WASHINGTON—If the Greeks had not invented tragedy, the Argentines would. Nobody does it better, as demonstrated by the tragedy of their soccer squad, kicked out of the World Cup amid howls of national humiliation after being crushed by Germany. And not since Eva Peron has Argentina produced a more tragic figure than coach Diego Maradona, who went from being one of the two best soccer players in history to a life of drug addiction; and from befriending Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and other thugs to coaching the national team with scant prior experience.

He was vilified when the team almost didn’t make it through the qualifiers. But he reinvented himself in the first round of the World Cup, enveloping his team with a powerful mystique that became highly contagious for his countrymen. Argentines back home seemed emotionally resurrected. Maradona’s defense of old-school soccer, the idea being that there should be no strategy or system but pure inspiration and spontaneity, earned him praise when the first results seemed to back his method, or lack thereof. But the hero fell to earth ignominiously when Germany exposed the mirage. “This is the toughest thing I have had to live through,” Maradona said. And when we all expected him to become persona non grata, thousands of Argentines welcomed him with near-religious fervor at the airport, demanding that he stay as coach, as if the nation’s destiny was pinned on Maradona’s redemption yet again.

What a fantastic drama. The key to Greek tragedy, explained Aristotle in his book Poetics, was a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune because of “hamartia,” which means “character flaw” or “bad decisions.” Other scholars added that tragedy involves an audience feeling pleasure when watching human suffering on stage.

Maradona is Greek tragedy incarnate. The great hero falls on his own mistakes—the idea that Argentina could play with only one midfielder and more players up front than necessary, while defense was something that took care of itself. And, yes, there is pleasure mixed with suffering in seeing the great Maradona fail again. When has a team considered among the world favorites been welcomed by throngs of adoring supporters after being thrashed 4–0?

The traits of this psychodrama mirror those of Argentina’s political and economic fate. Having been, like Maradona, an economic world star that attracted millions of European immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Argentina fell from heaven because of tragic mistakes made by its “great men,” from the 1940s until today. Juan Peron was among the most important ones—but the list includes Maradona, whose support for socialism and protectionism in recent years exercised some influence among the population and the political class. And undoubtedly the suffering was mixed with pleasure, as can be inferred from the intensity with which Argentina took to analyzing itself. A world-respected generation of psychologists emerged: Their projection was such that the country was stereotyped as a nation of shrinks.

Argentina’s leaders, not unlike Maradona, thought there were shortcuts to scoring socioeconomic goals—that you did not need a solid defensive structure to support your offense and that you could do without a midfield because achievement is pure inspiration and no process. In Argentina’s political economy, the process of institutions was replaced with the inspiration of the strongman.

Today, Argentina is ranked on average in 60th place in terms of per capita income; its stock of foreign direct investment is smaller than that of Trinidad & Tobago. The tax-and-spend policies of the last decade echo what happened with Maradona in the first round of this World Cup, when victory against relatively weak teams was confused with the real thing.

Admittedly, it was hard not to be enthusiastic in the first round. Argentina’s team offered moments of real genius on the pitch and Maradona’s faith in old-school soccer was stirring for those of us who fear that mathematicians have taken control of the game. But this was always Latin American populism’s tragedy—the illusory path to success—and it was also the team’s demise.

In his famous essay “The Return of Eva Peron,” Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul referred to the Argentines’ belief that they are Europeans, which in effect exonerates them from making too much effort to truly become part of the modern world. There is some truth in that cruel observation. Until the lesson is learned, the results will not be very different.