It’s always been Argentina. The thoughts that run through my head may undoubtedly be tinged with an English hue and the blood that courses through my veins is unquestionably Hellenic, but my football heart has always belonged to a country shimmering in silver.
I don’t know why this is the case. Perhaps it’s due to the accidental nature of my birth occurring in the year Argentina hosted the World Cup, winning at all costs whilst its citizens disappeared by the thousands, quenching the generals unquenchable pursuit of their own enemy within. Maybe it’s because my beloved club’s history is so inexorably entwined with the exotic brilliance of two World Cup winners who slalomed and sung their way into Paxton Road folklore. Or it could be due to the fact that I have a lifelong passion for and fascination with the tango; its staccato lines and dramatic flourishes brought so vividly to life on a football pitch in Germany in 2006 as twenty-four passes culminated in the most dramatic of spontaneously choreographed climaxes.
It could be, and probably is, a combination of all those factors but if I’m being honest, it’s one word, one name only. All the above are merely devices to fill up the gaping chasm labeled ‘Word Count’. I love Argentina because I love Maradona. The rest fills in itself.
Is it such a surprise that this man should hail from the same land that gave birth to Che Guevara, another hero of the impoverished and downtrodden? Within both we see the flawed duality of human nature – occasionally majestic, soaring above and beyond what is imaginable but conversely riddled with the trappings of mortality. Is it such a surprise that both these men continue to be revered and worshipped throughout the continent, acting as they do as beacons of all our potential greatness?
For an onlooker insulated within the safely certain parameters of Europe, South America has always seemed like a wildly exotic frontier land. We have had our confrontations and stand-offs on European ideological battlegrounds, that cannot be denied, but South America has always appeared to precariously balance itself, to my mind anyway, upon the thin line of extreme contradiction. The leftist philosophies of Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez and Salvador Allende have always appeared to be perennially tussling with the death squads of Brazilian juntas and maniacal Western-backed generalissimos. It was in Bolivia that Che met his doomed fate. It is no shock that it was in the continent’s north that Diego was led towards his final humiliation. It is as if both extremes are one and the same and have always been as impenetrable as the mountains and jungle that keep the continent shielded from watching Parisian and London eyes. Magnetic and compelling but nevertheless unknowable and unreachable.
It has always been thus with its football. We in Europe have become accustomed to watching South Americans pirouette and gesticulate in our domestic leagues but their arrivals on our shores are merely symptoms of shrinkwrapping geopolitics and economic largesse. Hark how the fatted European chairman waves his wad of ill-gotten cash at the grimy little street rat! Look at how we dilute him for the benefit of our sponsors!
What we have been privy to over the course of these last few weeks however has been a World Cup played on soil that gave birth to players of the instinctive brilliance of James Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez. They are essentially playing at home. We’ve been on their turf and my word, have they shone! It has unlocked a world of football that many of us have been ignorant of, so obsessed are we with our tribal rivalries and our annual Champions League cycles in Europaland.
My eyes have been wrenched open to a type of game that I only thought possible in the schoolboy daydreams I cling on to. It is a football played with heart via the balls and it makes no apology for the passion it exudes. You can sense it in the stands as thousands of Chileans, Uruguayans and Brazilians have sung verse after a cappella verse of gloriously delicate and rousing national anthems thus bringing into sharp focus the drab and strangely soulless dirges (France and Italy excepted) of Europe’s elite. You can also sense it in the football being played by the heroes they’ve crossed borders to watch. It is a breakneck football that has little time for the dispassionate meditations of tactical didacticism.
If the quarter final between France and Germany was a polite game of afternoon chess in a slumbering square played over an espresso as pigeons lazily cooed, the subsequent match that saw the hosts take on the effervescence of Colombia was a match whose origins sprung emphatically from the favelas and the villa miserias. It was brutal and unrelenting. It was also dripping with outrageous skill and deep felt passion. Both teams played as if their lives would be extinguished upon defeat. Colombia’s footballing history ominously dictates that this is not a mere case of linguistic hyperbole. It was a football defined by survival instinct and it is therefore no coincidence that the Brazilian players offered up their arms in communion with some unknown Catholic deity upon the referee’s final blow of the whistle. It was quite simply one of the most thrilling games of football I have ever been witness to and it left me craving more. It left me thanking a non-existent god too.
