A Swan Song: Talking with Argentine journalist Jasmine Garsd Garcia, host of NPR’s limited series, ‘The Last Cup’
Garsd Garcia gave some insight into the World Cup, Argentina, Lionel Messi’s last chance, and ‘The Last Cup.’
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Netflix’s 2020 docuseries, The Last Dance, followed Michael Jordan during his final season with the Chicago Bulls during the 1997-1998 season, in his tireless pursuit of a final championship.
NPR's latest limited series, The Last Cup, is about a similar situation for superstar Lionel Messi, and much more. The podcast collaborative effort between NPR and Futuro Studios, debuted on Nov. 10.
Hosted by Argentine journalist and NPR’s Criminal Justice Correspondent, Jasmine Garsd Garcia The Last Cup is not simply a sports tale about a soccer player and the beautiful game, but a deeper look into immigration, race, capitalism and class, belonging and identity, and as the show’s description reads — “a story for anyone who's ever felt like an outsider in their own home.”
For 35-year old Messi, this current World Cup might very well be his final opportunity to not only bring Argentina the coveted trophy — for the first time since 1986 when Diego Maradona did so — but — as the Last Cup talks about in great detail — his last chance for vindication, acceptance, and respect.
Despite being one of the most accomplished and decorated players to ever lace them up for his national team, back home, he has been doubted because of his shortcomings in the Argentina shirt, such as losing the World Cup final back in 2014, and for leaving home at 12-years-old to join Barcelona’s academy.
Apart from the pro-soccer aspect, it is a situation that many immigrants face when they leave home — mixed feelings of doing what they thought was right, regrets, and no longer feeling like you belong to your birth country. For Messi and every other immigrant who has left their home, what does home actually mean after being gone for years, and even decades?
As an Argentine immigrant now living in the states, Garsd Garcia brings a unique and truthful perspective to the show about what it is like to leave your country, the pursuit of success, and the hopes of perhaps being able to return in the future.
In an interview with AL DÍA, Garsd Garcia spoke more about the current World Cup, Argentina, Lionel Messi’s final chance, and The Last Cup. Argentine-born Garsd Garcia is a huge soccer fan and was also intrigued with Messi, and the deeper story behind the glory and the Ballon d'Ors.
“Soccer was everywhere when I was growing up, for better and for worse. Soccer is our religion basically,” she said. “There were certain things about Messi’s story that resonated. They were almost like these universal scenes, just the way people back home loved and resented his constant desire to go back the way he had to leave as a kid.”
Garsd Garcia added that while Messi is a millionaire and this incredible player, he has a story that is “very rare,” but if you look closer, universal themes are present. She had conversations with immigrants, and herself about her own immigrant experience and then brought the idea to Marlon Bishop (Vice President of podcasts at Futuro Media), and the rest was history.
“I told him I'm obsessed with the story because it feels like more than a sports story. It’s about this guy who has to leave home as a kid, and he yearns to go back, but people no longer accept him,” said Garsd Garcia.
In other words, the relationship between Messi and Argentina has long been complicated.
“I started to tune into the amount of vitriol, hatred and antipathy towards him. And how much people criticized him back home. He's such a huge mythical figure in the rest of the world,” she said. “He would go back home and people would be like ‘whatever, you're not that great.’ This is something I would hear in more quotidian, Argentine immigrant communities. I started to have a lot of compassion for him and for the people who were critiquing him because I think it was coming from a place of sadness and pain.”
As for that place of sadness the criticism stemmed from, a lot of it has to do with him leaving home at such an early age. Messi never played professionally in his home country, mainly because of an economic crisis that was hitting the Argentine soccer system at the time. Fans are now left to wonder what would have happened had Messi stayed, but the outlook wasn’t great.
“In the late 1990's, the Argentine soccer system was falling apart. There was no money. We also have to remember, Messi had a hormone deficiency, a serious health problem. I spoke to his doctor in the podcast, who said if he hadn't received this treatment, it’s unclear if he would have been a player, or even player of this caliber. Because of the economic crisis, they couldn't pay for the treatment,” said Garsd Garcia.
