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Argentina: Still Bipolar

A contribution from Vinod Sreeharsha, an American freelance journalist who has written about Latin America for McClatchy News, the Miami Herald, and the New York Times.

BUENOS AIRES—The ups and downs of the past 24 hours here have been brutal, saddening, and well, very Argentine. The knives will likely come out now for Diego Maradona as quickly as the flurry of mea culpas came in during the days leading up to today's match with Germany. Not full mea culpas mind you, but the extent to which you will come across one at all among Argentina's leaders, in politics, business, and most definitely the media—more like rationalizing. 

I have watched Argentine journalists on television grovel to Maradona during his numerous press conferences leading up to today, thinking that would make amends for their brutal criticism last year. And that they would get back on his good side just in time for his re-christening. Argentine friends of mine have suggested Maradona critics apologize. Several emailed Rob Hughes' New York Times story from yesterday, perhaps as a template.

The pro-government state run television channel repeatedly ran clips of opposition figures criticizing Maradona last year, and even suggested a correlation between the level of play and the state of the country. I think they might now re-consider that.

At risk of stating the obvious, El Diez was not nearly as bad a coach or person as the Argentine media made him out to be last year. But nor did he suddenly transform into a coaching genius in the past three weeks. 

This is an example where football is not just a game. The treatment of Maradona here exemplifies one of the greatest frustrations of doing anything in Argentina, in particular for Argentines. That it’s a country and society for the most part, at least among its leaders in all walks of life, incapable of, or at least unwilling to engage in nuanced thought. There are never any shades of gray in Argentina. So the country continues to go in circles, on and off the pitch.

In contrast, just look at tiny neighbor Uruguay. It has not just reached the semi-finals. It’s first socialist president met with U.S. President George W. Bush in 2007 and signed a TIFA (a trade and foreign investment agreement)—how’s that for nuance. And it’s a country increasingly respected overseas, not just by the U.S. 

During the 90s, Argentina enacted “convertibility,” a measure that pegged the peso to the dollar. It was supposed to be temporary as it was artificial and unsustainable. Yet once Argentines enjoyed their suddenly increasing purchasing power, political leaders refused to disband it. 

The country at the same time opened up to privatization, but it privatized everything. 

Watching the Argentina-Mexico game reminded me of the 90s. A win on the scoreboard, instant gratification, but the team looked terrible in my opinion, lacking structure. Yet few questioned albiceleste and Maradona in fact used the same starting line-up today. 

Today's debacle at the hands of the Germans may be the football version of the financial collapse in 2001, the result of the country’s policies in the 90s and the unwillingness to modify them.

During the past decade here, everyone has become an “anti-neoliberal.” President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has even said if you disagree with any of her policies to stand for elections in 2011. No meeting anyone half-way or even a third of the way until then. 

Argentina captain Javier Mascherano described the country in a nutshell (although his intention was not to offer political analysis) after one of the early wins, when expectations started to skyrocket here. He said in a press conference that, “We all know how we are as Argentines. We do not have an equilibrium. We go from one extreme to another, very fast.” He added that, “We all just have to take a cold shower.”

This has been the case even on a micro-level within this so-called anti-neoliberal model. When Chinese president Hu Jintao visited here in 2004, the Argentine government leaked to a dutiful press that China was about to invest $20 billion in one year in Argentina and pay off part of its debt. The press ran with the story despite its absurdity. It turned out that the Chinese had never promised any such thing, or anything even close. In the following days when this was revealed, one Argentine told me that, “you just cannot trust Orientales.” And Argentina-China relations never recovered. Within days, China went from being Argentina's savior to anyone west of Europe having dubious credibility.

What’s most frustrating is that its the same political, business, and media leaders going from one pole to another. For example, Nestor Kirchner's first vice-president was an ally of Carlos Menem. Kirchner himself had praised Menem in the 90s when he was governor. 

So now get ready to watch Maradona critics, quickly-turned admires, go back to taking out the knives again. But I'm quite sure El Diez will rise again.