The Homecoming

“People say we only play for money but i’ll tell you, Mario, that’s not how it is. I love this jersey. I love it for my country, for my family. I couldn’t give a crap about the money – that I can make in Europe or wherever. The players always show up to put on the jersey. Anything else is a lie, you can believe me.”

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Ah yes, May every four years is a special time; the return of the country’s illustrious departed sons, those who make the people proud and represent the nation in all its glory, those who despite their absence prove that Argentine genius and, more importantly, balls, are alive and well even if they can’t ply their trade in the fatherland. If they can’t what? Oh dear, it seems we’ve touched a nerve… Of course they could play here but there’s better money on offer elsewhere. Yes. Well, you know, that’s how things work these days… and they do very well there so why would we complain?  I suppose they don’t do so well with the national team, no… Ah, could you spare a cigarette? Thank you. Well it’s probably just a question of tactics, of the manager, of luck, you know, don’t get in a strop about it. Just enjoy the homecoming.

Like those Yanks in Irish or English plays from the 60s onwards who get fleeced and/or murdered, however, the return to the patria can be uncomfortable. To pegamequemegusta’s flawed mind, there are many reasons for this, answers for which are undoubtedly best sought elsewhere. Among those we feel qualified to advance, however, there’s the question of money, which is double-edged: a rift valley-sized chip on the shoulder of many Argentines with regard to the good life of those who triumph in Europe, and, consequently, a suspicion that the players don’t give their all when they are obliged to come back to the homeland. They forget about us, they’re comfortable while we struggle, they’re more worried about getting injured than giving their all, it’s not like the good old days.

No, it’s not. When they won in 1978 all but two of the 22-man squad were playing for Argentine clubs; in ’86 fourteen were doing so; in Italia ’90, eight; in USA ’94 ten (with three goalkeepers making up the Argieball bunch); in France ’98, six (2 keepers); in 2002, two; in Germany 2006, three (two keepers). Besides telling us that Argentine goalkeepers don’t seem to appeal to European teams, these sickeningly nerdy stats tell us that despite the Bertie-like false affluence of Menem’s (touch your left testicle, it’s bad luck even to name him) Argentina in the 90s, there has been a gradual distancing of the national team from the pueblo.

This has been given a further dimension in the past year or so with Maradona’s insistence on playing friendlies with the Selección local, a local team for local people, against rent-a-teams (not even their first teams) like Ghana, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Haiti. The idea is that the Europeans, unlike those still plying their trade in Argentina – those who haven’t forgotten their ways – are too decadent to battle n scrap; thus their undoubted skill must be counterbalanced by the balls of the locals, who will die for the shirt, etc. This nonsense – they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t bring in the bunts – has been made all the palatable by an ingenious stroke of pure populism, sorry, Peronism (for more see the article on next year’s Copa América), which claims to bring the football to the people. And it does. There’s no arguing with it; but it also has the side effect of reinforcing this sense of distance from the national team.

The greatest example of this trend is the greatest footballer in the world, Lionel Messi. Out of all the players he has had to put up with the most crap over the last year and a half. You know an opinion is widespread when you hear your ma-in-law spouting it (on football, of course), and the consensus is that, in Oscar Ruggeri’s words, “Messi is sad when he plays for la Selección”. There is the ‘perfection’ theory advanced by Ignacio Fusco in an interview brought to you by pegamequemegusta a few months ago:

  • Among the many reasons that prevents the Argentine public from taking to Messi is, I suspect, his perfection. Diego’s sins, Ronaldo’s ego, the humble background of a Tevez or an Adriano, they make the fans see the player as one of their own. While Leo is so quiet, so flawless.

This ties in to a fair extent with a larger “war for the soul of the country” as one of you handsome readers put it (Che, Gardel, Diego vs Borges, Cortázar, Messi). Really, though, at the bottom of all this are the straight out accusations of being Catalan, not Argentine. Whether the ignorant rants of truly terrible people on daytime TV or insidious sniping disguised as good-natured ribbing from two-faced sports dailies (not helped by the Spanish, who suggest he thought of playing for them), the attacks began with the tug-of-war over his participation in the Beijing Olympics and reached a nadir after the defeat to Paraguay when Olé said he “sulked like a kid who dreams of being a tennis player but who’s dad insists he plays football”. That father was complaining just last month that “in Argentina we treat Messi badly”. For his part, Messi fils was on CNN en Español on Thursday night and spoke as genially as always: “I hope it’s our World Cup. Even though we had a tough time getting there we could surprise a few people.” And: “People are entitled to their opinions, I respect that. It doesn’t get to me. I’m the first guy who wants to do well for Argentina. I know it’s a great opportunity and i’m going to try and do my best.” What a dreamboat.

