- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2002

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina Not since Argentine strongman Juan Peron boasted that all he needed to stay in power was victory for the working man's favorite team, Boca Juniors, has so much hung on Argentine success in soccer.
Argentina's economy is in tatters, nearly half its 37 million people are struggling below the poverty line and violent protests have become a daily event.
The crisis has gotten so bad that this week national television broadcast harrowing footage of malnourished children dying of starvation in the northwestern province of Tucuman.
Amid all the despair, Argentines are clinging to a single source of hope: the national team's chances of winning soccer's greatest tournament, the World Cup.
"Media coverage of the Cup has been intense, which has added to the anticipation," said Marcelo Nogueira, deputy editor of Ole, Argentina's biggest sports newspaper.
"Sometimes it seems that an injury to a Swedish player, say, is more important than starving children in Tucuman."
It is difficult to exaggerate the strength of emotion that soccer generates in its followers, or its global popularity. Each match in the last World Cup finals, held in France in 1998, drew an average television audience of 580 million.
The final game itself pulled in a live, worldwide audience of 2 billion people, nearly one third of all humanity.
In Argentina, the game can literally be a matter of life or death. More than 150 people have died in soccer violence since the Argentine league began in the 1930s, and many supporters swear that soccer is the single most important element in their lives.
This year, Argentina's plight has prevented many of its soccer fans from visiting Japan to cheer on their side. A messy currency devaluation in January has tripled the cost of international travel, leaving just a handful able to muster the cash for the airfare to Japan.
Four years ago, in contrast, Argentina's currency was equal in value to the U.S. dollar, and thousands of supporters flew to France to watch their side progress to the quarterfinals.
To add to the sense of frustration, Japanese authorities refused to grant a visa to Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, citing his 1991 conviction for cocaine possession. Maradona was to provide commentary on key games,
Just days later, FIFA, the world soccer authority, turned down an Argentine request to retire Maradona's famous No.10 jersey in his honor.
The combination of Argentina's soccer passions with a tense political climate has left many fearing an explosion of unrest. "It sounds crazy to say it, but the situation here is so delicate that even something as marginal as the World Cup could have a huge political impact," said Rafael Ber, an analyst at Argentine Research, a political consultancy.
"The problems will come if Argentina does poorly," he said. "If we lose or perform badly, it's bound to increase people's impatience."
Expectations for an Argentine victory in the competition are rampant.
The team lost just once in 18 qualifying games, and this year it began the contest as a pre-tournament favorite.
In its opening match Sunday, Argentina beat Nigeria 1-0 in Ibaraki, Japan.
With expectations high, anything less than total victory even second place would be seen as a national failure.
Television, newspapers and magazines have talked up the team's chances so often that even the players admit that the pressure to win will be hard to overcome.
Leading companies, too, have tried to harness patriotic sentiment by running television commercials denigrating Nigeria, England and Sweden, Argentina's foes in the first run of games.
A Coca-Cola advertisement, for instance, features Nigerian villagers in mud huts dressing voodoo dolls in sky blue and white, the Argentine national colors. A commercial for Quilmes, the national brewer, flicks rapidly through controversial images from Argentina's stormy relations with Britain.
The embattled Argentine government would also dearly love to exploit the competition to distract the electorate from the country's economic woes.


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