The Fear

I

The Battle of Cerro Corá, dear beardless ones, was the final battle of the War of the Triple Alliance. In a scheduling nightmare men with sabres vowed would never be repeated, Uefa’s Franco-Prussian fan zone extravaganza was going on at the same time. As usual, however, the Conmebol version was far more robust. Paraguay, raised high in the breeding grounds of the life-bringing waters of the Ríos Paraná, Pilcomayo & Co., sought to exert more control over lands south of her far too restricted borders. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay formed a troublesome barrier to her ambition, however. The Paraguayan coach and his Irish physio/floozy knew they had some problems at the back but they had faith in their attack, especially given England’s assistance in that area – oh the eternally angle-working England – so they went ahead with the invasion anyway. About 70% of the male population of Paraguay died in the war. At Cerro Corá, the final battle, the last remnants of Paraguay’s army were retreating along with their fleeing coaching staff. In order to gain time, children were dressed in army uniforms and little beards were painted on their little faces. From a distance they might just look like a real team and the invaders take a little longer to advance. Brave gambles on another man’s reticence is one of the things we prize most highly, as long as we are not among the victims. Yet victims there were. Paraguay’s painted children were no match for the combined forces of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, every regiment of which had its own professional beheader, a knife-wielding Diego Lugano-type figure who shuns the sword or rifle as pansyish, arms-length communication devices utterly devoid of the personal touch. Romance, according to a contemporary stone etching, is the glint of the beloved’s eyes in a blade flashing like a hand-held star, powered by the heart.

Romance, eh. It can be hard to be romantic when the other lies prostrate at your feet, unable to stand, blubbering blushing inanities. Well, depends what you’re into, really. Those of a more sadistic bent will no doubt have spent the 2014 Eliminatorias purring contentedly, cheering a succession of hefty wins. Four against Ecuador and Chile respectively, three against Uruguay, five against Paraguay. Stop hitting yourself, Paraguay!

Last time out, it was argued that the South American qualifiers were largely responsible for getting all five teams into the second round and four of them (Chile fell to Brazil) into the quarter finals. The long trips, the changing seasons, climates and altitudes, the different styles, the derbies and long history of scores to settle, over the course of the campaign a unit could be formed whose discipline, timing and murderous instincts had all been honed on the road. The Uefa version was derided as a non-event, a rabbit-killing exercise (did you know you can punish a rabbit by standing it up against the wall?) that left England, Portugal and so on faffy, bloated and with suspiciously clean fingernails.

That line hardly stands up this time given Brazil’s absence. Chile were able to ditch their manager half-way through and regroup, while Uruguay made a play-off with Jordan after finishing fifth in nine-team league. Even Argentina’s string of heavy victories now seems an awful long time ago. Continuity and a clear idea tend to be hailed as the most effective, the most desirable qualities a national team can hope to groove on. Yet it seems that at this World Cup – and, in a revisionist stroke, the last one, too – freshness and spontaneity are what will bring the greatest number of enemy heads in a sack. (BYOS). You can have all the clarity you want, but if you really want to mix things up, you have to be able to surprise and strike terror into your opponent.

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II

It appears that when Argentina lined up against Iran ten days ago, they did so with little colouring pencils in hand. When not cutting each other’s hair – the modern footballers chief delight – they had been practising drawing little moustaches that curled to a cheeky point and Duchampian goatees on their supposed victims. Before Messi’s thunderbastard, the team they most reminded pegamequegusta of was England of the last fifteen years or so – all empty swagger with no cohesive aggression or control to back it up. Indeed, the debate over the line-up and maximisation of resources was harrowingly similar to the Stevie G/Lampard cataclysm. Iran clearly didn’t fear them. Horror was surging from within Gago’s pointless shuffling, a nervous tic betraying repression at full tilt.

