A rooftop bar in Doha, packed with an international crowd: Saudis, Croats, Lebanese, Moroccans, Americans, Iranians, Japanese, Australians – and a few Mexicans and Argentines who evidently haven’t been able to get tickets for the match.
Argentina v Mexico is a terrible game, one of the worst of the tournament so far. Both teams are buckling under the pressure and have forgotten how to play football. Unable to kick the ball where they need it to go, they kick each other instead. Messi is marked out of the game.
Waiters wriggle through the crowded bar collecting glasses and distributing shisha pipes. On the field, nothing is happening. Attention drifts. Snatches of conversation cut through the lulls. An American voice nearby boasts: " . . .and so, I invested it all in real estate . . .”
I turn around to get a look at the great businessman – might it be Jared Kushner, just returned from France v Denmark? – and in the process miss Angel di María’s pass to Messi and Messi’s first touch that sets up the shot. I turn back around just in time to see the ball skidding into the bottom corner. Except for a couple of slumping Mexicans, everyone in the place goes crazy.
You usually expect at least some neutrals to side with the underdog but it’s clear that everyone here who isn’t Mexican is with Argentina. It reflects my wider experience around this World Cup. Most of my friends want Argentina to win it.
Only the other South American nations, where Argentina is widely regarded as the most arrogant and objectionable rival, seem immune to their charms. Somehow they have become the world’s team – supplanting Brazil, who for decades were regarded as the most popular country at the World Cup.
What is it about these guys?
The obvious answer is that people love this Argentina side because they love Messi and want to see him finally win the big one at his last attempt. Mixed with the old awe and hero worship there’s also a kind of sympathy for an ageing player who can only summon his old powers in bursts, and a gratitude for what he has given the game.
Messi is no longer the best player in the world or in this tournament – that’s Kylian Mbappé. Nor is he the only great player here with a world fanbase built up over nearly 20 years – Cristiano Ronaldo is equal in fame. But Mbappé has not yet made the world France, and hardly anyone outside of Portugal is paying Ronaldo any attention.
Robert Lewandowski and Kevin de Bruyne are more important players than Messi at the top of club football, and if they were to inspire their countries to the World Cup it would be an even more amazing story than were Messi to do it for his. But crowds at public viewings in Bangladesh aren’t losing their minds for goals by Poland or Belgium.
It’s because there is more to Argentina’s appeal than Messi. This is the country that has given the World Cup its defining player and its most unforgettable images. Diego Maradona’s glorious campaign of 1986 is still the highest peak any footballer has achieved. As Messi and Fernandez scored on Saturday night, millions of people around the world were thinking: I wish Diego was there to see this.
Argentina took 90 minutes to emerge from their dressing room after beating Mexico, meaning their celebrations went on almost as long as the game.
A video emerged of the jubilant team singing their tournament song, “Muchachos”, with its lyrics celebrating the defeat of the “Brazucas” in the Copa America and invoking the image of Maradona looking down from heaven with his parents Don Diego and La Tota, cheering on Messi and the boys.
To a certain mentality this behaviour is ridiculous and even embarrassing. Well done Argentina, you’ve just won game two of a possible seven. All you’ve done tonight is given yourself a chance – and it’s still just a chance – of playing a fourth game in this tournament. You haven’t won anything yet, so don’t get carried away. Get showered, get dressed, get on the bus, move on.
But for Argentina, getting carried away is the whole point of football. The game means nothing without the feelings we invest in it. In Argentina they feel it more intensely than anyone and football means more than anywhere else.
It’s hard to imagine Gareth Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland shaking with tears after an England goal in a group match, as Pablo Aimár did on Argentina’s bench after Messi’s goal.
“We should have a little more common sense, and think that it is just a football game . . . we need to maintain balance,” coach Lionel Scaloni said afterwards, but he was whispering into a gale. To cast reason aside, to plunge willingly into hysteria: that’s what football in Argentina is all about.
The discussion of national football cultures, once a staple of World Cup coverage, is increasingly fraught, as Jurgen Klinsmann discovered when his comments on BBC to the effect that gamesmanship and pressuring the ref are “in the culture” of Iranian players provoked a hostile response on social media and a furious riposte from Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz.
Klinsmann’s analysis was reductive and essentialist, but we shouldn’t pretend national cultures don’t exist. Klinsmann’s compatriot, Ilkay Gundogan, told the Spanish newspaper El País over the weekend that growing up in Germany he was conditioned to play simple, team-oriented football, partly by his own personality (“simple, strict, quiet”) but mainly by the social environment.
“As a child, if you dribble, you risk having the coach yell at you: “Play simple! Don’t do crazy things!” [and] it’s not only the coach. You hear your teammates, your family members, and your teammates’ families yelling at you from the sidelines: “Why do you do these complicated things?” That’s how it is in Germany. Is it right? I don’t know.
“I don’t do the mad things Ronaldinho would do at Barça. But they don’t suit me, nor would I feel calm if they were done by my teammates, even if dribbling works well for them. This is part of the German DNA. Here everything revolves around the team, never the individual.”
That ingrained dedication to simplicity and collectivism explains both why Germany have won four World Cups and why they don’t have that many fans outside Germany.
There is something about hysterical Argentinians, with tears rolling down their faces, that is more engaging to outsiders than the sight of calmly confident Germans treating triumph and disaster just the same.
These Argentinians, with their complex sad-happy chants, their rhythmically pulsing flags and scarfs, their wild lurching between mania and despair – and not forgetting their genius number 10s – they present an ideal of how to live football at its craziest, its most vivid, its most intense. Who wouldn’t look at them and think, I’ll have what they’re having?