Our Man in the Ukraine – Oleg Yaroslavsky

Olé have a correspondent in the Ukraine at the moment. Martín Macchiavello is his name. This is quite unusual and pegamequemegusta is not sure what prompted such a change in strategy. Nonetheless, there he is and he’s been dishing out some intriguing spoonfuls of Argie-Ukranian football locro-borscht. The other day he did an engaging interview with the apparently much-misunderstood José Sosa, Sabella’s Simon Cox and captain of Metalist, Ukraine’s favourite bridesmaids (worth googling, probably). We should have that for you later on today. First of all, though, let us wipe the crumbs from your beard and lay you lovingly in this reed basket; let us ready you for the ride, babe.

This first piece is the lotion to the Einhornian scrubbing that follows. It is possibly the geekiest thing we’ve ever put up here, but that’s precisely what got our attention. ‘Tis an interview with Oleg Yaroslavsky, the president of Sosa’s club, Metalist – in Macchiavello’s words, an “ultra-mega-billionaire”. Yaroslavsky ‘refounded’ the club six years ago and has made a policy of signing South American players. At the moment they have six Argentines on their books: Sosa, Cristaldo, Villagra, Chaco Torres, Torsiglieri and Sebastián Blanco).

Besides the trappings of superwealth (“When he steps on the accelerator of his black 800-horsepower USV, the city of Kharkiv, his city, splits in two, a lo Moses”), he seems an interesting fellow so we decided to translate it. It seems somewhat surprising that such a figure – holiday buddy of Roman Abramovich, among others – even gives interviews like this, and even more so that it should be so informal (one of Macchiavello’s questions is just “So?”). (We’re reminded of Larry David’s explanation of why he agreed to do an interview with the simpering Ricky Gervais: “Well it’s only going out on British tv…”) You can read between the lines regarding his motives for taking over the club but his comments are revealing nonetheless as regards an insight into the mind of the megarich. He differs from Abramovich in many other respects, too, if he is to be believed regarding his non-interference in team affairs. He even makes a few jokes – although they’re only almost funny because of the deadpan clarification that follows, that hollow silence only the powerful can carve in the air with a word or two.

The interview takes place in Yaroslavsky’s office at the team’s luxurious training complex in Kharkiv. Although the strongman-cum-sugar daddy answers all questions “most amiably”, he never looks our correspondent in the eyes. It’s a strange little piece from an unlikely source, so enjoy. Failing that, pegame, que me gusta.

Is Metalist more than just a few exotic names in the first team?

Six years ago there was nothing. No team, no structure, no stadium nor training ground. There were just a few rickety old buildings, the name of the club, Metalist, which was founded in 1925, and a team, 11 human beings playing in the second division.

You’re a businessman and football will never bring you the same kind of money as your other investments. Why did you get involved in such a messy world?

I didn’t know anything about football, and I had never considered taking over any club, whether in this country or anywhere else. This is my city, though. I got involved because the club was in a bad way and I was asked to help out. I never imagined even 5% of the passion football can awake in you. These days I don’t claim to know everything about the game but what I feel for it now I never suspected possible.

The pictures in this room tell their own story. Here you are with Blatter, Platini, Abramovich… You must have picked something up.

Everything would have been a lot more complicated if I didn’t know those guys. Counting them among your friends is a great boon. But that’s how this Metalist came to be, detail after detail, brick by brick, atom by atom. Whenever anyone comes here they leave with their jaw on the floor. All of a sudden, in just a couple of years, you have a hotel, a stadium, a training complex, an academy…

Jonathan Maidana was the first and ever since you have made a policy of bringing in Argentine players. What makes them special?

Argentine and Brazilian football are the best in the world. The sport may have its origins in England but in these parts we all agree it really came to life in South America, in Argentina and Brazil. We built all this infrastructure so that top players from Argentina would want to come here. During the Euros, Germany, Portugal and Italy all stayed here, and they all made positive comments on the high standards of the facilities. And all of this was put together while Europe has been in crisis.

What player would you sign in the next transfer window? And you can’t say Messi, eh.

That’s an easy one to answer. I set everything up at this club but now everyone here does their own job. The sporting director has full responsibility. The manager looks after the team, the squad, tactics, etc. No-one in the world can tell the manager who to put in the team. I never get involved in team matters nor do I suggest possible signings. There’s a general director who takes care of non-sporting matters at the club. There are about 320 people working here, everyone has their job to do and must focus on doing it well. If someone tries to do someone else’s work for them, we give them the boot. So I can’t name any player. It’s not just a brand we look for but a player. The most important thing is the player’s quality and that he’ll help us achieve our goals. We’re not just after star names.

So?

The player’s individual characteristics are the most important. These days it’s hard to find a player that fits in exactly with what we want. I’m not sure Messi could be part of this group. You’d have to complement him with Xavi and Iniesta. We’d have to buy the whole Barcelona team! But we’re not planning on doing that. In my own opinion, buying a well-known player is less interesting than getting a young talented player and watching him develop. The unknown intrigues me. Cristiano Ronaldo was here a few times but we never said anything to him… I never say never, though. You have to dream…

Celui-ci n’est plus un pibe – Higuaín, Messi & Santiago Solari

Someone who can tell you far more about Higuaín, about contingency, about football and beauty, however, is the subject of our newest man crush, Santiago Solari. He has a new blog in El País called El charco (‘the Pond’), referring to the Atlantic, and it’s amazing. We had to doublecheck when we saw the name attached to such a fantastic piece of prose. Is that..? Could it be… the Santiago Solari who delighted us so ten years ago dancing up the left wing for that awesome, hard-working, downright loveable Real Madrid team? It was, and, dear tired, harassed, perpetually titillated but never rewarded reader, it made the reading all the sweeter.

It’s quite simply the best thing we’ve come across in ages and it’s written by one of the players we have only slightly less of a thing for than Pablito Aimar. It’s an ideal version of pegamequemegusta, without our halfway house wit, our verbosity, and, dear lord, the sheer tediousness of 5,000 word posts. His first article was titled Function and Form. A discussion of aesthetics and football, it includes lines like:

Football is not art as art is neither its goal nor its essence. Nor is beauty.

and

It is wholly frivolous to try and treat a football match as if it were a Flemish masterpiece.

You’ll have noticed the tone, the eccentric, starchy register, the assurance, the perspicacity. In many ways he reminds us of his compatriot and fellow Real Madrid man, Jorge ‘Vincent Price’ Valdano, who’s also given to mystical ramblings about time and space, and a slightly odd vocabulary. While a treat, it makes it harder to translate, but we’ve given it a go.


I

Innocent son that we are, pegamequemegusta always thought one’s signature was just one’s name written down; there had to be a resemblance between the letters of one’s name and what one may write, a modicum of representational ‘truth’. Drawings and symbols, after all, are the hallmarks of illiteracy and backwardness. One’s signature, on the other hand, is a legal entity. It can exonerate you, exalt you, condemn you faster than any god. It is one of the building blocks of civilisation. Indeed, the Spanish firma evokes authority even more directly, deriving as it does from the Latin firmus, meaning ‘strength’, ‘solidity’. Indecipherable squiggles or playful doodles are all very well for Hollywood vedettes or orientally-inclined footballers, but they’re not for those of us desirous of signing the grand edifice of civilisation brick by brick ever further into the sky. 

Hence it was with the dullest of amazement that we shifted in our cot upon learning that this was not in fact the case. One’s signature need bear no more resemblance to the letter’s that make it up than a kebab-shop counter image of succulence tot he dark wet wipe-clad mush one is invariably served. Instead of artfully penning p-e-g-a-m-e-q-u-e-m-e-g-u-s-t-a in cool calligraphy, we might as well sketch an idyllic pastoral scene with a duck in a frilly-sleeved party-frock. Heck, art has advanced beyond the pen and paintbrush, why not attach a stylish papier-maché model of Saussure’s left testicle to the back of one’s credit card? Surely once the link is broken between the admittedly arbitrary reality and its representation, you can surely insist that if anyone wants your signature they visit your docklands installation, where tinsel abounds and nothing is what it seems. Civilisation is more perilously poised than a one-legged parrot atop a lusty weathercock. Incredible, no?

Rather a more twisted pancake, however, is that once one has grasped this graphic disconnect, the signature cannot be changed. Once established midst the ululating perversity of youth, it sits there as immoveable, as stubborn as a matriarchal star. The lines drawn upon opening your first bank account or getting your first passport engender a being more forceful than even the most rounded, the most skilfully delineated character in the most realistic drama ever committed to print. Hamlet is a stick man next to the quintessence that is your signature. You answer to it; it owns you. You must live up to it; you must do it justice; you must make it proud, son. Otherwise you risk pulling down the entire weight of the Occident’s most virulent wig enthusiasts.

Pitiful, pitisome creatures that we are, this is quite remarkable. For of all our gripes about the unfairness of the arbitrariness of the world, not being able to choose barely any of the major facts that define who we are (only to be told later we’re free), this is one we have almost complete control over. Or you do as long as, unlike us, you’re not frightfully ignorant.

II

We don’t always resemble our parents, though, and when we do it’s not necessarily a debilitating curse. Two contrasting but positive examples from the world of Argieball spring to mind like toads after that last ray of sunlight. For the last few years, insofar as we’ve given the matter much thought, Jorge Messi has always seemed a perplexing character to us. An imposing figure, never afraid to speak his mind; an ambitious man who was willing to take some rather drastic and unusual decisions to make sure his weakling son could have a chance to become a top footballer. Not even he could have imagined, of course, what an utter machine little Lionel would turn out to be, nor, even more precariously, perhaps, that he would peak (?) precisely as FC Barcelona saw the fruits of its quixotic scheme to industrialise perfection. Pumping a 12-year-old full of hormones and moving him to another continent on the hope that the treatment would be successful and he might avoid all the pitfalls and make it, what utter madness. Then we saw young Messi himself, already with a few Champions Leagues under his awkward hanging arm, so different, shuffling, mumbling, a tongue-tied Rainman figure. Even last year, the 10 on his back, when he truly began to assert himself in the middle of the pitch, and to make almost everyone else in the game look like a plodding piss-artist, we suspected he’d always remain a somewhat distant figure, one not blessed with a barrier-melting bonhomie or charisma. Maradona made him captain against Greece in the World Cup, but while we knew the marketing men would demand he get it sooner or later, we were sure: at 23 already, this kid wasn’t going to change.

No prizes for guessing where this is going, dear handsome one: Messi has changed. The papers and dials of the Republic are humming like Apu after 96 hours straight at the Kwik-E-Mart, a-humming with talk of the New Messi. Apparently, he’s fashioned out of a brand new type of aluminium recently discovered near the Earth’s core, he’s shinier than a thousand, no, a million suns, and he’s stronger than an ox with a bellyful of onion soup.

Much of it can be dismissed as pure hype, of course, as vacuous as the sniping he suffered ‘ere long: Messi photographed on his day off watching the subs train with a focused air; Messi making eye-contact with strangers, etc. Yet there is some substance to it. In the few games we’ve seen so far at least, Sabella’s common sense tactics appear to have benefited him in that the anxiety that courses through la Selección has been reduced somewhat, and the clutter that oft-times hath masqueraded as a forward line has brought into line like a renegade sideburn. Even in his speech, if he’s as guarded/well-coached as ever, he certainly sounds more mature. He has accepted the inevitability of the press at long last and seems to have realised he can use it to his advantage. He’s learned people appreciate a certain amount of aggression. He’s become sterner, more assertive. These days, he’s more Rudyard Kipling than Lewis Carroll. He’s a man, son; he’s mad Jorge’s boy.

