Argentina may be heading to its first championship in more than two decades in Copa América. Undoubtedly, hinchas across the country are praying to the soccer gods for Lionel Messi to win his first major title for the national team.
Fútbol, (yes with accent), is Argentina’s national religion. And as in most religions there are rituals, articles of faith and sacred objects. Sure, sports fans and players around the world all have superstitions that they believe bring luck to their favorite teams – but Argentina is in a category all its own.
Jorge Valdano, a world champion player from Argentina, once said that the Argentinean National Team had so many superstitions during the 1986 World Cup that the final against Germany in the Estadio Azteca “seemed like a play that had been rehearsed a thousand times.”
For example, Valdano’s teammate, defender Ricardo Omar Giusti, told the national newspaper La Nación that he’d put a candy bar in the middle of the field before each game. The whole team drank mate at the exact same time, they sat in the same spots on the buses they rode to each game, they listened to the same music and when they were only a few blocks away from the stadium, they played a specific song. “I find it incredible today that we did all of that thinking it would help us win a game or championship,” Giusti said.
But perhaps no one understands the peculiar customs practiced by the players better than Javier Leyva: the Mexican hairstylist of soccer phenomenon Diego Armando Maradona.
Leyva, a Mexico City native, had his own salon in the 1980s and one of his most loyal customers was Argentine Hector Miguel Zelada, who played as goalkeeper for Mexico’s América team from 1978 to 1987. Zelada was called back to serve as the third goalie for Argentina’s World Cup team in 1986, and when the squad arrived in Mexico – where the games were being held – Zelada recommended Leyva’s handiwork to Argentina’s coach, Carlos Salvador Bilardo.
After Leyva started cutting Bilardo’s hair, Argentina began winning games. The country won its final friendly matches against América, Atlante and Neza only six days before its debut against South Korea.
Bilardo thought the haircut must be good luck, Leyva said in a telephone interview “and little by little he made me start cutting the hair of everyone on the team, but particularly Maradona’s.”
Pretty soon every team member was getting their haircut before every game. Maradona ended up with very short hair, Leyva remembered.
“The game they cared the most about was against England because of the Islas Malvinas. They told me that if they won that game, they would take me to Argentina to celebrate. But we won the World Cup,” the hairstylist said.
Leyva was the only Mexican that travelled with Argentina to celebrate in the streets of Buenos Aires. He even took part in the ceremony with President Raul Alfonsin at the country’s presidential palace, the Casa Rosada.
Thirty years after Argentina won its last World Cup, the Argentines have placed their hopes on another superstition: Messi’s beard. The team hopes the new look will break Argentina’s losing streak in major titles since it last won a Copa America in 1993. Its biggest crack, of Barcelona fame, has played – but lost – the World Cup Final and last Copa America final with the striped sky-blue and white jersey. But a bearded version of Messi is now leading the team in the US.
No one knows why he decided to don the new facial hair. When journalists asked him the reason for the beard, he demurred, saying only cryptically: “If I shave my beard, they would kill me.”
“I’m leaving the beard, but keeping it neat and tidy,” he added last Saturday after Argentina’s 4-1 quarter-final win Venezuela.
Argentina is back to magical terrain, doing things that go beyond the playing field. The country will gather together en masse on Tuesday – when they play against United States in the Semi-finals – to pray that Argentina will make history again, putting all their faith in hairstyles.