Lionel Messi before a friendly match between Argentina and Haiti on May 29, 2018. (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Can Argentina’s World Cup Squad Shake Off the Specter of Soccer’s Worst Insult?

Lionel Messi before a friendly match between Argentina and Haiti on May 29, 2018. (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Argentinian soccer players are used to hearing insults both on and off the pitch. Being called names? No big deal. Nasty insults about their mothers? Ugly, but it comes with the territory. But there’s one insult that no player can let stand. It’s an accusation that hurts so much it can affect their performance: being called a pecho frío.

A pecho frío (a term that literally means ‘cold-chested’) is a player who doesn’t have the passion to face the challenge of a big game and underperforms when needed the most. It’s where lack of heart meets choking on the field, with a touch of cowardice. The phrase is so offensive, that when the fans started to chant it to Racing Club’s coach Eduardo “Chacho” Coudet (formerly a player) at a game in 2015, he turned around and replied, “Cuckold, maybe. But pecho frío, NO.” His response became so popular that one fan tattooed the phrase on his arm.

Ironically, this insult that fans use to shame players, was originally meant for them. The expression was coined by Newell’s Old Boys coach Jorge Raúl “El Indio” Solari in 1987, after the team lost the championship to their hated crosstown rivals Rosario Central. “You can’t ask more of this young team. They gave it all,” he told the local media. “The ones we should demand more enthusiasm from is la cabecera [the main group of supporters from the north stands.] They are pechos fríos. It’s very important to have a fanbase that cheers you on and supports you. If they’d changed [their attitude] instead of insulting us during the championship, Newell’s would have won by six or seven points.”

Solari’s choice of words quickly transcended the club and was adopted by other fans to mock their rival’s supporters. Somewhere along the way, the tables turned and pecho frío became the preferred way to insult a player. But perhaps no one has been a bigger target of the insult than the Argentinean national team, which has lived with the burden of being called pecho fríos for more than four years. With the World Cup just a few days away, the team’s goal is not only to bring home the trophy, but to shake off the dreaded label.

With the World Cup days away, Argentina’s goal is not only to bring home the trophy, but to shake off the dreaded pecho frío label.

On paper, Argentina had everything necessary to dominate the soccer for the past 10 years. They have Lionel Messi, the world’s best player (and arguably soccer’s GOAT) in their ranks, along with a constellation of stars who have won several trophies with their clubs. But time and time again, they’ve come up short.

At the 2014 World Cup, they went goalless for 90 minutes against Germany. When everything pointed to penalty kicks, German forward Mario Gotze scored in extra time to break 43 million hearts. Although some pointed fingers, most Argentinians saw the defeat as bad luck and recognized the effort of the team.

Then came the perfect opportunity to redeem themselves: the Copa América in Chile the following summer. Argentina hadn’t won the tournament in 23 years, including a painful 3-0 against Brazil in the 2007 final, but this time it looked like no one would resist them. They seemed unstoppable after shredding Paraguay in the semi-final 6-1, but their forwards couldn’t find the net in the regular time and missed two penalties in the shootout, giving the hosts the win.

The defeat opened the pecho frío floodgates, with forward Gonzalo Higuaín attracting the most criticism. How could a guy who scored 36 goals for his club the previous season in Italy, score only twice during the whole tournament? There was only one explanation: he had a fridge in his chest and an iceberg for a heart.

But there was hope: they could take revenge the next year. National teams from all over the Americas were invited to the US to compete in a special edition Copa América to celebrate 100 years of the tournament. Yet, like a soccer version of Groundhog Day, everything went down the same way: same rival in the final, same result in regular time, same defeat in penalty kicks. Messi, who missed the decisive penalty, summed it up in the mixed zone: “It’s incredible, the fact that we can’t win it. It happened to us again.”

Since then, the team has been haunted by their shortcomings. Coaches have changed, but the core of the team remains the same. Higuaín’s accuracy has become a recurrent topic for memes and a poor campaign in the qualifiers for the World Cup, where they got their ticket to Russia at the last minute, has only reinforced the perception that without Messi, they might as well call themselves Team Antartica.

Despite that, the label of pecho fríos is too harsh for a team that made it to three finals in a row. They faced strong rivals that knew how to exploit Argentina’s weaknesses and stop them from deploying its attacking power effectively. The games were contested until the last minute and two of them were decided on penalty kicks, where luck is a factor as decisive as skill.

In a less soccer-mad country, they would have been hailed as heroes. But in Argentina, anything short of wining the trophy is considered a failure. Russia is the last chance for this generation of players to make peace with their people and themselves and put the ghosts of the past to rest. Otherwise they will be haunted by them the rest of their lives.