Messi’s story of leaving home is also one that many immigrants know too well.
“It’s the story of the failure of economic policy. It's the story of the collapse of a nation,” said Garsd Garcia. “It's a very Latin American story. I think immigrants are like the ultimate sci-fi because we live in all these parallel universes, and there's all these alternative realities of ‘What if? What if we had stayed?’”
The series focuses on the aforementioned themes such as immigration, class, race, and belonging. While sport takes center stage at an event like the World Cup, those storylines are also present, just in the background.
“You have heroes and villains, tragedy, drama and joy. It represents so much. When Argentina won the cup in ‘86, it wasn't just that we won, it was about this poor kid from the slums [Maradona]. It was that we beat the British after a war that we lost. Soccer is all narrative,” she said.
Messi’s journey, while not having the very real Falklands War as a backdrop, is still an Odyssey of sorts. Homer’s classic was something Garsd Garcia read in preparation for The Last Cup.
“I find the Messi story very powerful,” she said. “When I was starting to do this, I picked up my aunt's copy of The Odyssey. It was written such a long time ago and it's the story of this young guy who leaves home and does amazing things abroad. But he always yearns to come back and finally gets back. When he gets there, everything has changed.”
Garsd Garcia’s conversation with AL DÍA took place Friday morning, hours before Argentina’s huge quarterfinal matchup versus the Netherlands — which they dramatically won on penalties. She said she was confident because it’s the first time she’s seen Messi have a team rather than a bunch of stars.
“This team, they pass it, coordinate, have fun, and it's the first time I've seen Messi have fun,” said Garsd Garcia.
Argentina are heading to the semi-finals against a tough Croatian side as their last hurdle before reaching another final. It’s still a tall task, but just making the final again will do wonders, as she believes some Argentinians have “found their love of Messi.”
“There's an understanding that he's given his all and he's a good kid. I read the other day someone saying Argentina usually wants to win the World Cup for themselves but this time, we want to win it for him,” said Garsd Garcia. “He's not just a good player, he's a really kind person. When Messi left in the late 90s, he was one of the first. If you look at the ‘86 Winning squad, it was four players that played abroad, and now almost every player plays abroad. The experiences have changed enough that people understand that this kid [Messi] had to leave.”
Still, a sector of the country will always put Maradona over Messi. The only difference being Maradona delivered a World title. But even if Messi climbs that same summit, Garsd Garcia said both are loved for different reasons.
“Maradona represents something larger than soccer. He was a poor Brown kid in Argentina, with all the weight that carries, who made it despite all odds. He lived on the margins of society in terms of class, and race. Then he was very political and problematic. He was seen as someone who stood up for the poor like a religious Robin Hood figure. He goes beyond soccer,” she said.
While Messi, compared to Maradona, is humble and deferential. He is simply someone who just wants to play and be remembered solely for that.
“He doesn't want to get involved in politics. He doesn't want to critique religious institutions. He is going to be loved as he wants to be, which is soccer hero. He's not going to become this quasi-religious figure, because that's not what he was ever going for. It was very cruel and unfortunate that he was always compared to Maradona. They were two completely different things,” said Garsd Garcia
The Last Cup is a limited series and with the tournament nearing its end, next Sunday, Dec. 18, there’s a lot to take away from the tournament and Garsd Garcia’s creation.
“I'm hoping that people take away that soccer players are humans. Before Messi became this untouchable millionaire, he was a 12-year-old from a rural province. He was trying to get medical treatment and his country was rapidly collapsing,” she said. “But most of all, what I think it's been successful in doing from what I can tell from listener letters, is opening up a space for reflection on how complicated it is when we have to leave home. The feelings aren't always pretty. You have yearning, bitterness, nostalgia and regret and I wanted to open a space to talk about that.”
Every episode of The Last Cup is available in both English and Spanish and is available to listen here at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510367/the-last-cup, as well as Spotify and Apple Podcasts.