July 2, 2010 10:33 pm

Argentina in Cup dilemma

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No one in Argentina wants the national team to fail to make the World Cup final – except, perhaps, the planners at the foreign ministry trying to get a visit to China back on track.

Cristina Fernández, the president, abruptly cancelled a trip to Beijing in January at the height of a row over the use of central bank reserves to pay off debt because she did not want to leave her estranged vice-president in charge.

The cancellation of the visit, in which she had been due to meet her counterpart Hu Jintao, went down like a tonne of bricks in Beijing and the ill-feeling was widely seen as contributing to China’s subsequent decision to tighten restrictions on imports of soya oil from Argentina, a key supplier.

Ms Fernández apologised profusely for the faux-pas and the trip was rescheduled – but officials in this football-mad country must have momentarily taken their eyes off the ball: the visit was rearranged for mid-July.

That seriously complicates the presidential agenda: diplomatic sources expect Ms Fernández to attend the World Cup final on July 11, if Argentina make it. But that would mean she would have to race to China for a meeting now pencilled in for July 13-15, and would potentially miss being homecoming queen in Buenos Aires if Argentina triumph.

Commentators are already speculating that Ms Fernández and Néstor Kirchner, her husband, predecessor and likely presidential candidate in 2011, are dreaming of appearing on the balcony of the presidential palace beside football legend Diego Maradona, the national coach.

If Argentina win their third World Cup, a pragmatic solution is bound to be found, but Mr Kirchner knows first-hand the dangers of putting football over business: he once kept former Hewlett-Packard boss Carly Fiorina waiting because he was engrossed in conversation with Mr Maradona. The computer group reportedly returned the snub by switching key investments to Brazil.

A senior Chinese source in Argentina admits the timing is tricky and the dates “are an issue we are discussing with the foreign ministry”.

Argentina are widely tipped to go all the way if they get past Germany in the quarter-finals on Saturday.

The match is a re-run of their 2006 World Cup quarter-final. But no matter how many diplomatic headaches it causes, Argentines will be hoping things don’t end like last time: a German victory on penalties, and an embarrassing post-match brawl on the pitch.

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