The industrial quantities of love sloshing around la Selección these days have forced pegamequemegusta to acquire a pair of wellies. Needless to say we’ll be pleading the 5th as to how they came into our possession, but it’s a good job they did as the last 24 hours have seen an outbreak of love unprecedented since the 2008 Chelsea squad appeared on Wife Swap.
Pegamequemegusta confessed before the match to being as giddy as a gaggle of goosestepping schoolgirls high on laughing gas at a Greyhound track. Yet our prepubescent, Sweet Sixteen magazine excitement was nothing compared to the amount of man love, bromance and frilly shirt and doublet gushing going on in Polokwane yesterday.
Of course Maradona’s Argentina has been the omphalos of amorous feeling in this World Cup so far. Suprisingly, perhaps, for a team managed by a man supposedly touched by God, their World Cup has been marked less by agape than it has by eros. From the closed-doors team-building camp complete with inspiring notes from el Diez, to the fist-pumping and serial displays of emotion that have characterised their matches, the press love-in with Diego, Messi’s apparently doomed love affair with the net as he tries to reignite the old flame of ’86, and Palermo’s made-in-Hollywood moment last night, romantic sub-plots just keep multiplying in Argentina’s relentless two-step towards the final.
The tv and newspaper output since yesterday evening has been one long love letter to San Martín Palermo. The interview count, at least those pegamequemegusta has seen, stands at about seven thousand and four. Within two minutes of the end of the match he had given two already: one on the pitch, another in the tunnel. This is the story the press has been waiting for – and Maradona, too, qué vindicación! Palermo is of course a very loveable and media-friendly guy – in fact that’s one of the many differences he has with Riquelme, who regards the press with about as much trust as a three-legged rabbit does a hungry fox – but the outpouring of sugary love has left pegamequemegusta reaching for our toothbrush.
In today’s Olé, Leo Farinella writes:
“Palermo’s not caviar in Monaco, he’s not Champagne or Paris, Palermo’s an asado with red wine from Ushuaia to La Quiaca, a couple of matés and dulce de leche. Vamos Argentina, carajo!”
Oh but he’s not done there. No, no, this is the guy who came back from the three missed penalties in the Copa América in ’99, who scored his 100th goal for Boca with torn ligaments in his right knee, who broke his leg when a wall collapsed under him as he celebrated with Villareal, who scored a header from 38 yards, the guy who saved Maradona, saved Argentina with that Shawshank moment against Peru. No, there must be more. There is, of course:
“Messi can’t, Milito can’t, no-one can. He’s immortal, historic, unbeatable. In that impassioned embrace with Messi, yet another mystical embrace with Diego, he’s a miracle worker, faith incarnate on a football field. South Africa on its knees: the ball that no-one can can get the hang of, Martín tames it first time with his weaker foot. And in the net. From time to time God recalls a country that seems like it’s about to disappear off the map. He chooses someone and before you know it he is imbued with the divine spirit. We hail you, Saint Palermo.”
For his part, Maradona revealed after the game that Mancuso and el Negro Enrique had wanted to bring on Higuaín and had even gone so far as to write down the change for the 4th official. El Diego countermanded the order, however: “Bring me Martín.” Despite it being a token gesture, the words will go down in Argieball folklore as another chapter in the Book of Palermo, a chapter written with so much love it comes with a special pair of gloves.
One of the other main romantic threads running through this World Cup is that of Messi and Maradona. The comparisons have been going on for years now but show no sign of letting up. La Pulga was even given the captain’s armband for the first time for the match against Greece, an honour he had only ever had once before in a meaningless friendly against the LA Galaxy, just as Diego had in ’86, and became the youngest ever Argentina captain in the process. Now even the fact that he hasn’t scored in the first few games has brought more comparisons with Maradona. The great man himself pointed out: “Remember that against South Korea Valdano scored two and Ruggeri one; and against Bulgaria it was Burruchaga who got one.”
While the Messi-can’t-score story is becoming almost as vexing as the Messi/Maradona one, there is an unprecedented amount of devotion towards the erstwhile ‘Catalan’ these days. The paper comes equipped with diagrams recreating his genius and there’s hardly a murmur to be heard anywhere of his supposed disaffection. Still, many were faux-outraged that the Barcelona man had been awarded the man of the match award instead of Palermo. Marcelo Sottile wrote in Wednesday’s Olé: “Messi hugging Palermo was […] the first proof that God exists and he loves un loco.”
