A Messi country: Argentina's Jews celebrate World Cup victory

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Despite a history of antisemitic incidents, Argentina’s Jewish community joined in the national celebrations

 ARGENTINA FANS gather at Buenos Aires’s Obelisk after the World Cup victory parade was canceled, earlier this week.  (photo credit: MARIANA NEDELCU/REUTERS)
ARGENTINA FANS gather at Buenos Aires’s Obelisk after the World Cup victory parade was canceled, earlier this week.
(photo credit: MARIANA NEDELCU/REUTERS)

BUENOS AIRES – In Daniel Silicaro’s house, the Hanukkah candles radiate a warm and special light. He is singing out loud in front of the hanukkiah, but he is not alone. He is accompanied by his wife and seven Israelis who finished the army a few months ago and are touring Argentina.

Silicaro met them just a day before in the streets of Buenos Aires, during the celebration for Argentina’s World Cup victory. Silicaro was taking some pictures to portray the Argentineans’ extreme happiness, and he found himself chanting songs with unknown people. A few minutes later, he realized that those “unknown” people were Israeli Jews. Like many foreigners, they were just as excited as the Argentineans, celebrating as if they themselves had won the World Cup.

But the Israelis became even happier when Silicaro told them he was Jewish, and he invited them to light the hanukkiah at his house. The following night, they all lit the candles together, and sang Argentinean football songs too. Silicaro’s windows reflected not only the hanukkiah, but also a new friendship.

Jews in Argentina experienced the World Cup tournament in very different ways.

Many gathered with their families and lived it passionately. Others, even though they’re not football fans, joined the celebrations as a way of being grateful for the opportunities Argentina has given to the Jewish community.

Flag of Argentina (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Flag of Argentina (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But an unexpected issue arose when observant Jews realized that two of the matches were going to be played on Shabbat. Some of them really wanted to see them, but their convictions were stronger. 

They didn’t turn on the TV on Saturday, instead, they stood up on their balconies, waiting to hear their neighbors shouting. That’s how they found out the results. They celebrated with big hugs, but with no cellphones, no cameras and no TV. 

Moises, for example, who loves the Beautiful Game, said he watched every single match, but not on Shabbat.

“I was convinced that the World Cup clearly can’t compete with the importance of Shabbat, so I kept my TV off. Although I’m a football fan, my belief in Torah is unbreakable.”

One match was played early on a weekday morning. That’s why some Jews – like Moises – woke up earlier than usual to say their prayers, so as to be able to watch the game without missing Shaharit.

Axel is also an observant Jew and a soccer fan, who organizes activities for teenagers in a synagogue. 

“During both matches played on Shabbat, me and the teenage boys were nervous. But we all knew that Shabbat is non-negotiable. We found out the results by hearing the shouts that came from the streets.” 

He said that throughout the tournament he tried hard to keep calm, even more during the final. That Sunday, he had one of his Torah classes, but he decided not to postpone it, meaning he could only start watching from the second half. It was really hard for him to concentrate, but he was convinced that the World Cup is not the central aspect of his life, and that Torah studies were more important for him than a soccer match.

In the words of Jewish politician Waldo Wolff, “The Jewish community is made up of many individualities and surely each one experienced the tournament in their own way, but in general terms, Jewish Argentineans enjoyed (and suffered through) the World Cup. The work, discipline, camaraderie, respect and strategic planning of the Argentinean team were highly valued as a lesson.”

Furthermore, Eliahu Hamra, the main rabbi of AMIA (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association), highlighted that during these last few days, there was an atmosphere of brotherhood and union in the country. He also said that the national team had set an example of perseverance and teamwork, which is important to pass down, especially to the younger generations.

Some people linked Argentina’s matches to the lessons of Hanukkah.

Both stories are about a group of people with strong convictions that made great efforts to fulfill a clear objective. Despite the significant differences (in the Hanukkah story, Jews’ lives were in danger), they all had to go through difficult times and they had to face threatening opponents, but nothing stopped them from reaching their goal, because their beliefs were stronger than their fears. And that’s how miracles happen.

