ROME – In soccer-mad and deeply Catholic Argentina, it’s an article of faith that when the national squad takes the field, God is on their side. So, then, how do Argentines explain the fact that they’ve not actually won the World Cup since 1986, and only reached the finals twice?
Well, at least some of them are convinced it’s because the Virgin Mary has been rooting for the other team.
In essence, those Argentines believe their team suffers from a “Curse of the Madonna,” a bit like Boston Red Sox fans believe they were held back by the “Curse of the Bambino” from 1918 to 2004, or Chicago Cubs fans are convinced they didn’t win a World Series from 1908 to 2016 because of the “Curse of the Goat.”
It’s not clear whether the Argentine team’s single best-known fan, Pope Francis, shares that conviction, but it’s one ultimately rooted in the same deep devotion to Mary that animates the pontiff too.
Here’s the background to the alleged hex.
Back in 1986, when the Argentine team was led by Diego Maradona and not Lionel Messi, the group prepared for the Mexico World Cup in the northern Argentine state of Salta. Specifically, they trained in a small town called Tilcara, which at the time only had some 4,000 inhabitants.
Stories from that time claim there was only one working telephone in the entire town, and no television in sight. Given that, the arrival of the Argentine squad – though, admittedly, minus big stars such as Maradona — was a revolutionary event, and to this day, it lives on in local memory.
The team chose the small town for strategic reasons: It has the same elevation above sea level, 7,380 feet, as the Mexican capital where their games would be played.
Led by trainer Carlos Salvador Bilardo, the national squad would spar with a local club, Pueblo Nuevo, and, inevitably, enjoy down time with locals after the training sessions, sharing a soda or a coffee. Among the players on the Pueblo Nuevo team was David Gordillo, who’s a protagonist in this story, as he has long claimed to have been a “witness” to a now-legendary promise made to the Mother of God.
He’s told the story many times, and, as eye-witnesses tend to do, he’s “remembered” some new details here and there, but the core remains: During one of the many informal moments shared with the people of the town, Gordillo says, one of the players asked about the nearby Virgin of Tilcara.
The formal name of this local Marian devotion is “The Virgin of Copacabana of the Abra of Punta del Corral.” She’s known in the area for granting favors to those who pray for her intercession.
According to Gordillo – whose recap of the story is easily available on YouTube – in between training sessions, the players once went to visit the Virgin of Tilcara and promised her that, if they were to win the World Cup, they would go back on pilgrimage to thank her.
The thing is, after victory they didn’t go back, and some Argentines firmly believe that ever since, the team has been on Mary’s bad side. Gordillo insists the promise happened, but he says he doesn’t blame the Virgin for the national team’s fortunes.
“I can assure you, the promise took place, but I cannot say that the Virgin curses, I don’t share that,” Gordillo said in one of the many interviews he’s given on the subject. “Her name has been used in many opportunities to support this, but I don’t agree with that.”
Tilcara resident Sara Vera, often described as the “only living witness” of the promise, claims she personally took Bilardo to the shrine and heard him say that if the miracle of the championship were to happen, he would return “on his knees” to thank the Virgin.
Talking to El Tribuno in 2014, ahead of the World Cup in Brazil, Vera said that she and many others in Tilcara were convinced that Argentina’s national soccer team would never touch the glorious gold trophy again until the team went back to Salta to fulfill the promise.
Vera also claimed that she’s the one who told the team about the many miracles granted through the intercession of the local Madonna. For his part, Bilardo has denied many times that there’s any truth to the promise when explaining why he’s never gone back.
Yet, perhaps looking to leave no stone unturned – or, maybe, just because someone was willing to pay for the trip – nine members of the original 1986 team went back to Salta earlier this year, courtesy of a soda company.
“We made no promises,” said Nery Pumpido, one of the players, during the visit, in a sentiment that was echoed by every player present. “We’re here to give thanks.”
So, what would Argentina’s #1 fan make of all this?
It’s well-known that Francis is against superstition. He’s spoken time and time again against fortune tellers, making decisions based on one’s horoscope, and taking part in magical rituals.
Yet, he’s not beyond making promises to the Virgin Mary, as he acknowledged in an interview with Argentine newspaper La Voz del Pueblo: “I have not watched TV since 1990. It’s a promise that I made the Virgin of Carmel on the night of July 15, 1990. I told myself: ‘It’s not for me’.”
Granted, that promise was not made in exchange for a soccer championship, but a promise is a promise, and keeping one is a Biblical imperative. After all, Jesus himself enjoined, “May your yes be yes, and no be no.”
Assuming he’s still true to his word, Francis will not be watching the World Cup, though he might ask a Swiss Guard to keep him updated with the scores as he did the last time. Finding out that another promise to the Virgin that was [perhaps] made was finally kept, would probably, at the very least, make him smile.
In any event, one thing is for sure: If Argentina comes up empty at the World Cup in Russia this summer, they won’t have the Virgin of Tilcara to blame anymore.