Lessons from Messi and Di María for Politicians in LatAm and Europe

Ángel Di María's and his family's efforts to improve their lives should help us understand that the best way to help the poor get out of this condition is to create an environment where they can work and progress.

The Di María family's story of overcoming adversity and courage dates back to the times of Ángel's childhood (EFE).

What can they learn about competition, free trade, poverty, regulation, and innovation on both sides of the Atlantic?

Argentina's triumph in the World Cup organized by Qatar has given Lionel Messi the last trophy he was missing. Argentina's achievement has also left several lessons that can be extrapolated far beyond soccer.

Here are three lessons that our politicians can learn from the world champions:

1. Competition makes us better

Before the start of the World Cup in Qatar, the statements of the then-coach of the Spanish National Team, Mr. Luis Enrique Martínez García, generated a lot of controversies. Asked if he considered it a deficit to have faced only European teams since 2018, Luis Enrique answered emphatically: "I don't think so, not really. I don't think we need to play against teams from another continent."

Already at the World Cup, Spain lost to Japan in the group stage and was eliminated in the Round of 16 by Morocco. For his part, Luis Enrique was forced to step down as coach.

The European Union (EU) would do well to avoid the isolationist and Eurocentric tendencies of UEFA if it wants to avoid similar results.

For example, despite its undeniably good intentions, recent news of an import tariff based on carbon emissions seems to point more to an anti-trade excuse than to a real environmental concern. Indeed, economists such as Philipp Bagus have been warning of isolationist tendencies within the EU. According to Bagus, Brussels plays a double game in which the EU behaves as a protectionist fortress outwardly and an interventionist empire inwardly.

On the contrary, the EU must ensure a framework of free trade and competition that benefits all its citizens. The enemies of international trade forget that competition is not merely rivalry, it is also cooperation. By competing, rivals help each other to improve, to achieve the best version of themselves. Or as the philosopher Immanuel Kant explained it with his famous metaphor of the forest:

"Just as the trees achieve in the midst of the forest a beautiful and upright growth, precisely because each tries to deprive the other of air and sunshine, forcing each other to seek both above itself, instead of growing stunted, crooked and bent like those who capriciously spread their branches... apart from the others."

2. Fostering talent

German footballer Philipp Lahm, who captained the 2014 World Cup-winning team, writes regularly for the English newspaper The Guardian. Ahead of the quarterfinals, he stressed that:

"Scaloni has been thinking about how to integrate the extraordinary class of 35-year-old Lionel Messi," he said. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he told how he deliberately dispensed with Messi at the beginning of his time in charge so that the team would find its way without the star. Then he integrated him.

"Argentina and Messi have found an unusual and exciting division of labor. In 2014, when they lost to us in the Maracanã final, his teammates seemed to expect him to figure it all out on his own. In 2022, they play for him and he bides his time. Stories like that produce added value beyond the sporting."

The lack of support suffered by Messi began, in fact, long before his time with the Argentine national team. With a marked problem of short stature, neither Newell's Old Boys nor River Plate wanted to pay for his hormone treatment. So it was that Futbol Club Barcelona who took him in in 2002 and thanks to their contribution of $35,000,  Messi gained 26 cm in height.

However, it is important to point out that Latin American and European countries would do very well to create conditions that allow talented people to flourish.

On the Latin American side, the mistreatment suffered by entrepreneurs, startups and the private sector in general is very marked. Not only is the current context in many countries extremely complex, but also the proposed "solutions" operate like fuel thrown on a fire. For it is not a matter of granting subsidies, creating "development banks" or protecting national industry. LatAm's decision-makers, far from any grandiloquence, would do very well to return to the governmental minimalism proposed by the famous Scottish economist Adam Smith almost three centuries ago:

"Little else is required to bring a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, low taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest is brought about by the natural course of things."

For their part, Europe and the EU also have things to do to make life easier for creators and entrepreneurs.

A vital case in point is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Innovation experts such as Adam Thierer warn that:

"The key to competitive advantage in AI will be openness to entrepreneurship, investment and talent, plus a flexible governance framework to address risks."

"The International Economy Journal recently asked 11 experts from Europe and the United States where the EU currently stands in the global technology competition. The answers were almost unanimous and were bluntly summed up in the title of the symposium: 'The Biggest Loser.' Participants stated that Europe is 'lagging behind in the global technology race' and 'unlikely to become a global innovation hub'. 'The future will not be invented in Europe,' concluded another analyst.

"This gloomy assessment is due to the EU's risk-averse culture and its preference for paperwork compliance over entrepreneurial freedom. After the continent piled on layers of data restrictions starting in the mid-1990s, innovation and investment suffered. Regulation became more complex with the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which further limits data collection and use."

European decision makers should remember that problem solving should be left to imaginative responses rather than regulations and prohibitions that hinder and stifle entrepreneurship.

Regulation is necessary. But only for a minimum safeguarding of the population. Regulation can never play the leading role in the innovation process. According to Jeff Stier's analogy, if we were preparing a cocktail, the recipe would be nine parts innovation and one part regulation.

The European Union has been taking steps in the opposite direction. And what it is preparing is a real Molotov cocktail.

3. El trabajo duro paga

Angel Di Maria has scored goals in the last three finals played by the Argentine team: Copa America in 2021, the Finalissima against Italy this year and the World Cup in Qatar 2022. Resisted and humiliated by part of his country's sports press, his return to the top of international soccer is already a sign of the value of hard work.

However, the story of overcoming and courage of the Di Maria family goes back to the times of Angel's childhood.

In a 2018 article published by The Players' Tribune, Di María himself recounts that:

"The walls of our house were supposed to be white. But I never remember them as white. At first, they were gray. Then they turned black, because of the coal dust. My dad was a coal worker...the truth is that coal mining is a very dirty job. My old man used to work under a tin roof in our yard and then he had to bag all the lumps of coal so he could sell them at the market. Well, it wasn't just him... Before school, we would wake up with my little sister to help him. We were 9 or 10 years old."

"I remember one day we were bagging coal with my dad, and it was very cold and raining. We were under the tin roof. It was very hard to be there. After a while, I would go to school, which was warmer. But my dad stayed there bagging all day long, without pause. Because if he didn't manage to sell the coal that day, we had nothing to eat, it was as simple as that. And I thought, and I really believed it: There will come a time when everything will change for the better."

LatAm is a region where the scourge of poverty is still very present. Political attitudes tend to consider the poor as "handicapped" who will never be able to leave their condition. As a result, the solution is often a crude form of assistance that generates clientelism and undermines the culture of work.

Father Opeka, a Catholic priest who has been working in Madagascar for decades and has built a city for 25,000 people where there used to be a garbage dump, is a staunch enemy of welfare that is content to anesthetize the poor by throwing some money at them. "There has to be help from the state for difficult cases such as single mothers with many children or the disabled. You have to help, but not assist," says Opeka, "because to assist a person who can work is to make him or her dependent and that person is never going to be a serious person."

Ángel Di María and his family's effort to overcome their poverty should help us to understand that the best way to help the poor to get out of this condition is to create an environment where they can work and progress. Depriving them of their dignity by making them addicted to a state subsidy fossilizes them in poverty.

We owe a great debt to the poor in our countries. But it will not be paid with checks. The way to pay it is to generate a competitive social order that allows the talented to flourish and provide jobs and that rewards those who get up early to work.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Fundación Internacional Bases.

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