One mural, one big World Cup debate
BUENOS AIRES -- A housing project named Fort Apache claws its way into the sky on the outskirts of the city, a violent place which got its name from a long ago gunfight that broke out during some poor television reporter's live shot. It is the boyhood home of soccer star and working class hero Carlos Tevez, whose absence from Argentina's World Cup team is the cause of anger and endless theories.
Maybe he's just too old, or maybe Messi doesn't like him, or maybe his vocal defense of Diego Maradona after the last World Cup made him too many powerful enemies. On the streets of his old neighborhood, the hidden hand of conspiracy is seen firmly at work. People blame Messi, and the Argentina Football Association, and the wealthy class who don't want the slums to have a hero. When Tevez scores, he raises his jersey to reveal the name of an otherwise forgotten, poverty-stricken corner of Buenos Aires printed on a custom T-shirt, and when the people who live there see their name on his chest, they feel a deep sense of pride and loyalty. With Tevez not in Brazil, some disenfranchised Argentinians feel like they aren't either.
At one of the entrances to Fort Apache, a famous graffiti mural of Tevez covers four stories of an apartment building. I wanted a photograph of the mural, so yesterday we hired a cab driver named Pablo, who got us to the general area and then started asking questions. Pablo is from a family of cab drivers and knows the city well -- and he couldn't find it. We turned down cratered streets, past wild dogs crawling through piles of trash. Even the GPS got nervous, issuing out a warning in its computerized voice: "You are entering a dangerous zone."
Argentine border patrol officers, dressed more like soldiers than cops, manned a checkpoint. They pointed us in the right direction. Another group of border patrol guys sent us to a third check point, one of whom wore body armor. They told us to take the pictures quick and dispatched a patrol to check on us.
We parked in front of a bakery and stepped out of the car.
Leo started snapping pictures as more dogs roamed the weathered field and howled. I looked up at Tevez, his hair wild and flowing, wearing an Argentina jersey with the phrase "Saint Apache" in place of the AFA logo. A group of drunks started calling to us, complaining about Tevez not being on the team, and we got back into the car and started our trip back into civilization, leaving the chipped blocks of Fort Apache behind.
We'd been out of the car for 8 minutes and 12 seconds.
There isn't a single piece of street art of Leo Messi in Buenos Aires, according to the most knowledgeable street art experts. But there is no end to the billboards of him, hawking products ranging from Samsung to something called Naranja, and even shilling for Argentina itself. The difference in how and where they are celebrated, and by whom, is a profound window into the divide between the rich and the poor in a country that can quickly change from first world to third world and back again, depending on the block and the time of day.
In the shadow of the World Cup, you cannot escape Messi in the city, starting with his image on the doors of the airport immediately after exiting customs. The biggest banner I saw was hung on a government building, paid for by the city itself, stretching about half a city block. Pablo parked the car, Leo hopped out, snapped a few frames, and 10 minutes later, we were leaned up against the counter at an old school Buenos Aires pizzeria, eating a slice of mozzarella and planning the rest of the morning.
Messi is playing today in Brazil, and Carlos Tevez is on a golf trip to Spain, with around 50 members of his family and friends, many of them from the slum that's now consecrated with his face. He calls the informal tournament the Fort Apache Open. Messi will live in the imagination of everyone who sees him play, but in the slums of Buenos Aires, there is a place Messi can never reach, a place reserved for Tevez alone.