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Argentina: More interested in Messi than human rights

November 22, 2022

Criticism of the World Cup in Qatar is widespread in Europe — unlike in Argentina, whose team lost to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. There seems to be only one topic in the country: Will Lionel Messi and his team finally win?

Man, shouting,  holds up a blue scarf with the name Lionel Messi
Fans adore Lionel MessiImage: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

While most bars in Germany have chosen to boycott the World Cup in Qatar and not show the matches because of the human rights situation there, as well as various FIFA scandals, an Argentine lawyer has chosen a different battle: Osvaldo Perello is suing the Italian trading card company Panini for the equivalent of € 90,000 ($92,320) in damages on behalf of his son, an avid soccer fan.

Perello has charged the company with ill will, and with causing immeasurable damage to children because Panini continues to distribute sticker albums, but provides fewer stickers. The coveted "figuritas" are hard to come by anywhere Argentina, Perello has said, likening the country to a Panini desert.

Panini stickers of various soccer players, including Lionel Messi.
Landing a Messi sticker is like winning the jackpot Image: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Those who land a sticker of superstar Lionel Messi are in luck, like the US ambassador in Buenos Aires for instance.

Whereas a regular sticker might go for the equivalent of €20 on the black market, a "Messi gold legend extra card" can be worth a whopping €400 to some collectors. 

Argentina hopes to triumph a third time 

Messi instead of human rights, Panini stickers instead of protests, enthusiasm instead of boycotts — much of Argentina is currently caught up in a collective state of "Messimania." More than 45 million people are rooting for the world's best soccer player, whose aim is to finally help his team win the much longed-for first World Cup title at his last  tournament.

Boy with a jersey that has the number 10 and the name Messi leans on a counter
Messi has fans all over the world, including in DohaImage: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Very few people refuse to be part of this huge wave of euphoria explains Gabriel Salvia, a former journalist who heads Argentina's Cadal human rights agency. Once a ball boy for Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires, he also cheered for the late Argentine legend Diego Armando Maradona 40 years ago: "Many Argentines are only interested in sporting success, they see the World Cup as a welcome change from everyday life with its economic misery and high inflation. Furthermore, there is little awareness in Argentina that human rights are universal, and not applicable only here."

Argentine soccer association stays mum

Cadal was the first in the country to draw attention to the situation of migrant workers in Qatar ahead of the World Cup. Salvia approached soccer associations around the world in the name of his "La pelota no se mancha" ("Football will not be soiled") initiative — including AFA, the Argentine Football Association. The outcome was disappointing, he says.

Gabriel Salvia, Director of Cadal.
Gabriel Salvia: "The Argentines experience soccer with incredible fervor, maybe a little too much"Image: Cadal

"As a symbolic gesture,we proposed that all the players wear a black armband to commemorate the many people who died during the construction of the stadiums," he says. "The European federations responded to us, the Netherlands even did so in great detail — while the AFA didn't deign to write us a single line."

1978 World Cup in Argentina under junta rule

It is ironic that Argentina, which caused the biggest fall from grace in the history of world soccer with the 1978 World Cup, should be so strangely silent concerning protests against the World Cup in Qatar. Ahead of the World Cup 44 years ago, the Argentine junta tortured and disappeared members of the opposition. Some were thrown out of planes above the Atlantic. The rulers responded cynically to criticism from human rights organizations by touting slogans like "Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos" (Argentines are right and humane).

The biggest torture center, the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), was just a stone's throw from the River Plate stadium. Some prisoners heard every single goal cheer before being tortured with electric shocks by their tormentors, who were in a victorious mood. In the end, the 3:1 victory over the Netherlands in the final was also a victory for dictator Jorge Videla and his cronies. He was forced to relinquish power in 1981 but the junta only fell in 1983, after Argentina lost the Falklands War.

Jorge Rafael Videla, 1977, man in uniform, saluting
"As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure," junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla said in 1975Image: Eduardo di Baia/AP/picture alliance

"The junta used the World Cup as a tool of international propaganda, while state terrorism disappeared people," Salvia says, arguing that Argentina should be much more aware of human rights violations. "The fact that this is not the case says a lot about our democratic culture."

Little criticism of Qatar in Latin American countries

Argentina is not the only country single-mindedly focused on soccer — the situation of migrant workers, the LGBTQ+ community, and of women in Qatar are not top priority in other Latin American World Cup countries, including Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Costa Rica. While in Serbia and Croatia, some soccer fans have shown surprise at the high moral standards in Germany. That's why Gabriel Salvia is rooting for the German team — and not for his compatriot Lionel Messi.

"I was born in Buenos Aires, but as a defender of human rights I feel that the world champion should be a team that is in some way committed to human rights and has addresed the situation in Qatar. Germany, Denmark, England or, for all I care, Australia."

This article was originally written in German.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.