The Aleph is a short story by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. According to the story, the Aleph is a point in space that contains all possible points, the history of the universe condensed into one place and in an instant. Yet, when trying to describe Argentina, it is impossible to recreate an Aleph that contains its entire political history in one place and at one point in time. In 2023, the country will achieve 40 uninterrupted years of democracy, and is the first country in the world to prosecute its last civic-military dictatorship with its 1985 trial of the juntas, masterfully represented in the film Argentina,1985 by Santiago Mitre. But what would have been worthy of a scene from a biblical blockbuster took place in Argentina last December with its third World Cup victory: five million people peacefully singing, celebrating and partying in the streets in its capital, Buenos Aires.
In this country in the remote south of the world, an unassuming well-mannered, extremely talented man of few words was born: Lionel Andrés Messi. José Luis Juresa, Argentine psychoanalyst, acclaimed author and 2013 winner of the Lucien Freud Prize, had something to say about why throngs of Argentines came out to celebrate in the streets of the capital. In an interview with the Buenos Aires Times, he explores whether Messi could be the figure that unites people despite social and political differences.
Today Argentina has a presidential system, similar to the United States. But 200 years ago, heroes of Argentine independence such as San Martín and Belgrano defended the idea of a constitutional monarchy; they understood that the South American region needed a royal family to avoid abuses by tyrannical politicians, and to prevent the polarisation of society. Although this never transpired, these days it could be argued that Messi is similar to the king that San Martín and Belgrano dreamed of, the only person capable of uniting rich and poor, the left and the right, Peronists and anti-Peronists. Messi not only unites people of different political parties and with different ideological orientations but also from different generations, including those who have witnessed six coup d’états from 1930 to 1976 and those who have only known democracy. “Paradoxes are extraordinary forms of fiction: Borges enjoys the intellectual pleasures of the paradox”, writes Beatriz Sarlo in Borges: A Writer on the Edge. Messi's paradox is being the only Argentine person alive who is praised by the extremes of the social and political rift. Neither Pope Francisco, criticised by sectors of anti-Peronism, nor Queen Maxima, criticised by sectors of Peronism, achieve this. King Messi.
Juresa wrote on Twitter: “Four million people to welcome the team. Constitutional football monarchy with Messi as king, and we overcame the political gap.” What did he mean by that tweet? Juresa explains: “What I wrote is quite funny, a kind of joke; it is a way of realising the relief that is felt when, at least for an illusory moment, what we have been stuck in for years — the so-called ‘gap’ — which has been exacerbated in recent years, seems to have been surmounted. Civilisation or barbarism, the idea thought up by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a writer and former Argentine president between 1868 and 1874, seems like an almost childish slogan to address the complex problems of society. But it is repeated, over and over again."
Why did San Martín defend the idea of a king for Argentina? Juresa believes that in a desolate, battle-scarred territory, lacking any identity, it was necessary to create a symbol of unity to generate the illusion of a cause. In his view, a constitutional monarchy would have been a strong symbol of identity from which differences could be settled: a "third party" to bridge the differences and discussions of the most tyrannical of tyrants: to dissolve this dichotomy of “civilisation or barbarism,” and any of its variants.
Today Messi is the only person who has 46 million Argentines at his feet. He has managed to get both Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Mauricio Macri, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, to express their admiration and support. Messi is the only one who could make former presidents, the Supreme Court of Justice, the heads of legislative blocs of each political party, businessmen and union leaders to sit at the same table. On Setpember 1, an extreme right-wing group tried to take the life of Fernández de Kirchner, the former president and current vice-president of the country. After the episode, the current president Alberto Fernández spoke on the national network and blamed the assassination attempt on the opposition and government-critical media. He then called for a Catholic Mass for peace and fraternity of Argentines. This took place, but was not attended by any opposition leaders. If Messi had wanted that Mass to happen, everyone would have attended, regardless of party distinctions.
Could a king like Messi, loved by millions, solve Argentina’s political malaise and bring people together? Juresa points out that no-one alone can solve our problems, which would equate to holding onto the illusion of a saviour, of someone who could keep us children forever. As he explains, a child hopes to grow up, make their own decisions and stop being subjected to the whims, needs and desires of adults. His conclusion: “Messi does not solve anything; he simply holds a symbol that condenses the roundness of the world: the ball.” In other words, he provides us with a comforting sense of social coherence.
The day after the match, five million Argentines were shouting their World Cup chant: “Guys, now we’ve got our hopes up again! We want to win the third World Cup, we want to be the world champions.” After 36 years, this victory of the team coached by Lionel Scaloni made the Argentine people erupt with happiness after a gloomy economic year with 95 percent inflation, 30 percent of workers below the breadline, 43 percent of the population in poverty, and four years of wage stagnation since the last devaluation of the Mauricio Macri government in 2018. Juresa feels that Argentina’s victory managed to unite all expectations and hopes into one element: the desire for happiness, providing a respite from the sacrifices that people have had to make due to the continued economic crisis. He believes that a monarchy is a form of self-delusion which sustains something more important: a symbol of unity in diversity. The “King Messi” phenomenon, he says, has shown that it is possible to live with differences to a degree far greater than previously imagined: civilisation, co-existence, but without Sarmiento’s counterpart of barbarism.
There are obvious similarities between the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebration and the five million who turned out to show their devotion to Messi. Journalist Pola Oloixarac posed an interesting question: could the Argentine National Team function as the equivalent of the British monarchy in England? Juresa’s response to this question is that: “It is not the national team itself, but the figure of an idol like Messi by means of a game that transcends and excites all social and cultural classes.” He adds that Messi, a figure of almost absolute consensus, serves to prevent violence, which was why a mass celebration - albeit with some alcoholic excesses – took place without any major incidents. “Preventing violence is the essential character of the political and Messi achieved this,” explains Juresa.
The week following the World Cup victory was full of images of love and generosity, as if Messi had brought out the best of being Argentine. People were seen giving food and water to fans who were celebrating the victory of the national team, joyously singing the national anthem. A child climbing onto a roof, who was about to fall, was rescued thanks to the help of strangers, who saved his life. Distant relatives were reunited and ex-partners, who had not spoken to each other for years, decided to spend Christmas together with their children. A homeless cardboard collector was seen breaking down in tears when he was given the team’s t-shirt after being hugged by a stranger. It was as if Blanche Dubois' famous words about the kindness of strangers had come true. Juresa thinks that joy represents a clear unsatisfied demand among Argentines. What happened was something unforeseen, a transient feeling that life is good, an outpouring of goodwill and happiness which will remain indelibly stamped on the country's collective memory. He also highlights that it is something politics does not know how to channel due to party polarisation.
But despite Messi’s indisputable popularity, Juresa is convinced that he is neither a king nor a messiah, unlike the stereotype of Maradona with his omnipotent attitude. Rather than a great saviour providing a panacea for all Argentina’s problems, he accepts that Messi represents an idol, but one of flesh and blood. Messi might be content to be called “the son of God”, he says, something more real, that can help us realise that working a little more as a team matters.
by Ramiro Gamboa