In his press conference the following day, however, Ángel Di María was having none of it. “Why do you think the team is playing bady?” he was asked. “What do you mean we’re playing badly? I didn’t say that. Maybe you think that but as far I can tell we’ve won two matches and qualified for the next round.” Good, thought pegamequemegusta. This team needs a fired up Di María, one with a machete in his hand and a point to prove; one with whom pride may be fucking, Bruce Willis-style; one for who a Champo League triumph actually needs to be backed up with further glory.

For at the last WC he fairly bottled it and left criticising Maradona, the only one to do so despite the manager having stuck by him through a six-game suspension and some horrible performances where he was outran, outshone, outballsed and outscored by a 32-year-old Heinze. Sure, talking is one thing, but he Brought It against Nigeria, taking up inside positions, complementing the midfield and generally causing havoc. His poor performances in South Africa meant his crucial role in Maradona’s plan was never fulfilled. In the first minute of the Mexico match he was caught on the ball and bundled over: he lay with his face pressed to the turf for quite some time, before peeking up through his fingers a la Busquets. This time he seems more mature, is one of the only Argentine players in fine physical shape and, far from harbouring fear, seems to have embraced the creative possibilities of the death drive. Indeed, they’re grappling as we speak, but reports say he has Eros by the balls.

He must be wary, however. There’s a Norwegian novelist out there who wants to get a little too close. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote an article recently in the New Republic‘s series The Literary Eleven: Writers and Intellectuals on the World Cup’s most Compelling Characters – yes, you’re right to shudder, dear soon-to-have-two-rest-days-in-a-row sufferer – where he dreamed up a laudably insane parallel between Di María and Franz Kafka. The principle reason for the comparison is that he claims they look alike. However, he goes on to say that unlike the over-rehearsed moves of Ronaldo, Di María has that spark of sudaka unpredictability, the gift of being able to put the unexpected into relief, opening life up even though it reveals nothing other than itself, just like Franz in literature. “It gives me goosebumps to see it, and I shout, THIS IS SO GREAT!”

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That last sentence made our fear-gizzard tremble.

III

Here we are, though, a few sleepless hours from a quarter-final. Talking about press conferences and creepy New Republic loonies. Besides a nice move or two in the first hour against Nigeria, though, there has been fairly little to discuss regarding Argentina in this World Cup. We had the formation mini-crisis that in the end wasn’t one; we had the Iran-contra affair. Besides that, it’s been slow. Sabella’s delegation is well-organised and tight-lipped, so news is slow. One night on TyC, Horacio Pagani even told us he had to eat alone in his bedroom. “Solitude makes me a bit depressed,” he said about his meal of soup with some hotdogs. He thought about throwing himself out the window, only being dissuaded by the fact he was on the second floor. “You break all your bones without solving anything,” one of the studio boys said. Quite.

Pegamequemegusta almost envied other teams that were fighting to stay alive; we almost envied teams that were gone for having lived moments of hope and crushing lows already. At least they had something to shout about. If it hadn’t been for the fans’ glorious rendition of Bad Moon Rising, it could almost have been as if the World Cup hadn’t begun for Argentina

For the last few days here, for example, the tv, papers and twitter have been full of profound reports on.. you guessed it, dear toasted one, Lavezzi’s tattoos. Lavezzi has a tat of a glock sticking down into his shorts and another one of Jesus and another of the seven-times tables, just in case. Images abounded of Lavezzi as a more rotund youngster, before his floppy hair gave way to an exquisitely-sculpted Iron Man look. The video of him squirting water on Sabella was shown alongside him tugging a most-displeased-looking Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s nose. What a character! 

Of course he played well when he came on for the crocked Kun Agüero against Nigeria. Against Switzerland, too, he’ll bring speed and energy to a team that tends to plod. In attack he gets to the byline, while in defence he should be reliable enough to help out the oft-exposed Zabaleta. That’s about it, though. After all the initial excitement, it was clear the media was taking the Carlos Tevez vacuum hard. For Messi has given us some outstanding moments so far, but if Argentina fail to make the quarter-final at least, they will fade into insignificance. These Messi goals have to be a preamble, not necessarily to ever greater golazos, but to moments of transcendence. Otherwise they were just sublime acts of infanticide.

