As we mentioned in Part II, Olé has been engaged in sporadic bouts of historical revisionism in order to discredit the Maradona regime and reinforce the idea that despite having done relatively little so far, Batista is indeed the Messiah. Or at least he has none of the disgraceful habits of their ex-girlfriend, like sitting naked on the kitchen table chewing off toenails before flicking the chiselings into the cereal box, or using the family pet as a crude towel substitute ‘pon waking bathed in sweat from another scream-filled afternoon nightmare. No, Checho emits a scent akin to a field of jasmines, your mother, your first love and your favourite food all rolled in to one to-die-for dispenser; harrumphing homophobes are drawn to him like cats to a piece of salmon in the form of a dog, and only the security men prevent them from licking his forehead for the heavenly salts that crown the Olympian; when Checho goes by the very swans faint from shame at their own lack of grace.
Maradona, of course, talks crap a lot of the time and is given to rewriting history according to the demands of the present moment and the delicacies of his ever-shifting alliances. Not too long ago, for example, he declared that the World Cup winning team in Mexico ’86 “didn’t have a clue what Bilardo had wanted [them] to do”. Enjoyable a topic as it undoubtedly is, we won’t make yet another digression to discuss the bizarre squabbles of Diego and the Doc over the last quarter century, pegamequemegusta would like to address the question of just how good a job Batista did on his trip to the summit of Olympia, the Beijing one, of course.
That team, an under-23 squad plus three over-age players, featured Riquelme, Mascherano, Aguero and Messi. They also had Lavezzi, Di María, Gago, Banega, etc. If they hadn’t won the damn thing, they may as well have knocked down the Bombonera, the Cilindro and the Monumental and replaced them with polo grounds and pancho stands. That might sound churlish: after all, Batista did his job, they won all their games and took another gold medal back home along with, for once, some bragging rights over Brazil, Olympic ‘virgins’ (as the wonderful headline above gleefully points out: ‘You can’t get these in Brazil’). Yet they didn’t play that well; they struggled through most of the games looking rather aimless; goals were hard to come by for the most part; the double enganche with Messi and Román never really materialised; the team was lopsided, Di María being the only real winger out on the left; Agüero was rubbish. Not even the 3-0 win over Dunga’s Brazil in the semis was particularly convincing. Watching the games, the only thing that got pegamequemegusta particularly enthused was the defence, made up of Nico Pareja and Ezequiel Garay with Monzón at left back and Zabaleta, the only one to have gone on to any kind of success and still not in the team under Batista, on the right. It was as underwhelming as this paragraph, in short.
Unlike 2004, when Bielsa used the tournament as his swan song after the trauma of 2002, this time the national team manager, Coco Basile, didn’t take charge. He was involved in real football anyway, with a World Cup qualifier against Paraguay coming up that September (the Olympics were in August). In retrospect, one of the most notable aspects of the tournament was the build-up, where anti-Messi hysteria was rearing its ugly head as Barca and the AFA battled over whether the still rather injury-prone little rosarino would show up or not.
Lots have things have changed since then, however, and a mythology of sorts has grown up around those exploits. Checho has even been credited with having discovered Di María! Batista’s team is oft viewed these days as having been the best kept secret in Argieball, the hidden recipe lying ignored in the cupboard as Basile and then Maradona experimented with mud men and invariably saw it was not good. As we said above, though, this seems more wishful thinking than anything else.
Most important, though, has been the incredible progress Messi has made. Now more than ever before he is being looked to for leadership, for vision. The line that came to haunt Maradona’s tenure, unfairly in our opinion, was Messi + 10. Indeed, el Diego was wont to make these pronouncements on a regular basis with various players taking Messi’s place depending on his moods and/or the needs of the day: Mascherano + 10, even Jonás + 10. Before play got under way in South Africa the main topic/easy line of the day was Maradona/Messi, or Maradona v Messi, depending on the point of view/flagrant ignorance of the author in question. Maradona’s team had been a disaster in qualifying, Messi was the best player, his teammates knew it; his teammates were playing very, very badly, indeed, a nervous wreck they consistently looked to Messi to save them Cristiano Ronaldo-style, and when he couldn’t do it he was a failure, a Catalán, he didn’t know what the Argentine jersey meant. Now, under Batista, they claim a massive change of mentality has been instilled – it’s Messi with ten others. Semantics, bloody ‘eck.
