Argentina and Uruguay have helped stoke up the excitement at this World Cup but it’s the calming effects of mate — a herbal tea both countries claim as their national drink — which may be their lasting gift to the tournament.
Aficionados like Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez have been helping to spread mate’s popularity among their peers, and players like France’s Antoine Griezmann and England’s Eric Dier have caught the bug.
Half a world away in Montevideo, the publicity the bitter drink (pronounced mah-tay) is getting from the World Cup is a boon to Federico Bresciani.
His family business, Bresciani Plateria Criolla, produces the highly worked leather gourds — in which the powdery Yerba Mate tea is mixed with hot water and imbibed — and has clients in 16 countries, including some of the world’s greatest footballers.
And there’s nowhere better to spread the word than at Russia-2018, where Uruguay have brought 180 kilos of the tea and Argentina, who expect to go further in the competition, 200 kilos.
In his modest workshop seven craftsmen turn out these containers — gourds that are also called mates — polishing and finishing the edges with inlaid gold or silver.
A common sight in Argentina and Uruguay are men and women walking around with their gourds, sipping mate through a metal straw called a bombilla, a refill thermos flask of water tucked under their arm. An average drinker can consume two liters a day.
“It’s a mark of identity,” says Bresciani.
– “Player power” –
The stars of Uruguay’s national team Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Argentine captain Messi and midfielder Angel di Maria, are regularly pictured with mate paraphernalia. The flask pressed between arm and midriff, the mate in hand.
Stars new to the mate scene are French striker Antoine Griezmann. Like the others, he’s a client of Bresciani’s.
More recently, English midfielder Eric Dier told the Daily Telegraph he was “slightly addicted” to the drink. His Tottenham Hotspur teammate, the Korean Son Heung-Min, shared a photo on social media of him sipping a mate recently. Their manager at Tottenham is the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino.
The earthy, bitter root flavor is an acquired taste but it’s catching on, recognized by health experts around the globe for myriad health benefits.
“Nowadays, the mate and the bombilla are popular, taking a mate has become fashionable,” Bresciani says with a smile.
In Russia, the Uruguayan player Maxi Pereira is even getting a little possessive about mate as he sees its popularity spread.
“Today some teams have begun to take mate. Uruguayans are born with mate and if a team wants to take a mate it’s fine, but I think it’s more in our culture.”
Could it be the secret to Uruguay’s success so far in Russia, where they play Portugal in a last-16 game on Saturday?
“We use mate to share, to discuss, it’s something that unites us. Mate helps us to get to know each other better because when someone takes mate, he talks about a lot of things and that strengthens us.”
Bresciani’s business is about exclusivity, the ability to produce personalized gourds.
Uruguayan and Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani, a hunting enthusiast, “wanted a mate with deer carved into it, and escutcheon of Paris Saint Germain, the Uruguayan flag, and his name,” he said.
Uruguay captain Diego Godin “called me up directly to make him a gift for Griezmann, so I did one for him.” Godin and Griezmann are teammates at Europa League Champions Atletico Madrid.
Suarez offered one to Messi on the birth of his Barcelona team-mate’s second child. It had his children’s names, the Argentine flag and Messi’s shirt-number, 10. For himself, Suarez had Bresciani engrave the smiling sun and celestial blue flag of Uruguay with the names of his wife and children. And, being a center-forward, the Number 9.
“The boom in this customized mate began when people started to see the ones the players in the national team had. Now young players ask for mates, like Messi or Suarez have.”
The cost? Around $400. But for that, he says, you get “a jewel. These are unique pieces.”
Whatever the price, or the star who pays it, the rite of drinking mate, passed around from friend to friend, does not change, he says.
“Mate is about living life outside. It’s about meeting, about friends, it’s about inclusion,” says Bresciani. Whether in football, among family or on the street. “that’s what it is about.”