By Rodrigo García
Buenos Aires, Dec 15 (EFE).- The opulent streets of Doha are abuzz with crowds of Argentina fans and so too is Buenos Aires, which has been gripped by delirious celebrations after Lionel Messi and company secured a place in the World Cup final, offering some emotional respite in a country blighted for years by growing poverty, inflation and a collapsing currency.
Argentina’s semifinal triumph over Croatia on Tuesday prompted a vast sea of supporters to cram the streets of the capital as parties carried over well into the early hours of the following morning.
Argentina’s already feverish football zealotry has been imbued with fresh hope that Messi could finally tick off his career goal of lifting the sport’s most coveted trophy, the only major title that has eluded him.
The country’s TVs blare out non-stop coverage of the team’s exploits at the Qatar World Cup and even school hours have been altered to let students and teachers indulge in the games.
“Fanaticism in Argentina is very, and I mean very, big,” says Salvador Di Stefano, an economics and business analyst.
“I can’t imagine a European taking their children out of school to watch a World Cup game,” he told Efe.
Following the Albiceleste’s victory against Croatia on Tuesday evening, online searches for flights to Qatar from Argentina incited 399% compared to the previous day, according to travel firm Despegar.
The Aerolíneas Argentinas flight scheduled for Doha on Friday, ahead of Sunday’s final, sold out in half an hour after the semifinal, prompting the carrier to launch a second trip that same day.
Fans who wish to attend the World Cup final in person must be braced to dig deep.
A round trip from Argentina to Qatar with several layovers departing Thursday and returning on December 22 or 23, will cost between 1.4 and 1.6 million pesos (roughly $7,700-$9,700), according to Despegar.
This price does not include accommodation and other expenditures while staying in the wealthy Gulf nation.
The vast majority of Argentines are paid in pesos, and switching to dollars to protect savings from violent fluctuations in the economy and to be able to spend abroad is impossible unless they turn to the black market, where the price for the US currency is double the rate offered by official outlets, which are often inaccessible due to restrictions.
Fans can have access to credit cards that permit dollar purchases with pesos, a system that has come to be known as the ‘Qatar dollar,’ although it comes at a high exchange rate and works for expenditures of over $300 per month as per government policy.
Argentina’s minimum wage currently sits at 57,900 pesos ($181 on the black market) and some 6.9% of the adult population were out of a job as of the second quarter this year. Many Argentines rely on state benefits or black market jobs to survive.
“In Argentina football is almost a religion,” says Di Stefano when asked how it was possible for so many Argentines to travel to Qatar. “We love a good time, we’re very into football and we have an unofficial economy that probably allows many people to travel like that.”
He adds that 5% of Argentina’s 47 million people belong to the upper class, which would suggest some 2.3 million have the funds to travel to Qatar.
“It’s more likely that in Argentina there are people with dollars under their mattress than people who have taken out credit to travel,” he says.