Argentina, 1; U.S., 0

Last week's big soccer match at the Orange Bowl was about more than sports

Never mind more than 50 years of economic domination. Nor the role played in the Seventies by the U.S. government supporting the last military dictatorship (blamed for the disappearance of more than 30,000 people in Argentina). Never mind U.S. cooperation with the British military operation in the Falkland/Malvinas War of 1982, which concluded with the British army triumphantly recovering a couple of dry islands out in the South Atlantic. Ignore all of this before drawing any obvious conclusions about why Argentineans have a love/hate relationship with America.

Concentrate instead on this: Diego Maradona walking out of Boston's Foxboro Stadium after a World Cup soccer game in which Argentina beat Nigeria for the 1994 championship; his hand was immediately grabbed by an American nurse who would administer a urine test. Every Argentinean knew what it meant: humiliation. And every Argentinean knows it's the sort of treatment you can expect from the U.S.

Following confirmation that he took Ephedrine "substances" before the game against Nigeria, Maradona, then Argentina's national team captain, was banned from international soccer (we'll call it soccer to make it easier to understand, but it should be said, at least once, that the sport's name is fútbol!). The test, conducted by University of California experts, showed multiple substances in Maradona's urine.

There were more Argentineans at the Orange Bowl than the 2000 U.S. Census says are supposed to be in Florida; Gov. Jeb Bush (right) attended with new Argentine ambassador Eduardo Amadeo
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
There were more Argentineans at the Orange Bowl than the 2000 U.S. Census says are supposed to be in Florida; Gov. Jeb Bush (right) attended with new Argentine ambassador Eduardo Amadeo

These substances are included in many cold medicines sold in stores without prescription. But in his fans' minds, Maradona wasn't being given a break. Three years before, in 1991, he was suspended for fifteen months while playing in the Italian league, after his postgame anti-doping test revealed traces of cocaine. Everybody outside Argentina thought: "Noooo! He did it again," and closed his case. The second episode was a sad ending to Diego's brilliant international career, and it happened on U.S. soil.

Before and after the incident he was a national hero, his name a symbol and war chant. Maradona was the best Argentine player of the century, and the only one comparable to Brazilian legend Pelé. Under Maradona, Argentina won its second World Cup in Mexico in 1986, and got to the second spot in Italy in 1990. All kinds of journalists and paparazzi trailed him, and his words were translated into many languages, especially when he spoke out against the powerful FIFA (International Federation of Football Association), or on international politics. His dope problem was beside the point. Argentina neededa hero. (For the past few years he's been living in Cuba, taking a lengthy cocaine cure, and befriending Castro, whose face is tattooed on his leg; Che Guevara is on his arm.)

Of course Maradona was remembered Saturday at the Orange Bowl, where more than 25,000 fans went mad while the Argentine national team beat the U.S. 1-0. "Oleeee, olé, olé, olé, Die-go! Die-go!" they screamed, as if they were back home. The chant alternated with another chorus that insisted Argentina will be world champion again. The problem is that Maradona is no longer playing. Not to mention that it's more than three years to the next World Cup. And in the meantime, coach Marcelo Bielsa is shaping a new lineup, which is making Argentina's sports press nervous because its "European" tactics (head butts and general roughhousing) are widely known by now and proven to be ineffective on the field. Especially after the 2002 Japan/Korea World Cup disaster, where Argentina -- previously hailed as one of the favorites -- was sent back home after a disappointing first round loss.

People had traveled more than an hour to be at the Orange Bowl, and the game's ridiculous noon starting time. No chance to chill before the whistle, like the "parking lot Anglos" with their steak grills and beer coolers at Dolphin games. Had organizers been thinking of Latino needs, they'd have scheduled it four hours later and doubled the audience. But hey, Argentina was in the U.S.

"I feel like I'm in Buenos Aires," complained one woman dressed, like the several hundred others seated behind the American goalie, in red, white, and blue.

"Looks like we're going to be a minority," said Steve Kellog, age seventeen, waiting in line to get his ticket. He was wearing the U.S. flag and predicted a win based on both national teams' performances in the last World Cup (Argentina quickly eliminated, and the U.S. team moving to the quarter-finals in its best performance in a long time). Steve's friend Josh Crane, age sixteen, suggested a 1-1 or 2-2 tie. Kellog was surprised at the number of Argentineans on hand. "I wasn't expecting this!" he said with a shrug, staring at the light-blue ocean of Argentine jerseys surrounding them. Someone overheard and reacted in Spanish: "Si este partido se hubiera jugado en Argentina, el 99.9 por ciento de la gente estaria vestida de azul y blanco [Had this game been in Argentina, you'd see 99.9 percent blue-and-white shirts]!"

Point is that Miami is changing its shape in the rhythm of immigration waves, and most immigrants are reluctant to admit they had no economic choice but to leave Argentina for good. So are they happy here? Or do they feel they're sleeping with the enemy?