In this sense, head of Chabad Lubavitch in Argentina Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt said: “This week, we Jewish people saw how the efforts are rewarded with God’s blessing. This victory teaches us, once more, that we need to take risks, but not only in football. We need to do everything we can to give children a Jewish education, we must endeavor to help Jewish families, and that’s also the main teaching of Hanukkah’s strength.”

“This week, we Jewish people saw how the efforts are rewarded with God’s blessing. This victory teaches us, once more, that we need to take risks, but not only in football. We need to do everything we can to give children a Jewish education, we must endeavor to help Jewish families, and that’s also the main teaching of Hanukkah’s strength.”

Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt

The same day the players were going to celebrate their triumph in the center of Buenos Aires, Chabad organized a big Hanukkah event. There were millions in the streets waiting to see Messi and his comrades, and traffic was a disaster, so it seemed impossible for the Jewish community to get to the Hanukkah event. 

But with help from the “hand of God,” because of security reasons, the government and the Argentine Football Association decided that the team would abandon its parade route, and the players were instead taken on helicopters to fly across the city. Shortly after that, the streets cleared up and the community arrived in time for the Chabad event. Grunblatt describes that as “another miracle.”

FORTUNATELY, THERE were no episodes of discrimination during the whole tournament. This World Cup, led by Lionel Messi, united all citizens. There was no confrontation between ideologies, and there were no differences between social classes.

What’s more, something special happened during the massive celebrations: among the crowd, young Jews helped put tefillin on Jewish men. Every religious practice was completely respected. According to Rabbi Hamra, Argentina is well known for its passion for football, but it has also become a great symbol of cultural diversity and integration of different communities.

Ever since the final whistle, it’s been a constant celebration. On Sunday afternoon, when Argentina won, millions flocked to the streets to share the joy. It was a big spontaneous party, full of families and children. Messi’s face was on almost every shirt, flag and poster. Football songs sounded aloud, and plenty of dances could be seen in the middle of large avenues, preventing the cars from passing by. 

At night, the situation changed. During the celebrations, thousands of people, already drunk, climbed on top of the roofs of bus stops, on top of traffic lights and on top of street lamps. Others even trespassed onto the property of the Obelisk – which commemorates the founding of the city – and climbed on it. Everything went out of control, to such an extent that there were injured people and even a death.

Something similar happened on Tuesday, when the players arrived in Buenos Aires and were welcomed by immense crowds. The government declared the day a national holiday so that the country could “express their deepest joy for the national team.” 

Almost 5 million people lined the streets as the players toured the city on an open-top bus, which intended to get to the heart of the capital. But it turned out to be impossible, because of the extreme number of fans that filled the streets. 

Something to highlight is the fact that the team refused to go to the Casa Rosada (House of Government) to lift the trophy, as Diego Maradona did in 1986. Instead, this time the players decided to keep the triumph away from politics and ideological leanings.

World Cup victory distracts from Argentina's internal problems

The whole celebration, and the massive excitement, seem to have covered up the problems Argentina is facing regarding its economy and politics. Just to name a few, inflation is high, the number of robberies is increasing, there is a significant shortage in education and work positions, and earlier this month, Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was convicted of corruption charges, which she plans to appeal. 

In the history of the country, every time Argentina won a World Cup, the massive celebrations helped to cover up different problems – even more serious than the current ones, like in 1978 during the military dictatorship. That’s why some residents insist on not ignoring the challenges the country is currently facing. 

As for the Jewish community, despite enjoying the soccer success, it’s not indifferent to the circumstances that the country is going through.

Congressman Wolff considers the economic and political problems worrisome. He says the joy that the World Cup has brought will allow people to have a happier December than they would have had, because 2022 was one of the toughest years. 

However, he says, “No World Cup win helps you pay your taxes or feed your children. Thus, the problems are disguised for a few days, but they obviously still exist.”

“No World Cup win helps you pay your taxes or feed your children. Thus, the problems are disguised for a few days, but they obviously still exist.”

Waldo Wolff

Even so, it cannot be denied that this is a historic memory for the whole nation. That the effort of Messi, and of the entire team, was worth it to – at least for a while – unify the Argentineans and encourage them to take risks for their dreams to come true. 

The Jewish community, even while maintaining its customs and principles, valued the message of effort and joined in the celebrations.