La Plata, after the World Club Championship defeat of Estudiantes

Though you're close to me we seem so far apart / Maybe given time you'll have a change of heart / If it takes forever girl then I'm prepared to wait / The day you give your love to me won't be a day too late

Not all have been so congenial, however. As the players come back in dribs and drabs it has been interesting to note that there doesn’t seem to be any media restrictions of any kind in place and so these demigods, these ambassadors, these footballers have been speaking their minds. All the accusations and sniping that goes on while they’re away – or they think goes on, at least – seem to take on added venom in direct proportion to the distance of the player. And a couple of guys who spoke yesterday used the opportunity to set the record straight: they were Javier Mascherano and Carlitos Tevez.

Argentina’s captain spoke first and attacked statements made in various places about Maradona’s squad: “As a player it annoys me when you hear certain players being disparaged. In some quarters they’re cutting players but there’s 30 of us all in the same boat and the manager will decide who makes the final squad.” And as he dismissed the allegations of conspiracy that Alfito Basile had levelled at Maradona last weekend (“Sure four days before we had given everything [for Coco] with the Uruguayans biting our ankles off”), he took the opportunity to reaffirm the lengths the players go to to bring happiness to the people: “We travel enormous distances, we do our best, we don’t come here just to waste our time… always with the best possible attitude.”

Tevez with Román when he was a guttersnipe-cum-ballboy in the Bombonera

The filter-less Tevez, as usual, had more to offer, however. He turned up speaking on Pergolini’s show on Rock & Pop and started off speaking about the fact that he knew he had to fight for his place in the team since Argentina have such great players. Before long, however, he was complaining about the hypocrisy of people who lay into la Selección now but come looking for a hug when things go well: “A lot of people who criticise the team do it out of spite. They don’t say ‘Ah well the things aren’t going as we planned but let’s find a solution’, they don’t have the class for that. They just start throwing shit around, attacking the team.” This is because, Tevez says, many people make a living out of Argentina: “La Selección is a business.” For the players it isn’t, however: “People say we only play for money but i’ll tell you, Mario, that’s not how it is. I love this jersey. I love it for my country, for my family. I couldn’t give a crap about the money – that I can make in Europe or wherever. The players always show up to put on the jersey. Anything else is a lie, you can believe me.”

Ah, Carlitos, this is why we love you. Yet I can’t help notice that even you, el jugador del pueblo, the greatest people’s champ since Rocky, seem strangely out of touch. After all, it’s not true that there has been massive criticism of Argentina over the last while. People are too nationalistic for that. Of course there has been much complaining but considering the hole the team dug itself into in the incredibly poor qualification campaign, people had every right to voice what was in the end mild enough criticism. An indication of this is that you, despite being sent off twice in two games, scoring very, very little and taking a holiday instead of playing against Brazil away, are still by far the most loved player.

He was more on the mark, however, when he attacked the powers that be in Argieball: “The standard of football isn’t great. It’s been poor for a while now actually. The people in charge of the clubs think more about money than in the football. They’re not doing things as they should and in a few years things are going to be even worse than they are now.”

Pegamequemegusta doubts that Carlitos was this politically conscious all those years ago when he won the peoples’ hearts. He’s matured, he’s changed, he has inevitably become more estranged from the day-to-day to the extent that he comes back now with the standard criticisms of anyone who lives abroad for a long time. Yet while some will be seen as weak or ‘foreign’, any criticism offered taken as proof of a lingering resentment in their heart at the ramshackle homeland, others will never change in the eyes of the people, no matter what; they will always have a sweet homecoming.

Messi in colloquy with a true Argentine

There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions of any kind in place and so these demigods, these ambassadors, these footballers have been speaking their minds.

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