Argentina está de fiesta. The country is awash with the sort of fervid nationalism not seen since… last month, when the commemoration of the Malvinas conflict led outburst of flag-waving that would make your average American look like a limp-wristed, yellow-bellied communist. Tuesday the 25th of May will be the 200th anniversary of the Revolución de mayo and such is the importance of the party that Cristina has declared Monday 24th a bank holiday, too, thus creating an extended nay super weekend of music, dancing, endless parades, flag-waving, theatre (the Colón reopens tonight) and football – the send-off for la Selección is on Monday night against Canada – for the country’s bicentennial.
The celebrations, which will go on til Wednesday morning, were opened earlier in the evening by la Presidenta, who choked up and was seen to have tears in her eyes as she spoke: “God willed that I should be President during the Bicentennial but i’d like to thank everyone for all their hard work in the lead-up to the 25th and afterwards, too, as the Patria is constructed by and for everyone.” The media may tell you that it was a glorious mix of pride and humility in their finest forms, patriotism at its purest, that she was overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being Argentinian. Pegamequemegusta can reveal, however, that her tears were due to having to warm up for the real man of the hour, Diego Maradona.
Though he told Niembro in that interview last week when he was a player his every departure from his homeland was marked by salty discharges from his eyes, pegamequemegusta reckons Maradona would be happy to get to South Africa as soon as possible. He was on tv last night in yet another interview, an ego massage chirpier than an afternoon at Ian Holloway’s house, to be feted in the greatest fete since the Marley Grange bake sale of 1991 (when all but three walnutty cakes were sold), but he looked tired. Diego was across town doing what he does best – talking. So much so, indeed that by the time he appeared on Canal 13 last night he was quite out of breath. for the first while. María Laura Santillán y Santo Biasatti got him feeling comfortable, however, with a good ego massage. Argentinian Pride, ‘the jersey’ and Maradona being a legend came up quite frequently. Indeed, the occasion even prompted him to make one of his old socialist comments: “No, María, we’re not under any pressure. The guy who goes out looking for work for 14 hours a day to try and provide for his family, he’s under pressure.” Vamos, Diego, the presidency won’t be too far off if you nail this one, we thought.
Yet pegamequemegusta felt we had heard that one before… My God, could it be that such is the pressure to talk these days that Diego might run out of charm. What kind of a world would it be if we had to listen to Maradona everyday? The World Cup will certainly be his biggest test yet: can he stay interesting? This later interview was just a Richard & Judy affair, however, a fluffing exercise where he was asked such probing questions as what he planned to pack for the World Cup: “Well i’m not going to pack much stuff ’cause the important thing is what we bring back.” Yet our fears were allayed – Diego was all talked out. He had spent the day holding court before the assembled media, and many was the pearl his most regal of beards did proffer.
The first topic of the day was, inevitably, Messi. Maradona has been thoroughly chuffed with Lio since his foulmouthed, indeed, Diego-like outburst last week upon his coronation with Barcelona last week: “Visca el Barca! Visca Catalunya! And long live Argen-fuckin-tina!” It seems as if all the media harpying has ultimately served to piss Messi off enough to make the greatest player in the world feel he still has plenty to prove. Hence he showed up a few days early this week for training in Ezeiza and Maradona been licking his chops all week. The manager has no doubts but that his star man is enchufado: “If he’s on the same wavelength as Mascherano, Heinze, Verón, and if we can get across our message, then I think he’ll be 100% at the World Cup.” About marking: “They’re going to mark him to death, deffo, but we’ll have him trained mentally. Physically there’s nothing more to do, Barcelona already did that work, but we’ll give him mental training, make sure he’s got the intensity you need for a World Cup. Everyone’s going to seek him out and he’s going to have to deal with it.”
- Is he going to be the number 10?
- Yes, he’s going to be the number 10.
“Every time I see him I love him more and more. In the first training session I was saying to the lads, ‘Jaysus, how does he do that?’ It’s a pleasure to watch Messi kill a ball. I was wondering how he can have such a level of perfection. And el Negro Manrique turns to me and goes ‘You’re asking how he does it, you dosser?!’ You know, I played with great players, I saw others play; I was blown away once watching Ronaldinho train, but this kid… he’s gone one better.”
- You can’t think of any comparison?
