Politics and the PressSaturday, July 12, 2014
The final and the jinx
For The Herald
While Argentines hold their breath for their biggest sporting event in the last quarter century, politicos are getting a quick break from their daily wrangling and the media seem happy to play to the tune of national glory for a change. How long the song will last, one can only guess.
But presidents never get a rest. Three of the most powerful women on Earth have the chance of meeting in Rio de Janeiro for the FIFA World Cup Final but President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner declined the invitation extended to her by her Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff to also join her and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the climax of the oft-chauvinist “beautiful game.”
Cristina Fernández cited health reasons for not flying to the final, even though she is actually travelling to Brazil next week to attend a meeting of the BRICS group of nations with the Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Chinese and South African heads of states (Vladimir Putin is expected to show up at the Maracanã stadium for the match on Sunday, after a quick visit to Buenos Aires). She also told Rousseff in a letter that she wanted to attend her grandchild’s birthday in the Patagonian town of Río Gallegos on Monday. And yet it would be plausible to imagine that the president may have made public opinion calculations when defining her itinerary.
The public atmosphere in Argentina suddenly became too sunny for a political cloud to come any close. Presidents in the past have been stigmatized for not bringing national teams any luck. Tiny a thought as it may sound, Cristina Fernández might not want to expose herself to a defeat at a time her administration is facing a hardship or two. Nobody wants to be the next jinx.
History shows that even if Messi and friends clinch the Cup tomorrow, the public may be mature enough to tell game from reality, and that the avalanche of optimism will hardly last enough to, 1. hush the country’s economic problems away and, 2. reinforce the standing of the ruling party. In 1986, Maradona’s Argentina won the Cup in Mexico but the embattled economy of the time only picked up briefly in the quarter that followed the tournament only to go back to stagnation shortly afterwards. The following year, the government of then president Raúl Alfonsín lost key congressional elections to begin a slow but steady decline to a traumatic political end. History never repeats itself but delivers some hints.
The publics of the world – in a world where Nation-States still rule supreme – are trapped in the circles of their own opinion and agendas. Events like the World Cup only feature this dangerously strong localism to its fullest. In Brazil, the World Cup was designed to confirm the country’s membership to the club of powerful and influential nations. But from the prelude (street protests) to the deluge (7-1 defeat to Germany in this week’s semifinal), the country is now immersed in an unexpected state of soul-searching. “The football nation will survive today’s nightmare. But the massacre… does not only hurt our sporting myth but also signals the end of an era in which country and stadium, people and fans, coaches and governors, Nation and team were seen as one and the same thing,” wrote an editorial in Folha de Sao Paulo written when the Nation was still choking on the German goals.
President Rousseff, who is seeking re-election in October, is no exception. But her reflection was less about long-term visions than about short-term shock. Rousseff has seen her approval ratings going slightly up since the tournament started but the effect of the traumatic Brazilian exit is still tough to gauge. She quickly came out on the offensive, saying that, "People must understand that, against all odds, Brazil organized and hosted a World Cup that I consider one of the best.” And she added, in an interview with CNN, that Brazil has a “rather peculiar characteristic: we grow in the face of adversity” and that “reacting to a defeat is the sign of a great nation.” Spin lesson number one: try to turn bad into good.
Meanwhile in Berlin, Merkel did not hesitate about flying down to Rio for the final. “Our national team is an ambassador for Germany, particularly now at this World Cup… and I am also a fan, like millions of other people,” she said. The chancellor lines up with the general mood in Germany’s press that their team will win – no matter what. “Three reasons why Germany will win the Cup,” reads a headline in the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle: ruthless professionalism, a “new-old formation” and the “best form” of players and team. German Midfielder Sami Khedira once said in the past that Merkel “seems to bring us luck.”
Cristina Fernández’s World Cup silence is a sign that politics can get fairly uncivilized in Argentina, especially at a time when the economy is struggling as the country toys with its second default in just over a decade and the vice-president faces allegations of corruption in court. The massive football celebration seems more like a break than a change of the tides in the public’s mood.