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RIO DE JANEIRO – The World Cup is being won in an upset.
Not by the Holland team or the Brazilian government or FIFA or Ian Darke. No, None of them.
The World Cup is being won by the Argentinian fans.
This city was taken over almost immediately by large swaths of people in powder blue and white stripes. They rocked the subway cars on the way to the Maracana and then sang through the night when Messi saved their team from a surprising deadlock with Bosnia. They waved their national flag and marched down the streets robed in it, chanting and hugging all the way.
Most importantly, and most incredibly, a hearty portion of them didn’t stay in hotels or hostels or Airbnb flats. Many of them stayed on Copacabana beach. Literally – on the beach. In their cars.
A walk along the seaside here showed it: vans with mattresses in the back, decorated with Argentinian flags draping the sides. One family sat outside on a mild night last week with a pot cooking and folding chairs all around. It looked like a traditional tailgate party until an elderly gentleman opened the rear door of his van to show a mattress fitted with a blue sheet.
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That’s not where he slept, though. He slept on the mattress on top of the van.
Across the main strip, there is another van, this one painted in the national colors.
“I am not a hippie,” declared Franco Busso, 27, standing beside his 1985 Volkswagen. He bought the van, which he has named “Clarita,” for a drive from Buenos Aires to Alaska. He is raising money for the travel by selling t-shirts.
“I’ll stay here for the entire World Cup,” he said. “Maybe I’ll start working at a bar.”
Down by the sand, there were more examples. One Argentinian stood beside a cooler. He was selling beer. He held up a national team jersey. He was selling that, too.
Then there was the group of fans who built a shrine to team hero Lionel Messi as a tribute to the famous statue of Christ looking over the city. “Messi El Redentor,” they called it. Messi The Redeemer.
Estimates of the number of Argentinians here vary from impressive – 40,000 – to preposterous – 500,000. The point is this: it feels like the whole city is made up of fans of Brazil’s biggest rivals. They are boisterous without badgering. They are proud without primping. They are Steelers fans with much better songs. And if their team wins the Cup on Brazilian soil?
“Third-world war starts,” Busso said. “Seriously. I’d have to hide my car.”
For now there is no conflict, only celebration. The Brazilians have been welcoming. By the water, two Argentinian fans played soccer with a Brazilian fan. It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a knockout match.
Yes, there are bathrooms and showers along the beach (for a fee). And the weather is nice: not too hot in the daytime and not too cool at night. But let’s face it: how many American fans would go to this extreme for their team?
Part of the backdrop to this is sad. Argentina has struggled mightily in past years. It defaulted on $93 billion in debt in 2001 and there are reports it may happen again. The nation’s stock market tumbled 10 percent last Monday alone. When asked about the situation back home, many of the fans’ expressions turn dark and their expressions fade.
“If we win the World Cup, it would be a good thing for my country,” Busso said. “You see people here drinking and celebrating. But in Argentina there are a lot of people suffering.”
That makes the scene here more poignant, but also more uplifting: This summer of joy, in a place that’s a three-hour flight or, in these cases, a couple days’ drive. The team is at its peak, with Messi in his prime, Sergio Aguero still only 26, and goalie Sergio Romero looking surprisingly good. The World Cup site may never be drivable again for these people, and it may never be as winnable again for this national team. At least not for a while.
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So this is it – the party of a lifetime. There aren’t many nerves, not with only Iran and Nigeria standing in the way of Messi’s gang in the group stage. So there is reason to stick around, enjoy the beach, and gather. Many if not most of these visitors don’t have tickets to the matches. That’s OK. They can say they were in Brazil – on the Copa for the Copa.
Life back home is tough. The future is unclear. But here, in this place, during this fortnight, they are all undefeated.