If it’s true, however, that love is seeing an imperfect person perfectly, there were plenty of examples in the post-game reaction to Javier Pastore’s contribution. Pegamequemegusta has plenty of time for talented young playmakers, especially considering what Özil has been up to in this World Cup. Yet the praise raining down today on the Palermo player has been somewhat misleading.
In barely 15 minutes on the pitch, Pastore managed to rack up massive 7/10 (the same as Messi, for example). Olé praised his ‘remarkable ability’ to come on and get straight into the rhythm of a game. Martín Eula gushes that in only a couple of passes he managed ‘to infuse his teammates with confidence and set up a few moves’. In the crappy picture above, he is credited with having an important role to play in Palermo’s goal, but all he did was play a simple five or six yard pass to Messi, the Héctor Enrique to Messi’s Maradona. Bizarre stuff: the need for romance sees them spinning more threads than are necessary.
Fine, of course they do – sure there’s about 40 ad-filled pages on the match and something needs to go on them. The contrast with the treatment doled out to Milito could hardly be starker, however. The Inter striker received a 4/10 for his thankless toiling in and around the packed box, which seemed pretty harsh to us. The reason Verón managed to break the record for passes in a game is that, despite having many players eager to make an impression, the ball just rolled about in midfield for much of the game. Argentina were hardly chomping at the bit to get beyond the Greek defence. Milito saw precious little of the ball yet in the media the drawling centre forward’s performance was labelled as being down to fate! Olé sum up: “It just doesn’t work. [Milito’s] games for Argentina seem to be marked by some kind of karma.”
What he did in a past life to deserve such a curse remains unclear. To pegamequemegusta’s tear-filled eyes, it seems far more plausible to put the rush of goals in the last few minutes down to the near-inevitable crumbling of Greek resistence. It was neither Palermo in the guise of Priam or Pastore as Hector that managed to drive the Greeks from the beachhead on which they were encamped. It was simply that they got tired, frustrated with their utter inability to control their own fate. Indeed, news coming through of a topsy-turvy game between South Korea and Nigeria most likely did nothing to quell their nerves. That’s about as romantic a tale as pegamequemegusta’s trip to the social security offices.
What these guys make of the game and the spin they put on it is important as for all the ground Maradona has made up over the last month or so in charge of the team, he remains very much a media man and, annoyingly, we seem to be seeing more and more of him on telly as the tournament goes on. Indeed, on Tuesday while supposedly out to check out the playing surface he gave an impromptu pre-match interview with his old buddy Niembro and chatted away to his daughters live on TV with many an ILOVEU etc. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but we worry at times about him losing his focus (today a series of interviews are coming out in various publications…).
Thankfully, however, midst all the praise, love and tinsel in today’s papers, there were some criticisms and suggestions for Maradona. Although he eventually ended up getting a 7/10 for his goal, Demichelis again came in for criticism. He did make one or two decisive interventions in the very rare Greek/Samaras sallies forward, but Roberto Perfumo and others make the point that he has no reason to be out of position in the first place considering the lack of pressure Argentina were under. Then at the start of the second half he once again stumbled under a dropping ball and lay prone on the turf as the Greek striker contrived to blast wide with most of the goal at his mercy. Adrián Piedrabuena writes in Tuesday’s Olé:
“The warts on this team’s face need to be acknowledged while there’s still time. Before breaking the deadlock, Demichelis had already committed a damning error, of the kind that can get you knocked out of a World Cup. Samuel’s return should force the manager into a rethink as to whether the number 2 [Demichelis] deserves to keep his place.”
The real bit of good news to come out of the match was the experiment we had discussed in advance – that of the two new full backs, Nico Otamendi and Clemente Rodriguez, at right and left full respectively. While pegamequemegusta is not at all convinced of the latter’s defensive prowess, he got forward with great frequency and gusto, looking dangerous as he did so. On the other side, Otamendi, too, showed uncharacteristic aggression in getting to the by-line and even sent in a cross or two. Although nominally a centre back, it would be quite excellent if he were to reconquer the right back spot from Jonás.
The match did confirm, more or less, that if the two weakest links in the back four – Jonás and Demichelis – were to be removed, there are a few more options, including Burdisso at centre back (‘would Heinze be better than Demichelis?’ we cry ourselves to sleep) and alternate full backs. There is some kind of Plan B in defence. And there is hope: maybe it was a means of letting him down gently, or just keeping his confidence up, but Maradona said after game that “in my humble opinion, Otamendi was man of the match.”
You see, love just keeps a-flowing in the church of el Diez. And the great thing about love in football is that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And besides the niggling facts, Palermo’s story proves that miracles, on one level at least, are indeed possible.