'We thought the World Cup would help our country learn to smile again'

Shock exit of competition favourites Argentina greeted with tears and disbelief - but there was unbridled joy across England
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The Independent US

In a country where footballing success has been exploited shamelessly by successive regimes, there was an understandable air of nervousness on the streets of Buenos Aires yesterday after Argentina's humiliating elimination from the World Cup. With the population already seething from an economic crisis that has rendered their pesos almost worthless, the national team's failure to beat Sweden threatened to bring them on to the streets.

But, even as riot police and water cannon waited on standby, the reaction was one of weariness rather than wrath.

Instead, when the final whistle was blown at about 5.30am local time, most of those who had crammed into the capital's bars for the game headed straight to bed to grieve privately.

About 200 distraught fans did gather in the city centre, where they simply sobbed, hugged each other and defiantly raised an enormous Argentine flag.

Quique Caceres, a tearful 24-year-old chef, summed up the country's bewilderment at the team's failure, saying: "I do not know what went wrong. But we lost and the world feels a miserable place. I just want to go home."

Much hope had been invested in the ability of the Argentine squad to provide a distraction from the country's economic woes.

Newspaper adverts had appeared featuring Juan Sebastian Veron dressed in a toga and sporting a halo. Underneath was a prayer: "Veron, miraculous and omnipotent, show us the way to forget the social, economic and political problems of the country. Do not let us talk about inflation or return to reality."

Even Friday's unthinkable defeat by bitter rivals England had at least kept the economy out of the headlines. The release from prison on the same day of the former economy minister Domingo Cavallo, who had spent two months behind bars on arms smuggling charges, was overshadowed by that game. But yesterday the talk had returned to inflation.

Jose María Thorp, 32, a diving instructor from Mar de Plata, said: "We thought the World Cup would bring us happiness in difficult times and the country would learn to smile again. Now people will go back to their protests against the government and the politicians and all the misery."

The diagnosis for the nation's mental health is grim, according to Nestor Diaz, a psychiatric nurse.

"In the past year, I've watched the number of patients increase by 15 per cent," he said. "This economic crisis is having a huge impact mentally on Argentines. Nobody knows when it is going to change. There is no hope to cling to on the horizon now the football has gone too."

The press were surprisingly philosophical. Typical was the coverage of Clarin, Argentina's best-selling tabloid, which brought out a special edition splashing on the headline: "The Broken Dream". A front-page match summary said Argentina had played their best game of the first stage against Sweden with the midfielders Pablo Aimar and Ariel Ortega praised as inspirational.

"The footballers gave their all but it was not enough and left the pitch crying," Clarin concluded. "It was a frustrating and painful game but that's football. Sometimes the team that plays better doesn't win."

Television pundits even went so far as to praise Sweden. But they still reserved some antipathy for Gabriel Batistuta, "who did nothing". Even the announcement by Argentina's talismanic striker of his retirement did little to temper their opprobium.

Batistuta was not the only one hanging up the blue and white shirt, which had become almost a uniform for half of Buenos Aires. Within hours of the game they had gone.

The suffering was perhaps most acutely felt in Bar Gibraltar in downtown Buenos Aires, where both the England and Argentina games were shown and rival fans packed opposite ends of the pub. By the end, one corner was drunkenly toasting success while the rest of the bar suffered in abject silence.

Chris Watts, 33, a pharmacist from Birmingham who is travelling round the world, said: "I am delighted we're through but also sad for the Argentines.

"I've been here two months. They are good people. The football has been a distraction for them from the economic problems. Their elimination is a big blow to the country."

If the past few days have been trying, the rest of the week promises no respite. A certain anniversary looms tomorrow, marking the 20 years that have passed since the Falklands were surrendered. At least that might take some minds off the economy.