- Nah, nah, I can’t, but he’s got an incredible future ahead of him.
- Would you’ve liked to have played alongside him?
- The one-twos we’d have played! You drool watching him.
On the starting 11
As regards the rest of the team, however, although Maradona has been repeating for months now that he knows what his team will be, that the Germany test was confirmation of his plan after (improvised) success in Montevideo, he rejected any suggestion that it was set in stone: “Everyday I see [on the telly] that you set out the team, you switch one player for another, that there’ll be four centre backs… But i’m bringin Clemente who can play on at right or left-back. So you needn’t swallow so easily all that stuff about four centre backs.”
- But you confirmed it on the radio…
- Yeah, but since then you talk to me so much about four centre backs that you’d think it was a crime, as if I was a bloody Italian!
Nonetheless, he went on to say that the four centre backs plan was true to a point but he did have other options at full back. Likewise, despite lamenting ESPN’s scheduling which often excludes Palermo games, in midfield he’s sure that the “sassy” Pastore can do a job when called upon, while on the wings, polyfunctional players such as Maxi and Jonás ensure a plethora of options. Whether these options would really constitute a Plan B as opposed to being mere inferior versions of the starting eleven remains to be seen, however. For his part, Maradona says “We’ve done all our homework and have no doubt but that whoever plays will do the job we set out for him.”
On the squad
Of the squad, the man whose call-up this week has caused so many twisted eyebrows most of the pundits on the telly have looked like they just came from a Ming the Merciless convention, Ariel Garcé, Maradona was quick to defend himself:
“If you lot are surprised by Garcé being called up, you didn’t see any of Colón’s games. You probably don’t even know where Santa Fe is! […] When I called him up [for the Haiti friendly] he convinced me: I observed him in the dressing room, in training. [….] And he’s not here on holidays, i’ll have you know. Whoever thinks they’re here just to make up the numbers is wrong. Garcé’ll be one of my options.” He went on to express his sorrow at having to only pick 23 players saying “It was a real pain in the balls” to leave out players like Lavezzi.
Just as Garcé managed to convince Diego through his gait and his excellent posture, the manager assured the press that he will be watching the players every minute of the day, “how interested they are in training, how they speak to each other, how many times they go to the bathroom before each game… I’ll be watching them in the dressing room, in the hotel. Still, I don’t think the jersey will be any problem for this group of players.”
What he does with the trouser-darkening array of forwards he has at his disposal, if not a simple decision by any means, does seem easier to anticipate, however. Despite Milito’s Caniggia-like prowess in today’s Champo League final, Maradona has been reserved as to what plans, if any, he has for Inter’s deadly striker. Perhaps it’s just because he hasn’t showed up yet or maybe he was only obliged to included him by dint of his prolificacy. In any case, he has had words for Higuaín and Tevez:
“I was asking him today if Real had given him a ten year contract extension yet and he says to me ‘they haven’t rang me yet’. Just like that, you know. So I said, ‘Relax, buddy, you’ve done what you had to do: score 250 goals. Now just get your old man to go and get as much money out of them as possible, or get them to sell you for 70 million quid.
“Then you’ve got Carlitos, who gives his all in every training session [really?] and you say to yourself: ‘God, how am I going to leave him out?’ […] Leaving Carlitos out is tough.”
Indeed, Tevez today swore that he was going to make Maradona’s decision as difficult as possible: “It’s not gonna be easy for him, not at all. Still, it’s nice, healthy competition with the best of the best, Messi and Higuaín.” For his part, Diego posited the possibility of playing with two strikers at some point and playing Messi a little further back, almost as a classic number 10. It’s a delicious idea but one which hasn’t worked the few times it has been tried, such as in the defeat to Chile in Santiago, which was notable for two things: firstly, it featured a rare start for Diego Milito; and second. it was Coco Basile’s last match. Nonetheless, given Maradona’s belief in the transformative power of the World Cup – a sort of giant holy well from which only Argentines can drink, apparently – even his own twisted logic would permit some tinkering.
On the World Cup
- What would you consider a good World Cup?
- Coming first. Bringing back the trophy.
- Are we favourites? No, ’cause the favourites never win it. Let Spain be favourites,” he replied while grabbing his balls in an apparent effort to ward off evil spirits.
