“YOU could start an article on the news pages with that same line but they fit on the sports pages too because these are turbulent times for our football.”
Jorge Valdano, quoted from The Guardian.
Despite many misgivings, and there were considerable amounts of those, the FIFA World Cup in Russia has gotten off to a good start. Considered to be one of the most open world cups in recent times, the quality of football played has been exciting. With some issues with the newly instituted VAR system nagging, the most anticipated sports event in the world has been largely, controversy-free. That is, if you are not an Argentinian.
At the time of writing this piece, Argentina had made it to the Round of 16 by the skin of their teeth. There is no denying that even the most skeptical commentator would have failed to predict that the albiceleste that boasts of some of the biggest names in contemporary football would cut such a sorry figure on the sport’s biggest ground. To be sure, these men have time and again justified their (inflated) costs to the European clubs they play for.
Argentina – the nation, the people, the government even – needed the national team’s World Cup campaign to be a national project. It is no coincidence that Jorge Sampoli, the beleaguered Argentinian Coach, said as much while admitting that the project had failed after their shock defeat against Croatia.
To be fair to Sampoli, who still continues his job despite alleged rumblings from the players, the project was burdened with expectations far greater than it could carry. Things have been tough for Argentina and its right-wing president Mauricio Macri since he grabbed power from the Left-leaning, populist rule of the Kirchners – Néstor and Cristina. Macri had prided himself on his anti-Peronist credentials, his industrial-aristocratic lineage and his Wharton-Columbia stints. He boasted that all of Argentina’s woes – inflationary or otherwise – could be resolved through correcting the social welfare schemes that have characterised the South American regimes associated with the “Pink Tide”. Macri soon began to tighten social expenditure in the name of reducing fiscal deficit which coupled with Chinese consumption cooling off threw Argentina to the brink. On the eve of the opening ceremony in Moscow for the World Cup, the peso had tumbled to a record low against the US dollar, forcing the Central Bank to intervene thrice in the span of a week and announce an interest rate of 40 percent which further exacerbated the high inflation rate, looming at around 26 percent. Worse still, Macri’s name appeared in the leaked Panama Papers for owning offshore accounts and firms without declaring his participation in those; the latest coming days before the World Cup was to kick off. And then, Macri proceeded to do what in Argentinian collective consciousness is regarded as the unthinkable; he approached the International Monetary Fund for a purported $30 billion loan.
For the uninitiated, Argentina’s relations with the IMF began under the military regime of 1957. Besides perhaps Chile, no other country in the region can boast of a rule of terror, financed and abetted by the IMF, better than Argentina. The trope of Argentina’s ‘missing generation’ that has continued to dominate popular imagination and culture was a direct result of a ruthless military regime hell-bent on imposing structural reforms of the misleadingly titled, Washington Consensus. By the turn of the 21st century, millions of Argentinians, formerly of the middle class were insolvent and destitute. Scores had died trying to resist the then government’s further imposition of IMF’s diktat. In a recent survey, 75 percent of Argentinians polled refused to support the government’s request for an IMF loan. Acutely aware of its past sins, even the IMF chief Christine Lagarde was at pains to atone for her institution’s bloody past. In an interview to Spanish El País she confessed that the IMF’s approach were hasty and disproportionate to the actual conditions.
And perhaps for this reason alone, with a mounting economic crisis and allegations of personal corruption, Macri had hoped for a national distraction to be carried out in Moscow. For a country so obsessed with its imperial past in the sport, many political and cultural commentators have pointed out that football in Argentina operates as a televised propaganda for the State. Umberto Eco had famously condemned football as a mean to keep the masses deliberately captive and ignorant, diverting attention from issues that really mattered. While Eco’s words could well be dismissed as being too reductive, the present conjuncture of crisis could do well to reflect on the import of his thoughts. After all, Argentina was fielding a team which has Agüero, Dybala, di María, Higuaín, Pavón and Mascherano. And then it has its captain, and arguably the most important man of our times, Lionel Messi.
