As is my annoying wont, I shall be supporting the Albicelestes. Not simply because it pisses off the less tolerant Ing-er-land supporters but because supporting Argentina is never dull. They always manage to make something happen.
For example, did you know that England in 1966 only scraped through 1 – 0 against Argentina in the quarter-finals because the Argentine captain, Antonio Ubaldo Rattin, was sent off with the game goal-less? Initially refusing to leave the field he eventually hauled his 6 foot 4 inch frame off and sat on the red carpet reserved for Brenda, then the scoundrel made certain gestures in the direction of the royal box. (It was this, and some ‘vigorous’ Argentine tackling that led England manager Alf Ramsey to make his famous “animals” outburst and prevent his players from exchanging shirts at the end of the game.)
Who can forget ‘the Hand of God’ in ’86, followed by the sublime goal that England’s more bigoted fans still refuse to applaud? Maradona again made the headlines in the USA in ’94, this time for failing a drugs test. Sandwiched between was the 1990 final against Germany. Playing Maradona just behind Caniggia had worked well in the tournament but Caniggia had collected too many yellow cards and so in the final the management played Maradona as a lone striker. For all his dazzling artistry El Diego was no out-and-out striker; so Germany won 1 – 0 and Argentina had two players sent off. (Argentina holds the record for red cards in World Cup finals . . . not a lot of people know that.)
I looked forward to 1998 to see how Carlos Fernando Redondo Neri would galvanise the side. Redondo was a great player and the captain of Real Madrid. Yet the national team coach, Daniel Passarella, did not take Redondo to France. One theory put about was that Redondo’s hair was too long! Passarella insisted that Redondo had refused to play. The real reason was that the Real skipper was married to the daughter of César Luis Menotti, coach when Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 (a team in which Passarella played). Quite simply, Passarella could not afford to have someone in the squad of Redondo’s standing saying, ‘My father-in-law would do it differently’.
And on it goes, up to 2006 when, again, Argentina scored one of the great goals, this time a sublime, 22-pass movement resulting in a fantastic goal by Cambiasso against Serbia & Montenegro. In the quarter-finals they were leading Germany 1 – 0 when injuries led manager Pekerman to go defensive in the second half. Now eny fule now that Germany will keep attacking to the end, so if you’re going to defend a one-goal lead and play with just one man up front then that player had better be good enough to worry the German defence and maybe even pinch a goal. The player chosen for this delicate role was a donkey named Julio Cruz, left on the bench was a young, but already devastating, Lionel Messi. Score at the end of extra time was 1 – 1 and guess what? – Germany won on penalties.
And the roller-coaster now brings us to South Africa, where the boys in sky blue are led by the mercurial, possibly insane, mate of Fidel Castro, survivor of heart attacks and impossible to ignore, Diego Armando Maradona. To say that his managership has not been universally welcomed in Argentina would be the kind of under-statement of which I am rarely guilty. To begin with, he has used over 100 players in his short tenure, which leads many observers to say he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. Individual decisions support this view.
Inter Milan have just won the Champions League. Among their best players are four Argentines: Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel and Diego Milito. The last two are in the World Cup squad, the first two are not. There is no rational explanation for this, all four should be in South Africa. Then there’s the curious relationship Maradona has with his old club, Boca Juniors, from which he has plucked a mediocre and previously ignored 36-year-old striker named Martin Palermo. While the great playmaker Riquelme refuses to play in Maradona’s national team splitting the Boca fans, with most siding with Riquelme against El Diego.
Still, he has Tevez, and Mascherano, Milito, Demichelis, Higuain, and of course the greatest player in the world, Lionel Messi. Maybe the old coke-snorter can do it, and become World Cup winner as both player and manager, a feat managed only by Franz Beckenbauer. Then again, it might all go horribly wrong, as so often in the past.
One of the reasons I support Argentina is this Jekyll and Hyde duality that means you never know what you’re going to get when you see those beautiful sky blue shirts emerge from the tunnel. At their best, they are the best; but there seems to be a dark side to the national character that all too often results in self-destruction. No team on this planet can beat Argentina as easily or as regularly as Argentina themselves. Beyond Jekyll and Hyde there’s something even more elusive, almost mythical.
An Argentine term almost impossible to explain to most people but easy enough for a Welsh audience to grasp is la nuestra. Argentine soccer fans dream of winning through playing a style of football they believe to be both beautiful and unique to Argentina. For no one else is capable of la nuestra. Sound familiar? Just think ‘the Welsh way’ (of playing rugby).
‘These heights are best scaled by a team containing the pibe, the ‘boy’; a strange kind of hero, “with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh not quite managing to form on his mouth . . . a mouth full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating ‘yesterday’s bread'”. It’s the kid from the slums who is so gifted that we can only stand in awe. Maradona was the pibe, now it’s Messi.
Grudges, back-stabbing, a messiah myth, a vision of perfection, it’s all there – and that’s before the team ever takes the field! When, if you’re lucky, and if you’re more than just a myopic follower of your own team, you should pray to see the dirty-faced slum kid leading the dance.
That’s why I support Argentina. If you choose to support some other team, that’s fine. But that’s all you’ll be doing, supporting a team. I shall be chasing a dream.