Maradona v Don Gaga – A Coffee-Fuelled Foetor at the AFA

Pegamequemegusta is a soft-bellied creature. Prone to bewildering deflations of the spirit which leave us powerless to control events – despite the initial positive prognosis, despite widespread hopes in the pueblo that we would at least challenge for some level of respectability in this world. Hence no doubt our sympathies with Racing. Hence no doubt our fascination with damn construction and the inevitable flooding of valleys it involves. Far above the petty spectrum of beaver architects or even city planners, those aggrandised, gentrifying Haussmann figures who tear down tenements for monuments to their own ego, projects such as the construction of man-made reservoirs can only be the product of a mad, Lex Luthor-style genius, of one who thinks on a cosmic scale. Such will!

Rivers diverted and blocked, towns and villages abandoned, railway lines pulled up, stations demolished, mountains turned into islands, thousands of graves dug up and moved; the years of patient waiting as the designated glen fills and fills with water so that once arable land and boroughs become drowned ghost towns, sailless wrecks disappear beneath billions of feet of water so yuppies in far off metropoli can leave the tap running as they brush their teeth. Yes, our tiny laptop fingers tremble with Kurtz-like wonder before the gaggle of inoculated one-armed children.

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As a foulness shall ye know them

– H. P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror

I

Pegamequemegusta is a soft-bellied creature. Prone to bewildering deflations of the spirit which leave us powerless to control events – despite the initial positive prognosis, despite widespread hopes in the pueblo that we would at least challenge for some level of respectability in this world. Hence no doubt our sympathies with Racing. Hence no doubt our fascination with damn construction and the inevitable flooding of valleys it involves. Far above the petty spectrum of beaver architects or even city planners, those aggrandised, gentrifying Haussmann figures who tear down tenements for monuments to their own ego, projects such as the construction of man-made reservoirs can only be the product of a mad, Lex Luthor-style genius, of one who thinks on a cosmic scale. Such will!

Rivers diverted and blocked, towns and villages abandoned, railway lines pulled up, stations demolished, mountains turned into islands, thousands of graves dug up and moved; the years of patient waiting as the designated glen fills and fills with water so that once arable land and boroughs become drowned ghost towns, sailless wrecks disappear beneath billions of feet of water so yuppies in far off metropoli can leave the tap running as they brush their teeth. Yes, our tiny laptop fingers tremble with Kurtz-like wonder before the gaggle of inoculated one-armed children.

The construction of the Quabbin reservoir in Massachusetts in the 1930s is a case in point. Four towns were destroyed as the Swift River Valley was flooded to provide water for the denizens of Boston. James Tate sets a poem there:

There was a village at the bottom of the lake,
and I could just make out the old post office,
and, occasionally, when the light struck it just right,
I glimpsed several mailmen swimming in or out of it,
letters and packages escaping randomly, 1938, 1937,
it didn’t matter to them any longer. Void.
No such address. Soft blazes squirmed across the surface
and I could see their church, now home to druid squatters,
rock in the intoxicating current, as if to an ancient hymn.

Not his best but nice all the same. In any case, do bear with ol’ pegamequemegusta, for Tate’s not the only author to set a tale in the drowned Swift River Valley. No! dear handsome reader. A couple of H. P. Lovecraft’s tales also unfold in the murky depths of the still grassy valleys: The Dunwich Horror and The Colour Out of Space.

Both stories seem like ripe material for hammy, Ed Wood-style B-movies with lurching, tentacled monsters and buxom, screaming damsels. The Dunwich Horror features a creature born of a spindly albino girl impregnated by some being not of this orb who stalks the countryside flattening houses and leaving tar-like deposits in its wake like an incontinent aunt; while the malignant presence in the The Colour Out of Space is effectively formless, an infestation that begins with the crashing of a meteorite in the valley floor, which leaves

five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid in the woods and fields.

Both manifestations of evil are invisible, either because they exist in another dimension or are too small to be seen, leaving Lovecraft room to crank even a dulled imagination such as ours into gear.

However, what really makes them good readin’ is something cinema’s not usually particularly adept at conveying, smell. The Dunwich Horror, in particular, abounds in elaborate descriptions of noxious odours. Lovecraft is especially fond of the word foetor, (‘lethal foetor’, ‘ineffable foetor’, indefinable foetor’) and its more common adjetival cousin, foetid, and pegamequemegusta, for one, cannot blame him:

 A single lightning bolt shot from the purple zenith to the altar-stone, and a great tidal wave of viewless force and indescribable stench swept down from the hill to all the countryside. Trees, grass, and under-brush were whipped into a fury; and the frightened crowd at the mountain’s base, weakened by the lethal foetor that seemed about to asphyxiate them, were almost hurled off their feet. Dogs howled from the distance, green grass and foliage wilted to a curious, sickly yellow-grey, and over field and forest were scattered the bodies of dead whippoorwills.