We have our heroes in Europe, of course we do. Icons whose showreels routinely feature in World Cup lists. We regularly rhapsodise about the collective genius of Cruyff, Zidane, Xavi and Iniesta and they are fully deserving of our admiration. However, to my mind that admiration is a cerebral one. Their brilliance is somehow too polished, too pristine despite Zidane’s best efforts to tarnish his in his final game. We may have our wastrels and untamed spirits but we do not have the players who can rival Maradona and Garrincha for innate, almost primitive shaman-like skill or Socrates for grace and poise not just as a footballer but as a person of social conscience or Valderrama for unapologetic, un-reconstituted flamboyance. In the latter’s case, Ronaldo may try but he will never come close to that beautifully ludicrous blonde afro. Never.
With such a cast however, there is often a price to pay. But doesn’t that hark back to the idea that South America is forever at conflict with itself? Where else would you see a goalkeeper stride nonchalantly out of his area to play libero only to then be mugged by a canny African striker of dubious age? It is the eternal unpredictability that makes the game so exhilarating. South Americans seem to instinctively understand that.
With such brilliance and volatility, darkness must also naturally reside. How often have European commentators made reference to the occult powers of the game’s “dark arts” as practised by the swarthy, oily lotharios of South America? It would point towards an inability or refusal to comprehend that that is how life plays out for millions of people around the globe. How else are you going to escape, if not by kicking and screaming and pinching your way out of trouble and the grave?
It feeds into our primal urges and as a consequence, the Hand and the Bite should not be presented as something outrageously alien or other. They are actions we would all take in extreme circumstances and instead of fearing them, we would do better to understand. These are actions of the body rather than the head. When Diego’s hand touched the ball, some screamed foul. Nobody however, can ever deny what happened moments after. Therein lies South America’s abiding paradox. It is not something to be coldly wary of and it is not something that needs much scrutiny. We should embrace our contradictions and darker sides and this is what I’ve learnt watching the likes of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica (who are South American in spirit) because the flipside of those is where greatness lies.
If nothing else, these countries have proved that a football of emotion rather than a clipboard is still the thing that makes us love the game. For that I am forever grateful after spending so long fretting over and trying to justify to myself my continuing passion for the sport.
Argentina and Brazil are not the two South American nations that have shone at this World Cup. They are however, its true bona fide contenders and it is somehow fitting that they will be present in the semi-finals purely on the strength of what they have historically given us all.
For everything the continent has given us over the duration of this World Cup, it would be fitting to have them both in the Final.
It’s also fitting that in a piece that has examined the contradictory nature of a continent that I should also admit to my own antipathy towards Brazil despite my yearning to see them contest the Final. I have never bought into the myth that posits the country as the guardians of Pele’s Beautiful Game. Because of the greatness of the 1970 World Cup winners, we’ve systematically been sold a marketing mirage that dresses them up as the game’s moral centre despite evidence to the contrary with the exception of Zico’s 1982 nearly men. The rough and tumble treatment meted out by Brazil’s wolfpack on James Rodriguez the other night was proof, if any were needed, that they are no choirboys. They are just as prone to malevolence as the pantomimic villains, the Argentines are so often cast as. How ironic then that Argentina are built around the most humble and unassuming of global superstars. Contradictions lie everywhere in this strange, contrary land.
For everything Argentina means to me, victory in the Final would be more than a fitting conclusion. It would be poetic. It would fly in the face of the ‘Do It For Neymar’ narrative and would be a confirmation of Messi as footballing icon. It would be a confirmation of a continent inclusive rather than separate of Brazil. And it would be a confirmation of football’s triumph of the heart over the head. Argentina cries for no man or woman. It’s always been Argentina.
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