As you well know, oh dear most handsome of literate folk, Dr. Batistentein’s monstrous misadventure at the Copa America was preceded by a some of the emptiest talk of revolution since Obama sealed his spot on the lucrative after-dinner speech circuit. Checho donned a pair of hot-pants and went tomb spelunking alright, but he couldn’t even find Perón’s hands. He spent all year engaged in acts of such indignity that the dregs of Eurotrash ended up blocking him on twitter. A vague, baseless aspiration to ‘play like Barcelona’ was the manifestation of as weak-willed a Sarmentinism as one is likely to see this side of a resurgent Euro.
Hence, law of the pendulum notwithstanding, it was no surprise that when Alejandro Sabella took over last month more of a nationalistic bent should be put on things. After all, Sabella had made his name in Argieball relatively recently, coming out from Passarella’s ever-thinning shadow to guide Estudiantes to the Libertadores as well as taking Barcelona to extra-time in the final of the World Club Championship, before ultimately succumbing to, well, Messi. Thus, in theory at least, he should be more au fait with the produce of the local farmer’s market. Why import cucumbers, radishes and militos from abroad when there are plenty of tasty vegetables right here, mercifully free, moreover, of the poisonous additives employed in less fertile foreign lands to tart up their dry, mealy marrows. Sabella could judge ripeness, by smell alone, blindfolded and in the next room, to within a nanosecond. On the tour in Calcutta and Bangladesh, the duplicitous Doc Bilardo tried to pass off a plaintain as a banana. His trousers were put on a raft in the Ganges and set alight.
Yes, there was a new general in town. As was to be expected, Olé was enthusiastic about the coup. Pachorra got the front cover, dressed up to look like one of the country’s founding fathers, the man who had designed the fatherland’s flag (either inspired by the colours of the celestial vault or in homage to the no less celestial vault that is the mother of Jebus), Juan Manuel Belgrano:
Yet let there be no mistake – this is no reactionary, protectionist nationalism (not that there’s much wrong with protectionism, nationalism or being a reactionary…). Rather, it’s about getting the most out of what unites Argentine players, what they have in common, about maximising their sense of belonging, to the group, to their countrymen, to the colours of the flag. Using his lovably Bielsan reading glasses as nothing more than a prop, Sabella mentioned Belgrano as an example of the generosity of spirit that he’ll be looking for in his team: “He gave everything for his country. He was rich but he died poor. [….] He put the common good ahead of individual gain.”
Of course, Sabella also quoted JFK that day, but the Sarmentine paradox required a narrative swing toward the criollo. The general mock-up of the new manager was just a handy editorial twist. It begs the question, however, of what lessons one might draw from the life and career of Manuel Belgrano. After all, his name is probably familiar to you, dear exemplar of handsome savviness, as that of the ship torpedoed by the English during the Malvinas conflict, or the team that sank River down to the murky depths of la B Nacional a few months back. Hmm.
Well, Belgrano doesn’t seem to have been a particularly great general. While certainly a leader, he was more of an Enlightenment figure, an economist, than, say, San Martín, whose audacious crossing of the Andes did more to consolidate the new state than anything Belgrano had ever done. However, many of his campaigns were notable for how outnumbered he was, for his persistence in the face of defeats and his continually being summoned back to Buenos Aires to stand trial for the same – the equivalent in the football world these days of having Julio Grondona mutter darkly about the jersey losing its prestige. All this took its toll and his death, at the age of 50, went largely unnoticed. Indeed, he had to sell his clock and carriage to his doctor just to pay for his treatment in the last few months of his life. His last words reflected this not-so-triumphant state of affairs: Ay patria mía. Only in retrospect was he fully appreciated, a massive state funeral being held the following year; while in 1902 his remains were exhumed and placed in a mausoleum. Controversy still dogged the poor man, however, as some of his teeth were stolen and given away as presents. Except for the fact that Belgrano now adorns the ten peso-note, none of this bodes particularly well for Sabella, you’ll agree, dear most handsome and singular of readers.