Whereas the fortunes of the team haven’t changed too much really, the perception of Messi certainly has. Argentina went out in the quarters, as always, and though it’s a cheap, somewhat trite line, Messi’s performances mirrored the fate of la Selección – truly scintillating at times but ultimately bullied and scuppered with not a little ignominy to boot. Ne’ertheless, he came out with his reputation enhanced. Pegamequemegusta contends that the delay in appointing Batista was not just due to doubts in the AFA – it was about the consolidation of power, making Batista squirm for a few months as the learned beards down Viamonte way feigned to be overseeing his work, judging it according to their celestial wisdom. Moreover, and especially with the ousting of such a massive media personality as Maradona, the absence of any manager at all meant that there was a vacuum. Now it’s not strange that stories about Messi should fill that vacuum – he’s everywhere, after all – but it has been rather perplexing to see the change in how Messi is represented.
Whereas before Lionel was a soulless waif, a confused but brilliant child, an uncharismatic crack, almost someone who was only to be tolerated as long as he was providing the goods (and pilloried when he wasn’t), these days Messi is presented as a strong man, a man to be listened to, an iron-willed leader, a ruthless prince covered in the blood of his legion victims with his eye trained coldly on the cup of destiny. The years he spent solely triumphing in Catalonia was but his Mío Cid phase – exiled by a confused king he racks up victory after victory routing the Moors in Valencia along the way but always sends back his booty to the king, who doesn’t recognise him, just to prove his love and devotion., before his eventual reinstatement in society as a glorious warrior next to his king (it doesn’t actually work out that well for el Cid there either, but that’s another story). It’s like the loser kid in the neighbourhood who no-one ever paid any attention to until he got that SNES and henceforth your destinies were inextricably bound, his opinion now counted when decisions were being made such as whether the ball had gone over the invisible crossbar or not.
Check out this short video. It has several rather odd characteristics, chief among them being the fact that despite essentially being an unscheduled political broadcast by the AFA against Maradona and the Selección in general, it is remarkably incoherent. The speaker is Marcelo Araujo, chief stooge on fútbol para todos (discussed in Part III), and this went out on 26th September 2010 as a nation waited for River to take the field to trounce lowly Quilmes half-eight on a Sunday night (ratings peak). He jumps from squabbles over which end a boiled egg should be broken at to accusations of ‘larceny’, while refusing to make any comment regarding his ‘dear friend’ the Doc Bilardo (¡ay!); he denounces the performance of the national team in South Africa as an ‘utter failure’, which is far from being the consensus, before claiming the thieving eejits in the AFA deserve more respect, then closes with a dramatic flourish which is in fact the kind of… no, no, watch it first:
Yes, the kind of non-sequitur that would get Sarah Palin’s glasses steamier than a man-moose-shack combo on the Alaskan-Rooskie border. Why on earth would they say that Messi is the new force at the AFA, the irrepressible head honcho of a notoriously one-man show? It also makes one wonder whether such a role as capo of the AFA even interests Messi. One would think not. Indeed, it sounds like the kind of position el Diego would have given his left foot for.
But you see, dear oh so handsome, internet people, that’s exactly the point. While the team’s chances of success are undoubtedly harnessed to Messi’s star, the political workings of the AFA most certainly aren’t. It’s a smokescreen; it’s about making all the right noises so business can continue as usual, a cockeyed version of the rather different keep-Messi-happy policy that has worked so well at Barca over the last couple of years. It’s cockeyed as it really has less to do with keeping Messi happy, than it does the tools down at the AFA projecting an image of tranquility, of progress, that we are about to see a real maturity, a coming-of-age, while all the other nonsense continues unabated.
What exactly Batista’s been up to in all this and what he makes of it, if anything, shall be the topic of the next instalment. In the meantime, let’s listen to some Wilson Pickett: