“I’ve been playing this match for twenty-four years now. Twenty-four bloody years.” Before the match, Javier Mascherano gathered his teammates in a huddle. He looked each one in the eyes. He spoke from the heart. The bit between his teeth.
“It’s been twenty-four years and I’m tired of eating shit!”
The captain-without-the-armband continued his stirring speech. He wanted to push the players’ buttons, infuse them with the same thirst for revenge he has after so many disappointments. His final words were almost inaudible as he was losing his voice. It didn’t matter. This was his soul speaking. No more. No less.
“This is for me, for the ex-players for us! We have to smash this barrier!”
So goes Pablo Chiappetta’s report in Sunday’s Olé.
A quarter of a century (nearly) without a semi-final. Take notes, Bollywood. Slightly overwrought, perhaps, melodramatic even, but a story of an honourable man – not a tall man, not the fastest man, not the strongest man, but a man nevertheless – a man, we say, in a tale of personal and national redemption e’en as the vultures squawk outside his karazy country’s bad karma-ridden Central Bank. We see our man’s hair thinning with each wrenching defeat at successive World Cups and Copa Amérikay – always on penalties or in painful goleadas. He died on his feet, they say. Every single time. He dies on his feet so many times he spends hours at hammock fairs and sometimes dreams of peaceful, horizontal, eternal rest. But this time, in picturesque Brazil, he has One Last Chance to Make Things Right. Starring Phil Collins, with a score by Phil Collins and the love interest played by, yes, Phil Collins. Pegamequemegusta feels he’s due a comeback.
What’s necessary, you see, dear reader, is a tight narrative arc, for almost everything so far for Argentina at this World Cup has been, if not madcap, stolidly irregular. The World tuned into Argentina’s first few games expecting a breathtaking show of flair and attacking prowess. The doubts all concerned the defence, which had shaken like Phil Collins’ hands at the least bit of pressure all throughout qualifying. Past form dictated an open, unbalanced team that, whatever the results, was sure to be a lot of fun. Instead, we have a reasonably solid team; we’ve seen la Selección suddenly have much more possession than it’s used to, managing space in a way we haven’t seen since the days of Román and Pekerman.
What’s more, they arrive in the semi-finals with by far the least amount of goals scored of the teams remaining (7, with Brazil and Germany on 10 – ahem -, Holland on 12) and without having conceded any in approximately 250 minutes. Marcos Rojo has become a kind of cult hero even as Biglia gets close-ups during training so we can try to glimpse what makes this man-monster tick. Meanwhile, Demichelis, ¡Demichelis! when not trash-talking Robben, claiming he isn’t up for a scrap (“no tiene potrero”) but he’s going to get one, suddenly seems more impregnable than a she-male in a chastity belt in solitary on Alcatraz. Sailors bob disconsolately at sea, their songbook exhausted, the stars are so awry.
Things are so topsy-turvy some dare to take the absence of creative geniuses like Agüero and Di María almost lightly, especially given the fine performance last Saturday of hipsterball’s Enzo Pérez. Sabella asserted last week that there were no other quality all-round midfielders to choose from, ones who can both defend and attack. “You tell me who,” he challenged the assembled press, “otherwise I prefer to play with a forward in midfield. At least then I can be sure that he won’t just sit there but that he’ll attack, too.” Yes, dear large phonèd one, this is what is known in football terms as The Simon Cox Defence. Yet the general silence on the matter suggests he’s right. Tevez was the only player whose absence provoked any comment. After all the talk of full-backs, perhaps the key factor that determines Argentina’s style of play – not necessarily the chief weakness – is the lack of the kind of player their football produced a lot more of previously.
Even so much focus on breaking the quarter-final hoodoo is revealing in its own right. At the last World Cup, the most popular fans’ ditty was an old one that ended in the lines ¡vamos a ser campeones / como en el ’86! This time around, however, Brasil decíme qué se siente is more akin to an Irish football song insofar as, in Maradona and Caniggia’s exploits in Italia ’90, it evokes a glorious moment rather than any particular triumph. Of course, the goal it celebrates was against the hosts, but the emphasis is more on winning in adversity than on the kind of arrogance and bravado traditionally associated with Argentine football. The willingness to eat shit to win is nothing new but open recognition that we’ve been doing so for twenty-four years certainly is. As Sabella said last week (for a boring man he’s quite quotable): “When I was young people used to say we were the best even though we hadn’t won any World Cups yet. That’s the way we are. It’s a cultural thing…”
There’s some evidence to support a generational shift in expectations, then. Whatever happens, though, it is hard to imagine it as part of a tight narrative where the flaws were apparent from the beginning. Argentina have played and won five games to make the semi-finals of a World Cup and we’re stumped if we can come to any surefire conclusions about what they’ve done, Messi aside. No bickering over traditional styles of play, no saviour-players obscenely left out, no scandal. There’s just a fact, an opportunity to be seized.
“Water in the desert” the Argentina manager said of his number 10 the other day. That would make Masche the camel (come get me, Pixar). Either way, it’s a far more satisfying, an exceedingly more nourishing prospect than to continue munching faeces.