"I wouldn't call it 'hate,' just a certain resentment," said long-time Telemundo and Univision sportscaster Norberto Longo. He's been in America for 21 years, after being jailed and censored by the military thugs ruling his home between 1976 and 1983. "That is based on the political image the U.S. has in the world, an image now part of this government's attitude.... Thisadministration does its best to be hated." Longo quickly added that the Argentineans living here don't feel the same as those back home. "[Once you get here, you see that] Americans are open, simple people."

He pointed out that there's no way to see an Argentina vs. U.S. soccer game as a cultural rivalry, like an Argentina vs. England match: "It can't happen here. The U.S. national team is like the country -- no history, no hate, no rancor -- it's just a group of athletes that play soccer well, who've evolved a lot, and are very intelligent ..."

On the day before the game, midfielder Federico Insua said the match "is only a matter of sportsmanship ... I can't think of any political connotation.... We can't go on the field having that kind of thing in mind. Especially considering this is a friendly match," with no championship ramifications.

The Falkland/Malvinas War wounded Argentina's pride far more than the IMF deadlines did (many Argentineans hold the U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund guilty of cutting off Argentina's international credit), and that's implicit in every quote involving U.S. vs. Argentina. Juan, 32, has been living here for the past ten years, and wore an Argentine jersey over a white shirt with the U.S. flag. "When you come here you tend to forget," he said of what he called his second home. "I've raised a family in Miami and I'm grateful for that, there's no political connotation about us living here, but at the same time, there's something that never washes, and it's like a rip in our heart after what the U.S. did to us in the war [backing Britain]."

Susana is 45, and has been in Miami with her family for the past three years, not enough time to forget the economic insults, as she said. "The IMF is what it is, and you never lose the Argentine idiosyncrasy ... you don't forget your political ideas, but we had to flee thanks to [1989-1999 President Carlos] Menem. Him and [ex-economy minister Domingo] Cavallo are IMF symbols in Argentina." (Both are seen as IMF/U.S. puppets there.) She added that her family is having a hard time blending into Miami. "We are really different. That's why I'm so happy today, because we're going to share [an event] full of Argentineans, same feelings, same ideology. You always miss that."

Oscar, from New Jersey, where he spent the last 20 years (he's 40), dissented from his newly arrived soccer pals about politics and sports: "When you are in Argentina, you have a different idea. Once you get out it's easier to see that we're making excuses for the corrupt Argentine system. They'll say some foreign country is robbing Argentina while the ones doing it are the delinquents in charge." His friends did not agree.

There's something about the U.S. flag in Argentina now. Every time a representative of the IMF or the American government visits Argentina, you'll see protesters burning flags, breaking windows and ATMs of U.S. banks.

"Fútbol is a passion everything else gets behind," declared Alberto, 24, who has been living in Naples for the past four years and had brought along some Argentine friends. He meant sports are an escape valve, something the Romans and Greeks figured out, and that is basically what moved the 27,196 people who paid $25 and up for tickets. Gov. Jeb Bush, escorted by Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, and the new Argentine ambassador in Washington, Eduardo Amadeo, seemed to know it too, and consequently made successful low-key entrances.

As he did last June, when Argentina played the Orange Bowl, Bush took a secure spot and watched the way Argentine immigration is shifting. Before his eyes were more Argentineans than are supposed officially to exist in the whole of Florida. (According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were almost 23,000 Argentineans in the state, and 13,341 in Miami-Dade. The audience at the Orange Bowl alone, 90 percent Argentine, doubled the estimate for Miami.)

Noemi Vayula, eighteen years in the city and a cashier at Publix, said it best: "If they hadn't canceled the visa waiver program that allowed Argentineans to come here [freely] between 1996 and 2002, by now we'd have more Argentine [residents] than Cubans." Unofficially there are many more than a hundred thousand Argentineans in Florida as a result of the economic crisis that has almost destroyed their country.

In fact the members of the Argentine team, playing at the Orange Bowl, were doing the same thing their fellow countrymen do. That is, come here and get paid in U.S. dollars. They played three games in nine days (3-1 vs. Honduras in San Pedro Sula; 1-0 vs. Mexico in Los Angeles; and 1-0 vs. U.S. in Miami) and cashed in $600,000, a slightly lower harvest compared with the $1 million they got last November to play in Japan. The bigger fees have to do with the players involved. If you want to see the "hot" Argentine players who shine week after week in the European leagues, then you'd have to pay between $500,000 and $1 million, as will happen in April, when the best players go to Libya.

Coach Bielsa looked up only once at the postgame press conference to answer the one and only question not related to the way his team played. "I was greatly surprised with the number of Argentine fans that came to see the game, and not only that, I was surprised with the way they stimulated the team," he told New Times. Maybe he was referring to a new attitude on the parts of old fans. While both teams lined up for the cameras before the game, and the national anthems were being played, the whole stadium stood up to silently listen to the American anthem. It had not even finished when a big, clamorous round of applause began. This would be impossible in Argentina, where the U.S. national anthem would be booed unmercifully. Or maybe the Argentineans just knew they were going to kick our ass this time.

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