholic nostalgia should be of interest to all sorts of foreigners, though especially in an age where such nostalgia has come to fuel political rhetoric across borders and on all sides of the political ‘spectrum.’

The specifically Argentine national narrative goes somewhat as follows: Argentina was, on the doorstep to the 20th Century, poised to enter the ranks of the world powers of the industrial world. Well, I mean, it was. As a report in The Economist asserted, in 1900 “Argentina was the future.” In this period, the narrative goes, Argentina and Canada had the same GDP per capita, for example. Indeed, “The country ranked among the ten richest in the world, after the likes of Australia, Britain and the United States, but ahead of France, Germany and Italy. Its income per head was 92% of the average of 16 rich economies.” [1]  Since that time, the country has done little but go downhill, at least in comparative perspective. One could detail for a long time the myriad ways in which this picture can be described with more detail, drawing on all sorts of social and cultural indicators. However, we won’t bog down with those details here.

The narrative in Argentina, thus, is that Argentina was once destined for greatness and status, but that somewhere along the line, things went very wrong. There is a whole host of turning points that one could settle on, if one wanted to. From the loss of important economic advantages following WW1, to the coup of 1930, to the ascendancy of Peron and “populism” after WW2, to, believe it or not, the ascendancy of universal male suffrage in 1912. In any case, the facts are that Argentina was doing comparatively very well once upon a time until it wasn’t, gradually slipping in the ranks and sliding into the mess it has now become globally famous for.

That is the context. What is the point? The point is that these facts are mobilized in a way that is quite fascinating from a philosophical point of view. Diagnosing the source of this tragedy, and therefore sussing out a solution for how to reverse this history, can often be the very stuff of political discourse in Argentina. Regardless of allegiance, though, politicians are forced, if they want to sell a solution, to reproduce a narrative of a fall from grace that is not just reversible, but also somehow aberrant. Argentina is not supposed to be a mess, it is meant to have followed the projected trend lines it manifested in 1910. Reality is deviant, and the idealized projections are Argentina’s true destiny. Moving from reality to destiny requires only that you put them (whoever is at the podium) in power, of course.

Let’s take the two biggest political camps in Argentina, the liberals and the so-called populists to illustrate this point. This comparison should be simple since each of these two camps rely on the other for their diagnosis. For the liberals, Argentina was on track as long as it participated in the world market, contributing its resources and forging connections with European capital (primarily British), and especially by running a government that did not intervene against, but rather validated, these linkages between Argentine industries and its foreign correspondents. It follows from this view that the decline of Argentina is due to the emergence, starting with the 1930 coup, of a more populist, interventionist, protectionist brand of politics that inhibited the free unfolding of capital.

On the other hand, the so-called populists, who really represent a wide range of perspectives ranging from a historically muted and repressed left to a more clientelist and personalist brand of social democrats, point to the excesses of capital as the source of Argentina’s issues. For this ilk, Argentina’s potential was hollowed out precisely by predatory foreign capital, enabled by domestic collaborators who traded away Argentina’s wealth in exchange for local dominance.

Hence, to the liberals, regardless of party, additional economic liberalization represents the solution; for the populists, additional oversight, regulation, and sovereign control of the economy does. They agree, however, insofar as they understand the history of Argentina as characterized by a fall from grace, banishment from Eden. In this sense, a wide swath of Argentine political life, and its most efficient movers, are restorationist, if not revanchist, vengeful. The platform is always, underneath the surface, a promise to bring Argentine reality back into line with the projections, back onto an imagined course plotted long ago. And, insofar as every such attempt fails, the general sense of melancholia is deepened, and the fury of attempts at resuscitation grows bolder.

The point is that Argentina was never itself rich. Argentina had a period of wealth, which was followed (and preceded!) by something else. And yet, for obvious reasons Argentines continue to reduce the full variety of their historical experience to what is ultimately a growth spurt that turned out to be much less ‘true’ than the trends from which it deviates.

Argentina is, and has been, on the margins of a global economic system within which it could hardly hope to become a center, precisely because it is firmly located within the structural periphery. The causes of its poverty are, to the disappointment of political hopefuls, world-systemic and structural, and hence, largely out of Argentina’s short-term control. Indeed, the inertia of the marginalization, its historical sedimentation, makes the promise of an easy exit illusory. In other words, Argentina’s status not just as a developing country but as an underdeveloped country, is not purely the result of its domestic policy.

One might go further to say that it’s quite impossible, given the role it has been assigned, for Argentina to rise to the occasion of its opinion of itself, even if were to allow its most popular domestic solutions to be implemented: a robust social-welfare state on the one hand, or a playground for foreign capitals with guaranteed returns on the other. But I will leave such speculation to the economists.

What interests me here is the pining for a lost paradise that saturates Argentine political culture, from political economy to its libidinal sporting economy. This narrative of the fall, whatever the facts might be, becomes specious when one realizes the ways in which it is mobilized politically and culturally to sustain an essentialist, static, and, most importantly, illusory conception of what their nation is, what it once was, and of what it ‘deserves’. The task of politics begins with a serious, scrupulous, sober self-assessment. Argentines will not be able to do that until they work through the mourning of what might-have-been.

Lucas Ballestin is a PhD Student, Philosophy and Historical Studies, at the New School for Social Research.


[1] As an aside, the existence of this Economist article report goes to show that the pining for Argentina’s lost (but never had) glory is not limited to the Argentine imaginary, and that it is a liberal dream first and foremost.


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