Yea, there are several other complicating factors that look set to hinder the new manager’s tenure. Competent, fruit-savvy football man though he may be, how to resolve the old Orangeries roast chestnut of the lack of resources in key positions is hoarier than the most loose-moralled of winter morns. Having a knowledge and an appreciation of the talents on offer in Argieball is most welcome; it should lead to a more serious renovation of the playing staff than that undertaken by the twitprick who previously occupied the post, especially at full-back, where Clemente, Papa and Pillúd are all arguably the equal of Zabaleta.
Successive Argentina managers have flirted with the idea of using players from the local competition, however, without ever seeking to go steady. Before his moment of clarity in South Africa, Maradona called up many Argieballers but never gave them an extended run in the team. Indeed, in the infamous Shawshank Redemption game against Perú in the Monumental (October 2009), he took off a debutant at half time. Likewise, Batista made a few media-friendly nominations for his friendlies, calling up el Burrito Martínez for the Portugal friendly, for example: after flying across the Atlantic he got 15mins, won the penalty that won them the game (Messi)… and was never heard from again, despite being the best player for the best team in the country. Of all the managers over the last five years, however, it was arguably el Coco Basile who put most faith in the demos, b-sides and bootlegs of Argieball’s raucous chorus. Against Bielsa’s Chile in Santiago in 2008, he started Colón’s Cristian Ledesma, while his three substitutions (el Cata Díaz, Bergessio, Pepe Sand) were also prominent proponents of Argieball’s unique Innisfree-paced skill and violence. They lost 1-0, the first time Argentina had lost to Chile since the popularisation of slacks. An act of desperation, a cry for help – my God, it featured Diego mufa Milito! – el Coco resigned immediately after the game.
Arguably, the local league’s stock was slightly higher at that point. After all, Román’s Boca had won the Libertadores in great style the previous year, Maxi Moralez and el Kun Agüero’s band of pibes had picked up the under-20 World Cup (in which Higuaín refused to play) without adding a furrow to their youthful brows, while the Olympics win had given further reason for faith in the health of the national competition.
Roll on four years and you hear Racing manager Diego Simeone, recently returned from an unremarkable stint with Catania in Serie A, openly disparaging the competition: everything here is backward; the ‘fans’ are too small-minded to let the visionary managers unfurl their dreams; the football is tighter than the lovechild of Joey Tight Lips and Iain Paisley; the clubs chop and change like E-Honda in his ill-fated biopic of Alcibiades, A Fistful of Drachmas (2012). Plus, River are in la B, a psychological twister that, while it doesn’t change the material fact of the good work done by other clubs such as Godoy Cruz, Lanús, Racing (?), it most certainly sows a sense of crisis and unreality as the shadow world coexists (in the tv schedules at least) with the real one. Indeed, when the AFA notoriously planned to merge Primera and la B, the murky cave with the sunlit world above, the project was only abandoned after it aroused the ire of football fans and hardline Platonists everywhere. That there should be a considerable gulf in class between the two divisions did not appear to be a concern. Although well-overdue, the resulting – increasingly open -disaffection with Grondona, another result of Riber’s descent to the land of spectres, has served to undermine confidence in the local league even further.
Nevertheless, for his first competitive game in charge of Argentina for what are shaping up to be some trouser-bulging World Cup qualifiers, Sabella has picked an Argieballer, el Chapu Braña, to start in centre midfield. Having been sent off against Uruguay last July, Mascherano is suspended for the opener against Chile, but of all the players to accompany Banega in the middle, Braña had never even occurred to us. Pegamequemegusta was eager to see Gago get another chance, as he was one of the few who really performed at the Copa América, when no-one (and especially not us) believed in him. Lucho González, who played in the Venezuela friendly last month, also seemed a likely candidate. They’re both cast from a rather different mold of player, of course, but we’re sick of this Makelele Role nonsense. Alex Ferguson has never payed it much heed. Besides, even if Sabella wanted to insist on someone from the local league, or even just someone playing in South America, he had other options: The Man From Lanús, Diego Valeri (25), has been schmoozing his way through games as part of Argentina’s most sensible midfield for a while now; while Bolatti (26), who went to the World Cup last year and currently appears to be doing well with Internacional in Brazil, would have been a relatively safe choice; even Yacob (24), captain of Racing and la Selección local, wouldn’t have been as odd a choice as Braña, who at 32 is hardly one for the future.