As anyone with even a superficial understanding of Argentinian football will tell you, the problem with the Argentinian national team is that it has (at least) four forwards who can find a place in any national team, besides their own. The match against Croatia, which Argentina lost 3-0, saw how the Argentinian team panicked and played with no clear game plan. Sampoli must claim a considerable share of that ignominy, and to his credit he full well did. Much was made of how Sampoli had spent time with Pep Guardiola in Barcelona to make the most of Messi in the national side. And yet Sampoli fielded a 3-4-3 formation against Croatia which Messi has repeatedly shared his discomfort at. For Messi who is both a prolific scorer as well as an incredible game maker for his peers, a freer movement with one more forward best compliments his game. This much could be told even by a kid on the streets of Buenos Aires. In the match against Iceland, the formation worked and despite Messi’s botched up attempt at the penalty, Messi took 13 shots at the goal; more than what entire teams can manage collectively in a game. But inexplicably, Sampoli disregarded ‘popular wisdom’ and went ahead with a third forward thereby allowing Croatian defenders to effectively cut Messi off from the midfield through a combined (might I add heroic) attempt.
The problem with Argentinian football reflects the larger problem of the nation. The Argentinian Football Association (AFA) is mired in corruption at different levels and those at the helm remain disconnected from those they seek to represent. Macri and Sampoli, in their positions, do not look so apart anymore. The AFA has desperately tried to mimic the European football club system whereby regional affiliations for clubs far outweigh the glue that a national team is supposed to provide. There is literally nothing Argentinian about its present team. The cunning of one-two passes is almost missing, the game is performative (and less tactical) with its obsession with culturally enforced ideas of machismo or huevos at display rather than a team game. While thankfully the team is still not subsumed by the more European version of tiki taka it is safe to pronounce that the Argentinian team is at best, a collection of some of the styles populariSed in English Premier League and Spanish La Liga. The “hand of god” that blessed its game until the 1980s, is far from present in the team’s most recent outing.
And then there is the over reliance on the personality of Messi. Perhaps the tragedy of being Messi was best captured in a caption I read in The Times of India, “From G.O.A.T. to scapegoat”. Messi did not claim to be a Maradona, let alone a Peron. He was for most part of his career the man furthest away from displaying any signs of the misogynistic huevos. His ambitions have been modest. He has played to win, to delight. He has admirably and with unsurpassed integrity held the national team together for now 15 years. Messi has nothing to prove to anyone; it is moot to even debate whether he is better than Maradona or C Ronaldo. And yet, as the nation descends into a grave crises, he is called upon to salvage a national spirit; a project far beyond his already superhuman abilities. It is well worth remembering that this moment bookends the crisis of 2002, which is when the cult of Messi emerged on the national horizon. It is reminiscent of the times when the great Pele was called upon by the Brazilian military junta everytime it found its legitimacy ebbing. Pele obliged then, but the politics of today is dramatically altered. The club system is so heavily monetiSed that every Argentinian teenager, it is joked, is three goals away from being whisked away by a European club. The problem for the taciturn and introverted messiah named Messi is that he has repeatedly internalised the demands of this nation in crisis. Hence the beard. Hence the photo ops with the kids and the attractive wife. Hence the Beckham style tattoos. But what ideas of masculinity does one fall on next, when Diego Maradona, the greatest male hero of Argentina, breaks down crying on international television as he did after the match against Croatia? Messi it is said is more popular in the world than Coca Cola. Messi doesn’t get it.
The football writer Marcela Mora y Araujo began her recent piece on Messi with an anecdote about Lucrecia Martel, the acclaimed Argentinian film-maker. Martel admitted that whenever she finds it hard to sleep, she turns to videos of Messi scoring goals on Youtube in search of some relief. Messi, she said, gives her hope. For Martel and million others like her, a long night of insomnia and strife is impending that even videos of their greatest hero on a loop may not ameliorate. For every crisis in global capitalism to national sovereignty, he will be the fall guy. It is easy to pull a diminutive man down. Structures are, after all, tenacious.