DOHA, Qatar (AP)From a soccer-crazed country known for its world-class players and its repeated economic crises, Argentine fans are making great sacrifices to be in Qatar to see their team try to win the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
Passionate and noisy, the euphoria in Doha has grown to the rhythm of ”Muchachos” – the unofficial anthem of the fans – and with each victory of Lionel Messi and his team ahead of Sunday’s final against defending champion France.
In a corner of the Souq Waqif bazaar in the capital, locals and tourists gathered around a young woman clad in the Argentine sky blue-and-white stripped jersey juggling a ball with her feet. In a hand-written banner in English and Arabic, she asks for tickets to the World Cup final at Lusail Stadium. Passersby leave change on a hat placed on the ground.
”Soccer for me is everything,” said 24-year-old Belen Godoy, who has been in Doha for a month and attended nearly every Argentina game by buying resale tickets.
”I left my family. I spent all my savings,” she said. ”I’ll return to Buenos Aires and I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent … but no one can take away what I’ve lived.”
Nearby, Cristian Machinelli walked along one of the winding cobbled alleys of the labyrinthine bazaar draped in an Argentina flag decorated with images of Messi and late soccer great Diego Maradona kissing the World Cup trophy.
Maradona led the team to its last World Cup title, in 1986.
”I sold a Toyota truck for this,” the 34-year-old Machinelli said. ”It’s what I’ve been spending here so far, and I have enough left to buy the ticket to the final. There’s no explanation, no reasoning, except that we Argentines are just crazy about soccer, and we’ll do any craziness to support (the team).”
There are no official numbers on how many Argentine fans have traveled to Qatar. Not all of them come from Argentina, however, with many living in Europe and the United States.
Although not always the majority in the stands, the fans’ encouragment during matches – chants accompanied by drums – seemed to help their team at crucial moments.
”When we lost against Saudi Arabia (in the first game) the people were behind us. We felt everyone’s support and that is matchless,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said. ”We’re all rooting for for the same side. We all want the common good – we’re all fans of the sky blue and white.”
Argentine fan Julian Santander attended that first game against Saudi Arabia at Lusail Stadium wearing a team jersey. His friends said he had brought the team back luck.
”I went to see Spain against Costa Rica. I have the Spain shirt because of my Spanish family, and they ended up winning 7-0. A friend told me to leave it on for Argentina,” the 23-year-old Santander said.
Since then, he has been rooting for Messi and Co. while wearing Spain’s red national team shirt.
After the first loss, Santander’s father, Osvaldo, also changed his wardrobe for Argentina’s crucial match against Mexico. He wore a black replica of a shirt worn by one of the Argentina goalkeepers during the 2014 World Cup.
”I was in mourning,” the 57-year-old Osvaldo Santander said. ”We sacrificed jobs, studies, life, so much for our passion and they were sending us back home. Things turned around and now we’re just three days from a moment that who knows how it will play out.”
Reaching the World Cup final brought much-needed relief to a country mired in a bruising economic crisis with one of the world’s highest inflation rates and growing poverty rates.
”The plane and match tickets are very expensive. We’ve made a lot of efforts to be here,” Argentine fan Viviana Rodriguez said. ”Argentina is going through such a difficult time politically and economically. Everything is 10 times more expensive.”
The 53-year-old Rodriguez and her son, 20-year-old Lautaro Longhi, joined a demonstration in Doha to ask FIFA for fair ticket prices for the final because resale options are selling for several times face value.
”They’re asking for the equivalent of a brand new car for a ticket. It’s a fortune,” Longhi said, worried that he might miss out on watching Messi lift the trophy.
In essence, every Argentine fan in Qatar feels as important as the 11 players on the field.
”It would be a good way to give closure to a life, although I don’t want to be apocalyptic,” Osvaldo Santander said. ”As a fan, I’ve done all that I had to do – I traveled, I left loved ones behind, I spent a ton of money, I fought for the tickets. That’s what we’re here for.”
Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report.
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