His terrifically Argentine (or terrifically Diegoish.. has pegamequemegusta come to confuse what’s typically Argentine with what’s typical of Diego? Would we be right in doing so?) routine continued with such lines as “It’s not just your head or your skill you need to win a World Cup, even your arse has a part to play.” This might be a the clearest justification yet for calling up Palermo.
He was a tad more reflexive when asked if Argentina would play silky football in South Africa: “We’ll all go out to win and throw all the meat on the grill. But not at any price. As Angelito Cappa says, if you play well you have a greater chance of winning than losing.” He also made a good point about how long the season is and the negative effect on the team’s preparations: “In ’86 we trained together for 70 days. Nowadays, a little later and they’ll stick the Champion’s League final on the 30th. We’re in up to our necks [balls, he said, obviously]. You’ve got less chances to experiment. But i’m not worried about it all. The lads know what I want from them.”
On his sins
In this long interview, where we’d seen both Maradona clown and Maradona maestro, there was even time for Maradona-confessor:
- What have you learned since you took over?
To treat the players better. To respect them more. I had a certain idea of what players were like but I realised from my actions that I was right about some things and completely wrong on others.
- What changed?
Times have changed. Players nowadays are much more professional, they’re smarter. […] They’re more likely to speak up. They’re always asking questions. We weren’t like that: Bilardo would talk for 45 minutes and we would just nod and say ‘yes, boss, yeah, yeah’; he’d be having a go at everyone and the only thing we were thinking was ‘when’s it going to be my turn?’
- And what mistakes did you make?
Noooooo….. Eeehhhhhhhhhhh…… Well of course there were some errors that we tried to sort out straightaway and couldn’t. But with time we straightened them out. When we took over the team, you know, we knew we were on the ropes… And it was tough, you know, everything that went on in the qualifiers… that players don’t play at the same level they can play at in the World Cup… so I made mistakes, I made a lot of mistakes, but, you know, we qualified and now i’m very confident.”
Regular visitors to pegamequemegusta will not be surprised to learn that canchallena gives a lot more details to this part of the interview than Olé does.
On his contract
Nonetheless, the latter does include a rather interesting part left out by canchallena on the details of Maradona’s contract. When asked if he’ll stay on as manager of la Selección “come what may”, he replied that it’s not up to him, that Grondona decides these matters. Grand, but then he went on a Maradonian speech where it’s hard to separate verifiable fact from fatuous verbosity: “I’m not going to stay on where i’m not wanted. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to get paid for nothing. And i’ll tell you something else: I get paid for winning. I don’t get paid if I draw or lose. That’s what my contract says. I get paid for winning. Alright, lads?” Pegamequemegusta was ready to suppose it was mere wing-flapping but he repeated the same thing on the aforementioned interview on Canal 13 later that evening, saying he doesn’t eat if he doesn’t win.” It would certainly explain those friendlies against Haiti, Costa Rica, Ghana’s youths and Jamaica; and that he hasn’t drawn a game so far. It might also explain why Diego’s so anxious to get to South Africa: pay days await. The Bicentennial can stuff its party in a sack.
On who’s boss
Yet whether the organisers of said party really care about Maradona was thrown into some confusion this evening. Despite the piss-take at the beginning of this post, Maradona’s only real function this celebratory weekend was to lead the team out in the Monumental for the send-off game against Canada on Monday night. That match would have gone ahead bicentennial or no, pegamequemegusta having gone four years ago. However, there is evidence to suggest that the national team is once again being used as the tool of their political masters. The 58,477 tickets available for the friendly apparently sold out in a matter of hours. Not even during the qualifiers did tickets ever go so fast. There were no lines round the block showing massive interest in the game for the tickets vanished via online gougers ticketek. Yet canchallena tell us that sources high in the Presidenta’s office revealed that the tickets have a “special destiny”. That is to say, the Grondona and the AFA seem to have paid back some of their debt to the Kirchners for Fútbol para todos (last year’s nationalising of football by stripping the equivalent of Sky of their deal and putting all matches on free-to-air tv) by handing over all the tickets, which in turn will be doled out to ‘political activists’. More than sympathetic to Cristina’s cause, they will ensure that despite all the fanfare surrounding la Selección, no-one will forget whose party this really is. No-one outdoes la Presidenta, Diego, not even you.
Yes, folks, even pegamequemegusta has been caught up in the fervour.