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Indeed, our only real complaint regarding press conferences are the opportunities lost by the generally quite inane questions put to the players. We’d like to hear more probing enquiries, dilemmas that seek to crank open the hinges of the protagonists’ fears and preoccupations, questions that can’t be answered by platitudes. Would you rather wake up buried in a coffin or find yourself in an open space faced with a marauding head-chopper? If you had to sacrifice a limb, which would it be? What would you be willing to do to guarantee a place in the final? Would you miss a year of football, whether through a reputation-destroying ban or a career-threatening injury? How many disabled children would you slap for a goal in the World Cup final? What makes you tick, guy? What, if anything, are you afraid of?

IV

Terror is, after all, the lifeblood of international ball. Otherwise, it would be little more than an exotic Uefa Cup. Terror is watching your boys battle against apparently more skilful players you’ve never heard of, watching in horror as you gradually learn their names from the commentary and pass-after-terrifying corner they burn themselves into your long-term memory. Terror is Hernán Crespo raging a decade later at the impudence of Anders Svensson for rocketing a free kick into the top corner. Terror is Clint Dempsey or Tim Cahill running clipped mayhem at confounded defences: aaahhhh. For terror is inflicted as much as it is suffered. One cannot say one does not believe in terror. Terror is.

Hence the chilliest of chills last week when we read Olé’s interview with Martín Demichelis (again by Marcelo Sottile and Hernán Claus). In truth, it was strangely moving to read, a list of bumbling errors and setbacks. Demichelis was last seen in an Argentina shirt giving away a silly goal against Bolivia more than two and a half years ago. Before that he had also given away several goals at the World Cup, including a notable blunder against Korea (the only goal they conceded before the quarter finals). He tells how his five-year-old son cries at not being able to emulate Messi. “‘I can’t do that,’ he said, frustrated. I calmed him down and told him: ‘Don’t worry, either can I.'” Yet he played for Bayern for seven years, and this season he was having a great game against Barcelona – until he gave away a peno and got sent off. He’s not in the starting line-up today but we were still amazed Sabella brought him to Brazil as despite some positive qualities, for us he can only be a curse, that most implacable figure of terror.

  • What did you learn from the mistake against Bolivia?
  • I had just got across well and knocked the ball out for a throw. And it was from that throw the mistake came: I decided not to play out from the back. The ball fell on my left foot and I tried to get it up so I could clear it with my right. Their forward got goalside of me and that was that, I couldn’t catch him…
  • How were the following days?
  • Bad. Really bad. In the stadium I loved the most I’d had the worst moment of my career. I’ve gotten injured playing for la Selección – an ankle operation, metal plates in my face – but you accept those things as part of the job. A mistake like that is different… Especially when there are loads of other things behind it: the poor Copa América, the bad start to the qualifiers after losing to Venezuela for the first time ever, the fact that they had raised the prices of tickets for the match so that day the Monumental was half-empty…
  • Did Sabella say anything to you at the time?
  • He was very sincere. We had a long talk before travelling to Colombia. He reminded me of a line el Bambino Veira had once said to a goalkeeper: ‘I’m taking you out to protect you.’ Alejandro added, though: “I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I’m not taking you out to protect you. I’m taking you out because I have to protect the group and at the moment your confidence is rock bottom.” He was right. I’ve had plenty of setbacks in my career, but that one was a knock-out blow.
  • Did you think that was the end of your international career?
  • Well… Look, in training before the match in Barranquilla we were having a kick around and they put me up front. I must have scored about ten goals that day. That’s when I thought: ‘Ah, this is their way of saying goodbye, ha.’

That ‘ha’, bejaysus. The fear. The corrosive fear of making a mistake; the productive fear of avenging one; the demoralising fear of fear present; the motivating fear that desire channels; the panic surefire decapitation spreads; el terror Lío Messi.

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