Indescribable stench is good.

II

Pegamequemegusta was reminded of all this recently when we heard national institution Victor Hugo Morales (on his one hour evening show, not his four-hour morning show – for a supposedly impatient people, the Argentines certainly like their radio to be rather epic) discussing Maradona’s latest accusations regarding don Julio Grondona, familiar to all regular perusers of this blog as the devil incarnate. Victor Hugo, of course, was the commentator for Maradona’s second goal against England in ’86, famously exclaiming: “Oh barrilete cósmico [lit. ‘cosmic kite’], what planet did you come from?!” On this evening, however, the source of the disturbance in the celeste y blanco force was considerably more earthy. After a while weighing up the evidence and statements of the various parties, Victor Hugo was uncharacteristically exasperated: “Anyone who has known anything about the AFA for years now could not but reel at the stench that comes out of that place. It’s asphyxiating.”

We should probably not be too surprised that foul odours should result from what Maradona claimed was some industrial strength coffee ahead of Argentina’s World Cup play-off with Australia in 1993:

In the play-offs there was no drug-testing because otherwise Argentina wouldn’t have made it to the World Cup. There had been in all the other matches but for that particular game, no. Why? ‘Cause they’d give you some ultrasonic coffee that’d make you bang the ball in the top corner. They put something in your coffee to make you run more. And Grondona knew.

Of course el Diego was merely speaking figuratively but, his phrase-coining genius being arguably as potent as his left foot, the phrase café veloz has now been filed away by the ten-strong staff in the patent office dedicated solely to the recording of his mots. 

A lot of people have taken his statement literally but putting performance enhancing drugs in coffee doesn’t really sound like the most efficient way to take them, especially when you’ve already arranged for there to be no testing. The manager at the time, Coco Basile, then in his first spell in charge, dismissed the claim as ‘rubbish’, as did some other ex-players. Besides, the rather laboured nature of Argentina’s eventual passage (a deflected Batistuta goal giving them a 1-0 win in Buenos Aires after a 1-1 draw away) coupled with the complete lack of suspicion on the part of the Australians, leads us to think that the decision was taken to protect Maradona alone. After all, he was only making his return after serving a suspension for drug use. 

No, what really interests us here is not the injustice suffered by Australia. We’re not even bothered too much about the high level corruption it implies in FIFA or, shock horror, the AFA (though, it must be said, it was delightfully brazen – it’s much easier to appreciate audacious cases of fraud than petty ones). For Grondona tacitly admitted it anyway: “I just wanted to avoid there being any possible complications, and since it was just one match […].” Furthermore, although his accusations implicated his former team mates, Maradona subsequently clarified that he wanted them to stay clear of the conflict:

This is between Grondona and me and no-one else needs to get involved. Not Basile or anyone else from that team. This is a Maradona-style showdown with someone who’s gaga, does nothing but talk shite and won’t relinquish power.

Diego had clearly decided that this doping scandal, despite being even more bizarrely hypocritical than usual, was the pointy stick with which he could harangue and chase the nominally chaste don Julio from his lair down Viamonte way.

This particular angle seems to have been chosen for no better reason than some self-satisfied remarks by Grondona a few days earlier. Maradona had dismissed him, as always, as an old fart, so don Julio replied that while he may be old “at least i’m healthy, unlike other people I could mention, who only have themselves to blame.” El Diez was upset:

Grondona said I was a fiend even though for a long time now the strongest substance i’ve taken is a bottle of water. I’ve got a whole file full of tests to prove it in court. He referred to my problems with drugs. I’m just defending myself against Grondona as what he says isn’t true. He’s talking out his hole. This just shows how bleedin’ gaga he is. He went too far. So we’re going to put an end to this. We’re going to sort this out in court.

His lawyer, one Klabermatten, did a wonderful Jackie Chiles impression on FM Identidad, saying “there have been insults and defamation, there’s even been discrimination.” The idea is to go after his money, to throw everything at Grondona: “We’re going to go for the maximum, the cumulative sentence applicable for all his crimes. The idea is to do what no-one has dared to do until now.”

