Messi tries to end a losing streak for Argentina : La última copa/The Last Cup With the disappointment of the 2010 World Cup behind them, Argentines are hopeful that Lionel Messi might break their losing streak at the 2011 Copa America, the largest tournament in South America. Messi is prepared to give his all, looking for a way to deliver a victory for his home country. Meanwhile, host Jasmine Garsd makes the long journey back to Argentina after many years away and faces an unexpected tragedy.

Argentina hasn't won a World Cup in 36 years. Some fans think a curse is to blame

Argentina hasn't won a World Cup in 36 years. Some fans think a curse is to blame

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María Jesús Contreras for NPR
Jasmine Garsd and her friend Gabby with images of Lionel Messi at the Copa America in 2011.
María Jesús Contreras for NPR

Listen to The Last Cup on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Escucha a La Ultima Copa en español en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.

For many countries, winning just one World Cup is reason enough to brag. Argentina has won two, the last one in 1986. Despite being on a short list of two-time winners, Argentina hasn't been able to replicate a World Cup win ever since that fateful day 36 years ago.

For some fans, lack of skill is to blame. Others, however, believe something much more sinister is at play — the Curse of Tilcara.

Tilcara is a small town in the Jujuy province in northern Argentina that sits over 8,000 feet above sea level. It's this elevated altitude that first brought Argentina's national soccer team to the town over three decades ago. They were preparing for Mexico City's high altitude, where the tournament was being hosted that year.

According to the myth, the players went to visit the Virgin of Copacabana in Tilcara and asked for a blessing. They allegedly made a promise to return to the Virgin and thank her if they won the World Cup title that year. They won, but the promise was ultimately not fulfilled.

Virgin of Copacabana del Abra de Punta Corral at "Nuesta Senora del Rosario" parish church in Tilcara, Jujuy province, Argentina. Carlos Reyes/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Carlos Reyes/AFP via Getty Images

Virgin of Copacabana del Abra de Punta Corral at "Nuesta Senora del Rosario" parish church in Tilcara, Jujuy province, Argentina.

Carlos Reyes/AFP via Getty Images

Though the story has spread far and wide over the years, the '86 players have denied that a promise was ever made in the first place.

"They made this up and we have nothing to do with this," Sergio "Checho" Batista, who played on the team that year, has said. "I don't know what this whole promise thing is. We didn't promise anything, and we didn't go to the Virgin."

The people of Tilcara, however, tell a different story.

The curse lives on

Sara Vera — a local woman who worked with the team — told HBO that the Argentine coach said to her, "If we win the World Cup, we will come back and thank the Virgin on our knees."

David Gordillo, a local who sparred with the team as part of the club Nuevo Pueblo, also has claimed to witness the promise. He was even part of a 2018 Coca Cola campaign to bring some of the '86 players back and said, "It's been 32 years and they haven't come back, and everybody thinks that's why we never won a championship ever again."

Gordillo isn't the only one who feels this way. Some fans still believe that the curse has been behind Argentina's bad luck streak all along. Years ago, Argentine fans unfurled an Argentine flag at a game in Bolivia. On it was a painted message to the '86 players that read, "Return to Tilcara. Fulfill your promise."

Argentinian football fans pose for a picture with a national flag reading "Champions of '86, fulfill your promise, return to Tilcara." Carlos Reyes/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Carlos Reyes/AFP via Getty Images

Whether the origin of the curse is fact or fiction is uncertain, but there's no denying that Argentina has not secured a World Cup title since.

And though this myth still looms over the Argentine national team, its current star Lionel Messi has been met with challenges far greater than a curse.

Can Messi break the curse?

Lionel Messi is undeniably one of the most celebrated soccer players of all time. He's taken Argentina to a combined five World Cup and Copa América finals. But despite the successes, his decision to play for FC Barcelona has often clouded his sense of belonging amongst Argentine fans.

His track record for Barcelona was often pitted against what he brought to Argentina. When Argentina would lose, a lot of the blame fell to Messi himself. This was more apparent than ever after the 2011 Copa América tournament.

Argentina famously lost to Colombia that year. The team was criticized for being uncoordinated during the match, but the singular person who got heckled by fans after the loss was Messi.

Argentine forward Lionel Messi put his hands over his face during their 2011 Copa America quarter-final football match against Uruguay. Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images

Argentine forward Lionel Messi put his hands over his face during their 2011 Copa America quarter-final football match against Uruguay.

Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images

"In South America, the fandom and the passion for the sport just is consistently crossing the line. It's just the way that we were raised," said Felipe Cárdenas, a sports writer for The Athletic. "There was a statue in Argentina that was erected in honor of Lionel Messi. That statue was vandalized over the years when he wasn't winning games. I mean, it's an incredible turn of events for a player that all he ever wanted was to be loved and successful for his national team."

Messi — who was once thought to be the player who could break Argentina's curse — faced a new challenge: acceptance from his own home country. And it's a challenge that haunted him for years to come.

"Messi is European. He's an Argentinean who went to Europe and was raised in a society that is much calmer, where your money doesn't lose value every day," said Flavio Azzaro, a soccer commentator and longtime Messi critic.

This is a sentiment many immigrants often face — one that pits your new home against the one you grew up in. And as Messi faces his final attempt at achieving a World Cup for Argentina, he has so much more riding on it than a three-decade curse.


Listen to The Last Cup on Spotify or Apple Podcasts to follow the rest of Lionel's journey to soccer stardom, and read about what Lionel Messi's saga says about the meaning of "home" in Episodes 1, 2 and 3.

Escucha a La Ultima Copa en español en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.

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