No, Braña’s call-up is a leather jacket call-up, it’s a punch-up and a battered sausage, it’s the safety of an episode of Friends and a wife-sized bag of Chewits. It’s not a bet for the future; it’s a search for loyalty. El Chapu and Sabella won some important titles together at Estudiantes, including the Libertadores, and the new manager must feel he possesses that generosity of spirit for the patria he reckons so crucial to be successful in these qualifiers. Hence the inclusion of other ex-Estudiantes players in the likely line-up for tomorrow’s game: Sicily’s finest unplugger of hairy clogs, Mariano Andújar, for the injured Romero, and bearded devil worshipper now torturing small animals with Metalist, José Sosa. It’s not political, it’s not nationalistic, it’s just pragmatic.
This was a recurring theme in his press conference on Thursday night. Simplicity is the key. Sabella made pegamequemegusta feel all warm inside last night with his defence of 4-4-2 as the most sensible formation midst a general dismissal of frilly-shirts, cravats and wearing your pyjamas to the supermarket. Nonetheless, he refused to play the numbers game, insisting a formation is nothing without the commitment of the players that make it up. “Systems are defined by the players themselves. Once the ball is moving, it’s the players’ individual characteristics that determine the dynamics of a game.”
In that spirit, thankfully, he has resisted the temptation to shoehorn strikers into wide positions or play Messi as the number 10 behind a platoon of headless chickens. He spoke at length about cohesiveness, about forging strong bonds within the group. Over and over again he referred to pertenencia, belonging; he spoke about building a ‘monolith’ – a fitting image when you consider some of Argentina’s performances over the last five years have closely resembled a group of apes flinging excrement at each other.
Unlike Checho, who apparently thought he could will movement and incisiveness into being, while letting the defence take care of itself, Sabella almost seems to be building his side from the back. His talk has been mercilessly free of Batistensteinian demagogy regarding a passing game, which is nice of course but impossible without organisation, without pressure, without teamwork, without sacrifice. This all sounds lovely, and we think it’s the right approach. Over the last few years, however, few things have dented togetherness, added to confusion and sapped confidence than the continual chopping and changing in the squad and the team. While selecting Braña for this game might be a pragmatic move, pegamequemegusta isn’t sure that it will do the team much good in the long-term. The South American qualifiers go on for two years, of course, but as we’ve we’ve seen time and time again, short-term club form is largely irrelevant when it comes to international football. Hopefully, Sabella will heed his own advice regarding cohesiveness and belonging and stick to a settled squad of 25-30 players for the entire campaign. And play Pastore at some point, for the love of Jesus.
When Argentina-Chile kicks off tonight, pegamequemegusta hopes to see a rejection of Sarmentine Civilisation in favour of an enlightened barbarism. Contrary to what one may think, Argentina has long been pursued by the debilitating ghosts of rationality, held back by a vain logomachy inimical to the spirit of the pueblo.
Whereas in Dublin this alienating process was but a frivolous footnote to the house binge, in Argentina it is much more firmly ensconced. Why, in Sabella’s La Plata last July as we stood sucking pebbles peering at a map, we knew something was up but couldn’t quite put our crutch on it. The map was simultaneously mesmerising and terrifying. Then, a passing sobbing into a cone-shaped begging bowl mistook us for a tourist seeking directions. ‘Stay within the triangle,’ he wailed. To our horror, we noticed that the city, far from the tolerable grid so delectably broken up by the untamable Atlantic down in Mardel, consisted of a the kind of fantasy a geometrist would only confide to a priest after slapping a padlock on the confessional – Eternal lines thwarting the transient, precarious present; the State reinforcing the authority of the timeless, asserting your reality is but a secondary phenomenon, a shadow, a vulgar joke lacking the sophistication of an able-bodied rectangle.
Thus far, however, Sabella has threatened to revert this sorry tale of violence on the minds of the pueblo, lost in its own land, colonised by a perfidious philosophy. For induction, as Poincaré, one of that merry band of sensible Frenchmen, says, is only the affirmation of a property of the mind itself; intuition is the instrument of invention. We’re promised an end to order-induced anxiety, angst and confusion precluded by a refusal to define. The pueblo, and la Selección, might finally have found someone who’ll wield his shears sparingly, delight in asymmetry without adhering to any demented European blueprint. And who wins the odd football match.