III

It’s puerile nonsense, of course, but while pegamequemegusta, too, rejoices in its flaming bitchiness and farce, it should not be dismissed as nothing more than another shameful chapter in the disgraceful, incestuous, backstabbing story of Argieball. Maradona has talked enough rubbish and done enough mad things in his time that he can hardly complain if he isn’t taken seriously. Yet we were very surprised to hear the BBC’s Tim Vickery disregard his campaign as mere bitterness on Off the Ball. Usually a veritable font of sensibleness, Mr Vickery approvingly quoted an Olé editorial which questioned Maradona’s mental health. Yet discrediting an attack on those in power as the fruit of madness sounds like a tactic that would have had Stalin himself clucking genially. After all, Grondona owns a large share of Olé – they’d say Diego believes a pigeon in Catalonia is controlling his legs if he told them to. They refer to the cancer of Argieball as don Julio for Jaysus’ sake, as if he were just a kind old uncle. At times they criticise him, of course, but, miraculously, they always seem to pull back before too much damage is done.

Maradona is certainly an excitable, lewd, reckless hypocrite, but he’s not mad. He’s no maniac. He doesn’t put underpants on his head or pencils up his nose, as far as we know. It should also go without saying that many of the stories about him last year, such as supposedly running over a photographer and calling him an ‘arsehole’, were completely false. And as regards the World Cup itself, he did a much better job than Fabio Capello.

While it carried all the hallmarks of a typical Maradonian onslaught, the wildness, the slander, the profanity-laced invective, implicating Grondona in the doping scandal was a clever enough way of levelling the field. While there seems to be a kind of schoolyard code  when it comes to common corruption and the wielding of influence in an unjust manner – along the lines that, well, you would do the same if you were in power – drugs seem to occupy a slightly more serious category. It’s a more adult kind of meddling, more white than blue collar crime.

In this respect, Maradona was evidently trying to entice la Presidenta Cristina into making an intervention. For in theory the nationalising of football under the Fútbol para todos plan should have made the head of the AFA, if not a pawn of the government, then at least a reliable figure, one liable to pressure. Unfortunately, when they rescinded the TV rights deal from TyC Sports in August 2009, in their haste to poke the evil Clarín monopoly in the eye, the Kirchners forgot to ensure any actual reform of Grondona’s little knocking shop. The supposedly mad and bitter Maradona adopted a calm, conciliatory tone:

I’m not asking the president to kick Grondona out. I’m just asking for reform. The President, along with Néstor [her late husband and former president, yeah], gave us this great Fútbol para todos, but the problem is all the stuff Grondona gets up to. [….] The government is making a mistake if they continue to support him. We’re falling further and further behind.

Damn straight, Diego. It’s an election year, though, and the Copa América is upon us. Pegamequemegusta doubts there’s much stomach for removing the diablo de Sarandí at this point in time.

In any case, it disarms Grondona to an extent, meaning he can’t throw this particular aspect of Maradona’s career in his face any more. Furthermore, Maradona probably hoped to capitalise on the FIFA side to the scandal – Grondona pulling strings to avoid there being any drug tests – in advance of the media attention on last week’s congress.

Passarella: 'I'm not afraid of Grondona sending us down'

IV

More than anything else, though, Maradona was seeking to bolster the faltering campaign of a somewhat unlikely ally, Daniel Passarella. The River president had stormed into the AFA’s headquarters the other week gnashing his teeth wildly, sending flunkies flying and phlegm-drenching several children at mascot auditions, before screaming: “The old man’s got to go!”

His particular motive that day was the refereeing of the recent Superclásico. Boca had won the match 2-0 in the Bombonera and had done so comfortably, yet the Kaiser felt River had been denied several clear-cut penalties. Olé‘s reaction was revealing. They portrayed him as a sore loser, an arrogant fool desperately seeking to kick up a ruckus to distract from his own club’s pathetic slide towards the relegation playoff spots. A who’s-who of Argieball ne’er-do-wells, feckless officials and gormless presidents of rival clubs firmly ensconced under don Julio’s wing, lined up to discredit him. Arguably, he didn’t choose his moment wisely, nor was the manner of attack too subtle, but the story spinners clearly didn’t feel there was enough weight behind Passarella to warrant a deeper consideration of his concerns over AFA influence, and the matter was allowed to slide.

They’ve had their run-ins over the years but Maradona seemed willing to suspend existing enmities for his present campaign. He praised Passarella’s actions as ‘brilliant’ as “he knows Grondona just as well as Oscar Ruggeri and I do.” In his naming of Ruggeri, you get an idea of the plan: to get the familiar faces of Argieball, several of whom are genuine legends of the game, to unite en bloc and, in Maradona’s phrase, take the AFA (not ‘picket it’, as we heard in some quarters).