Friday’s 4-1 defeat of Chile, however, was all about Higuaín. Well, that’s probably a tad unfair on Di María, whose excellent performance was a far bigger surprise, given that he’s better known in this cave for being a diving, choke-happy, despicable little turncoat. Unlike Messi, Higuaín was condemned to be born into a decent footballing family (he was born in France, where his father was plying his trade, while his older brother argieballs it for Colón). Thus, for him the case for determinism seems stronger. As we shall see shortly, though, he’s had to fight to get to where he is.

Pegamequemegusta must confess at first we weren’t too convinced by Higuaín. He had been very good for River, of course, but we cheaply suspected he’d be consigned to Real Marid’s Big Room of unemployed strikers. Plus, he refused to go to the Under-20 World Cup in 2007, unlike Aguero, as he felt it was beneath him. Arguably that misjudgment on his part cost him a few years: he didn’t make his debut in la Selección until October 2009. He scored that night (Aimar!) and was Argentina’s top scorer at the World Cup, too. Yet, somewhat strangely, he didn’t really impress. He was there when it counted, sure, but he looked slightly out of sorts. At the Copa América, on the other hand, he was delightful. While Messi rightly took all the plaudits after the hammering of Costa Rica, it was Higuaín’s movement and intelligence, if not his finishing, that had us in quite a lather. The same qualities were on show against Chile last Friday, but this time with at least one sublime execution, for the first goal: 

III

Someone who can tell you far more about Higuaín, about contingency, about football and beauty, however, is the subject of our newest man crush, Santiago Solari. He has a blog in El País called El charco (‘the Pond’), referring to the Atlantic, and it’s amazing. We had to doublecheck when we saw the name attached to such a fantastic piece of prose. Is that..? Could it be… the Santiago Solari, he who delighted us so ten years ago dancing up the left wing for that awesome, hard-working, downright loveable Real Madrid team? It was, and, dear tired, harassed, perpetually titillated but never rewarded reader, it made the reading all the sweeter.

It’s quite simply the best thing we’ve come across in ages and it’s written by one of the players we have only slightly less of a thing for than Pablito Aimar. It’s an ideal version of pegamequemegusta, without our halfway house wit, our verbosity, and, dear lord, the sheer tediousness of 5,000 word posts. Last week he had a piece titled Form and Function. A discussion of aesthetics and football, it includes lines like:

Football is not art as art is neither its goal nor its essence. Nor is beauty.

and

It is wholly frivolous to try and treat a football match as if it were a Flemish masterpiece.

You’ll have noticed the tone, the eccentric, starchy register, the assurance, the perspicacity. In many ways he reminds us of his compatriot and fellow Real Madrid man, Jorge ‘Vincent Price’ Valdano, who’s also given to mystical ramblings about time and space, and a slightly odd vocabulary. While a treat, it makes it harder to translate, but we’ve given it a go.

More than the often dry, static talk of formations, pegamequemegusta is a sucker for anyone who writes about the use of space. A few months back we brought you, oh fancy-free, firmless, hypothetical reader, a translation of a Juan Pablo Varsky article where he savaged Checho’s understanding of space in football. The piece we’ve translated today is principally about Higuaín’s considerable strengths as a striker, but for us Solari makes the leap into true succulence when he discusses el Pipita Higuaín’s movement. Plus, the simplicity of his prose conveys an unusually rigid, a reassuring bond between the signifier and the signified; this is truth. There is nothing arbitrary here.

Enjoy.

The Sophistication of the Straightforward Striker 

by Santiago Solari, El País 10 October 2011

We like to think our kids resemble us when they embody characteristics we regard as virtues.

El pipa Jorge Higuaín was a strong, fearless defender who played for River, Boca and San Lorenzo in the 1980s. Looking back at the old man’s videos, a warrior patrolling the box, it’s hard to see anything of him in his son, Gonzalo, the quick, agile centreforward who’s been making his way at Madrid for the last six seasons. However, there is one fundamental quality that el Pipita has inherited from his father, one on which large part of his success is based – his tremendous competitive spirit.

