To understand the football, you must first understand the nation.
The sudden invocation of nostalgia is not limited to football in Argentina. Turning into certain corners of the capital of Buenos Aires often feels like roaming around a larger-than-life movie set of a city still set in the 1970s.
One can imagine gentlemen with bowler hats flocking outside the jutting plaza with carriages going down the wide boulevards, while Bohemian buskers play outside retro cafes. Marred by despair and gang graffiti, some of the grandest of buildings have lost their face. The pavements leading to their great designs are dilapidated.
The architecture tells you the story of a nation which was prepared to take its place on the high-table of global politics and economy, but never quite managed to. Nicknamed ‘the Yankees of the South’ by Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario, during the 1920s Argentina was a powerhouse nation and South America’s brightest beacon. Their GNP per capita was better than the USA’s.
Delegations from Canada and Australia would visit for lessons on policy-making and economy. Then, a USA funded murderous military coup and the succeeding ruling parties overthrew all the progress from the last thirty years of civilian government and financial prosperity. And between then and the next fourteen governments, Argentina’s ranking fell to 60th. The nation now embodies the spirit of lost glory, World Cup highlights reels and high roofed-plazas.
Economist Enrico Udenio wrote in an essay that ‘Argentina is comprised of a neurotic society in which its inhabitants feel unfulfilled and compelled to act in a self-destructive manner …
It’s a society that builds up dreams and, when they aren’t realized, looks outside itself for explanations and to apportion blame.’ This could be equally said of the man whom Argentina deemed more important than the Pope, Diego Maradona, the 1986 World Cup winning maverick.
At one time, a pair of Maradona-signed boots held more auction value to the continent than the sword of Simon Bolivar, El Libertador — the general who staved off the Spanish empire in South America. Argentina, a nation demanding transparency, see-through Maradona and see him as one of their own — the genuine man from the slums, who likes a drink and a snort, someone who played football like the place (the street urchin) on hard concrete lots around broken glass and garbage, without an inkling of fear.
His flaws endear him just as much to the public as his football did. When Maradona failed his drug test in the World Cup USA ‘94, Argentina (and Bangladesh — where there were mass suicides after the expulsion) blamed FIFA for setting Maradona up for the fall. The conspiracy theories underlined a politics of blame the nation had been used to.
For the Argentine fan, football is an intellectual pursuit, and every World Cup is a moral crusade.
In a nation of nostalgia marked with moments of missed opportunity, a crisis of identity and misgovernment, football is taken as seriously as it is, also because to win at the game the English — their occupiers and invaders — invented is an inside joke that they as a nation secretly enjoy.
For Argentina, football is the only industry to have put the money where the mouth is. Previously, it played a role in nation building by unifying a picnic spread of ethnicity under the blue and white of the Argentinian shirt.
Football is the predominant outlet of hope and pride for the people. In the Argentine public eye, football players were treated with the same respect as war heroes from the Falkland Wars — or more, as some veterans still receive less pension than former footballers. Players like Gabriel Batistuta, Daniel Passarella, Mario Kempes, Omar Sivori, Jorge Burruchaga, Antonio Rattin, Jorge Valdano, and Maradona elicit such loyalty.
The football player certainly enjoys the reverence saved for great politicians and poets, which is probably why essayist Jorge Luis Borges was so resentful of the game, as a match involving River Plate or Boca would draw crowds away from his readings and plays every weekend, without fail. The fanbase is a mix of hardened cynics and embittered romantics frustrated yet hopeful of the early promise of the nation being fulfilled by football.
In Argentina, a dribble that doesn’t feel like a gamble is no dribble at all. The football must be played on the edge of exaggeration and expediency. In fact, the Argentinian word for dribbling is ‘gambeta’. It’s a projection of a nation who are wary of limitations and rules-rules carry historical baggage.
On the football pitch, they are a team unshy of bending the law — signified by the alleged match-fixing vs Peru in World Cup ‘78, Maradona’s Hand of God goal, and more recently, Diego Simeone’s con on David Beckham in the 1998 World Cup. Unlike Brazil’s bright yellow and blue bravura, Argentine football’s style has been always laced with heavy doses of cynicism, and historically often been pale and passive like the colors of their shirt.
Over the last few years in Argentina’s international form has mimicked the loss of identity that Argentina faced in its formative years as a nation. Managers and football policymakers coming and going find their fortunes echoing those of early Argentine settlers.
The current team would admit that they made a much harder job of the 2018 World Cup qualification than they ought to have. However, it’s understandable. More currently, the blow of losing the 2014 World Cup Final to their archenemy Germany has winded them.
While the Copa America final defeat at of 2016 saw a paradigm shift of Colombia overtaking Argentina as the torch-bearers of the Creole style of football — a body blow that made Lionel Messi temporarily retire from international football — this campaign is a shot at redemption, and possibly Messi’s last chance to escape the shadow of Maradona.
The current team:
There’s promise, no doubt.
Left midfielder Marcos Acuno’s lungs have the capacity of a log cabin and can dictate the pressing and the tempo from the flanks. In Jorge Sampaoli words, “he’s intense and he’s versatile.” Maximiliano Meza, already linked to Borussia Dortmund, will be auditioning his talents for Europe’s elite.
In attack, Paulo Dybala is maturing into consistency, while in defense, Nicolás Tagliafico, “the new Javier Zanetti”, according to his coaches at Ajax, has displayed a reading of the game befitting a veteran. The youth in the squad is balanced with experience. Javier Mascherano, Freddy Fazio, Nico Otamendi, Ever Banega, Leo Messi and Sergio Aguero come from the school of hard knocks.
Argentina’s strength is their abundance in attack with Di Maria, and Higuain and Cristian Pavon making the other numbers. However, Wilfredo Caballero, while being a good shot-stopper, will look susceptible with the temperamental central defensive pairing of Fazio and Otamendi.