Before the World Cup last year, plenty of attention was given to the growing influence of the generation of ’86. Much of this was purely down to nostalgia and the Olé-selling dreams of Messi emulating Maradona’s arguably unrepeatable feats. At the heart of Maradona’s call to arms, however, is the idea that important Argieball men band together to rid their game of this nefarious influence once and for all. For if Grondona, nearly 80, is allowed to stay on at the AFA until he’s eventually beckoned down to hell to bring his experience to bear on the production of Don Gato, the Spanish-language version of the Tom Cat musical, there will be but more of the same. Humbertito Jr has been being groomed for years for the position. And even if by some miracle he didn’t manage to achieve a smooth changeover of power, the game would still have lost out on the refreshing energy a real revolution would bring.

Pegamequemegusta doesn’t seriously want Maradona and his penniless, resentful band of compadres from ’86 to take over, but they might just be a mad enough bunch to be able to take down don Julio. The excellent LaRedó makes a scaldingly disparaging comparison between the Muchachos del ’86, such as Ruggeri, who whinge about having been forgotten by society, and the soldiers who fought in las Malvinas, who really were abandoned by the State, many more of whom took their own lives in the succeeding years than were felled in combat. However, the boys of ’86 could well serve some purpose, albeit as a wild-eyed platoon of loonies who dashingly storm the hilltop only to immolate themselves when several forget to throw away their pinless grenades. Indeed it’s almost always preferable that those responsible for the successful prosecution of a revolution should have no part in the subsequent running of the body, cf 1916.

V

So it’s a sketchy enough plan, lacking in government support for the moment, and it’s badly timed to boot, especially considering Passarella’s weakened position these days. Indeed, it probably wasn’t planned at all, just grabbed at hastily as Diego saw three cherries light up on a one-armed bandit on his way home from Chechnya.

We here at pegamequemegusta, however, salute Maradona’s aborted attempt. It hardly even made a dent, probably just distracted don Julio long enough for Tevez to wriggle his way back into Batista’s flapping arms. We’ll see what happens with his court case but for now the midnight oil will remain on the shelf. Yet in theory at least, we find it a plausible approach, a convincing enough Coalition of the Willing, one that could yet be resurrected for a putsch at some point in the not so distant future.

One of the most galling things about Grondona’s continued mismanagement of Argieball, you see, is the fact that it’s so blatant, so wrong, acknowledged and lamented by all. Yet he’s immoveable, like a malevolent North Star, lighting lost sailors the way to slippery deaths. Unlike some ludicrous staple of the television schedules or risible politician, both of which can often be guilty pleasures, his hilarious sticking it to the English last week aside, he doesn’t even possess the minimum charm of your common megalomaniac. He’s been there so long every little scrap of evidence for negligence – not to mention corruption, but to be honest we don’t care too much about that – can and must be left at his door.  Yet, as with all dictators, his seemingly eternal presence, along with cowardice and media pressure of course, creates a lethargy, dulls the senses, crushes the will and leaves one soft-bellied, averse to grand projects such as the dam-building. 

Going back to Lovecraft, Borges actually dedicated a story to him in The Book of Sand. Its title, There are more Things is in English in the original, thus cementing the homage, as well as invoking Shakespeare, of course. On “one of those Buenos Aires days when a man doesn’t just feel irritated and bothered by the heat but is even debased by it,” the narrator decides to break into a house once owned by his uncle. It has since been bought by a mysterious outsider and totally redone. On entering the house, he finds that none of the furnishings have been designed for humans. There’s a weird vertical stairs (not a ladder) and a V-shaped mirror. Ooh.

Lovecraft once said that if we really got a glimpse of the possibilities the universe contains, we would “either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a dark new age.” In Borges’s story, however, the narrator says: 

In order to truly see a thing, one must first understand. An armchair implies the human body, its joints and members; scissors, the act of cutting. What can be told from a lamp, or an automobile? The savage cannot perceive the missionary’s Bible; the passenger does not see the same ship’s rigging as the crew. If we truly saw the universe, perhaps we would understand.

Unlike the monsters of The Dunwich Horror or The Colour Out of Space, don Julio Grondona, at least in his human form, is entirely visible. It is not clear whether the same can be said of the mysterious alien in Borges’s story. Yet the narrator, who as he’s leaving hears the resident approach, “suffocating and slow and plural”, makes an important decision. He resolves, “curiosity outfighting fear”, to face the beast with his eyes wide open. Perhaps the next time circumstances allow, mad Maradona’s latest sally will at least have served to crack a window or two and alert the prisoners in don Julio’s cave to the nauseating stench they’ve been breathing unwittingly for so long; perhaps one or two more in positions of power will decide to keep their eyes open, too.

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