Photos by Lily Rose Thomas
Losing a World Cup final isn’t meant to look like this. With a minute to go in last night’s game against Germany, a game that only comes around once every four years, a free kick 30 yards from goal gave Lionel Messi a chance to equalize and force penalty kicks. Even though Messi booted it over everything, in Moo Cantina—a bar in central London's Pimlico neighborhood—hundreds of Argentine fans started clapping.
It was only minutes earlier that they’d seen their team go down 1–0. While still reeling from the shock and disappointment, they'd started chanting, "Vamos, vamos, Argentina!" (“Let’s go, let's go, Argentina!”)—helped by a pre-recorded version of the song that briefly replaced the match commentary on the normally pretty deserted bar’s PA.
After the game, fans poured out onto the street. Drums were banged, chants were chanted, people danced. There were some tears. A dozen or so police officers sat ready and primed in the back of a riot van. I poked my head in and asked if they’d expected the Argentine fans to kick up some trouble. While they didn't seem too happy about having spent the night locked in the back of a sweaty van and missing the World Cup final, they didn't seem overly concerned about things turning nasty.
This was the passion of Argentine football half-tamed and transplanted to central London. Years ago I stood on the terraces of San Lorenzo, a club in Flores, Buenos Aires, with their barra brava, the South American term for fanatic soccer fans. Just before the game they flooded into the stadium like a crew of orcs—hooded, carrying huge shredded banners and rockets, full of cheap speed and coke. They threw ropes up into the terrace; we held the ropes and climbed them, then spent the game staring into the crowd, dragging the support out of us, eyes barely on the match.
Pimlico’s a long way from Flores, though, and London isn’t known for its large Argentine community. “Most of the Argentines who make it over here are right wing, and they don’t hang out much together,” Adam, an Argentine wine-shop employee with a PhD in political economics, told me. Basically, they’re chetos—an Argentine term that roughly translates as “posh” and that calls to mind polo clubs and wearing white chinos while on vacation in Miami or the Mediterranean. These guys are better known for making money and being snobby about working-class Argentines and the rest of South America than they are for fraternal love.
But last night, football brought Argentines of all backgrounds together. And while they didn’t match the crazed, cokey intensity of the San Lorenzo barra brava, they were quite insistent that Bastian Schweinsteiger’s mother is a whore.
Outside the bar, fans squashed together in front of a big screen. Inside, they squashed together in front of a number of small screens, covered in spilled booze, sweating in the intense heat. Argentina’s chant of the tournament was in full effect. It’s aimed at the whole of Brazil: It asks Brazilians how they feel about being bossed around in their own backyard (literal translation: “Dad’s House”), reminds them that Diego Maradona outdid them in the 1990 World Cup (but fails to mention Argentina’s alleged drugging of Brazilian player Branco), and ends by claiming that the man with the hand of God is far greater than Pelé.
The bar was switching between that and an old classic: a song that describes how being Argentine is a feeling you can’t stop. In fact, it was a feeling that had swept over a Spanish guy who told me he was supporting “the Latin team,” two hammered Aussie blokes who were weeping openly at the end of the game, a Polish woman with a Uruguayan husband, a whole heap of Brits, and a Napoli fan who regaled me with that story of how, when Argentina played Italy in the 1990 World Cup, half of Naples supported Argentina because they loved Napoli legend Maradona so dearly.
Player chants were pretty evenly split between those for Messi and those for Javier Mascherano. Messi will never be loved as much as Maradona—he’s still too clean-cut, not a flawed, incredibly talented street fighter like El Jefecito. But there’s no question that Argentina loves him. Whole groups of fans were screaming “your mother’s cunt” at the referee and the German defenders for the extra attention they were paying the little flea. There was a huge cheer when Schweinsteiger got a yellow card, followed by another round loudly insisting that the German midfielder's mother is a prostitute.
While Argentina fans have grown to love Messi, they’ve always loved Mascherano. “The little boss” is a man from the streets, a man who will lay down his life for his team. Every tackle he made, every close-up he got, prompted an eruption of cheering and singing. And why not? After all, this is a guy who “tore his anus” while making a goal-saving tackle against Holland in the semifinal. Since that performance, the Mascherano memes have rolled in: Mascherano would sort out Argentina’s national debt, he already knows the ending to Game of Thrones, he has the formula for Coca-Cola, he can take the Falkland Islands on his own, and not only that—he can drag them up into the middle of the Rio de la Plata.
One girl was wearing a “Falkland Islands Belong to Argentina” T-shirt, but bar that, the usual elephant in the Anglo-Argentine room was more of a mite. Argentines from all over Britain were here. One had come down from Newcastle because he “couldn’t watch it alone surrounded by Geordies.” Others were on vacation. Everyone was singing. When Gonzalo Higuain missed an easy shot on goal, having gotten a gift from an erroneous Toni Kroos header, one guy crushed a full beer can. When Higuain went on to put the ball in the back of the net a little later, the bar erupted and beer was all over everyone and the ceiling. It took us a few minutes to realize that the scores hadn’t changed and that Higuain had been offside.
Outside, caught up in my vicarious vibe chasing, I got my face painted as I watched a guy in an Argentina shirt sitting steadily by his girlfriend, not watching the game, just listening to the other fans. I wondered if he resented the situation or if they’d only just met and he was pulling some kind of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting “I gotta see about a girl” type thing, in which he ignored the big game and focused on what was really important (getting laid).
After the game was lost, most people stuck around, singing and dancing, celebrating the positive side of shared national identity. They were performing for one another, and I wondered what they were thinking and when they’d get tired. On the tube, two guys in Argentina shirts made out and got the chants going. I thought about what an unlikely sight that was and then had a word with myself for being such a fucking granddad.
The World Cup is over now, and we’ve all got to go back to our lives. The games were organized and marketed by one of the world’s most corrupt institutions in FIFA, and there are undoubtedly more important things we could be paying attention to. But watching the fans of a team that had just lost dancing, singing, and laughing together, it felt hard to remember all that, and as I got home I thought, What will I do now?