Gonzalo Higuaín made his début with River Plate in May 2005 and in December 2006 he skipped off to the other side of the pond. It’s not easy to go to Real Madrid when you’re 18 years old, and it’s even more difficult without an intervening spell at another club to help you get acclimatised.

His character was forged in a numerous family, a close-knit footballing family. He didn’t give up when he had to bide his time and sit on the bench waiting for his chance behind the established superstars, Raúl and Van Nistlerooy. When he got it, he made the most of it.

Higuaín is a relatively uncomplicated goalscorer, but we shouldn’t be waylaid by that definition. Scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in football and the only thing harder than that is to make it look easy. There are so many characteristics required to pull it off and there are very few number nines who have the full package.

Of reasonable stature, well-built and with strong legs, he has all the physical qualities one looks for in a striker, and he’s lethal on the counter-attack. He is extremely judicious when it comes to picking up positions when the ball is in motion, and he has an innate understanding of when to stick, when to turn, when to stretch the game or drop deep.

Apart from these tactical attributes, he excels at one aspect of the game vital to his position on the pitch – losing your marker. There, where space and time collapse and one’s allies are left far behind, Higuaín moves with the utmost composure. He manipulates space, making room when there appears to be none, or choosing the shortest route to goal when his team win the ball back. He manages to resolve a most troublesome equation: getting free of defences without straying far from the area.

When he looks for a through ball, he makes the desired trajectory clear for the player in possession. If, when he gets free, his teammate elects not to give him the ball, he immediately looks to pick up another position and show for it once more. And yet, only rarely is he caught offside.

Thus, it’s hardly surprising you often see him in a position to score, whether outside the box or right on the penalty spot, as if the opposition defense had committed some kind of error.

And once he’s there, Higuaín is straightforward, expeditious. He is just as comfortable on either foot. He can turn both ways. He aims and shoots with his left as well as he does with his right, and with both he can belt it or put some spin on it. He strikes the ball masterfully, right in the middle, to give it the exact kind of spin necessary: the perfect parabola to send the ball dipping violently under the bar, or fire it finely across the goal to the far post. When he’s one on one, he’s well able to dribble round the goalkeeper or chip it over him.

He doesn’t hang around, either. Every time he lays the ball off, he darts towards the penalty area. His gift for anticipating the next move gives you the impression he controls time, and if he doesn’t head the ball quite as well as Morientes, last week he managed to overtake him in terms of goals scored in a Madrid jersey: no fewer than 74.

The slipped disc that kept him sidelined for several months, from which he only recovered at the tail end of last season, cost him his place in the team and allowed Benzema to consolidate his position. Yet, true to his style, far from giving up, he merely waited out another opportunity.

He was back in the starting eleven against Real Vallecano and scored a goal. Then he notched up a hat-trick against Espanyol.

With three goals in the Monumental against Chile, he announced to Mourinho, Sabella and Benzema, and anyone else who wanted to listen, what we already knew: Pipita’s most definitely Pipa’s lad.

Sympathy for De Selby – Parts One & Two

I

That no true Paddy would ever cut a tree into a rectangle has long been one of the axioms by which pegamequemegusta has led its increasingly obtuse life. The Paddy is after all a raggle-taggle creature, his talk garrulous and brimming like the vowels of his native tongue. Moreover, millennia of rain have left his edges poorly-defined. Living so exposed to the elements, traditionally the Paddy had no need for precision time-keeping tools such as those fashioned by the valley-dwelling Swiss. So it was we looked with some dismay a few years back when under the guise of modernising reforms, Dublin’s O’Connell Street saw its fine London Plane trees removed.

The tree, of course, was not native to the island, having its roots in 17th century Spain. Yet after a 100 year residence, it’s fair to say the trees had become more Irish than the Irish themselves. So it was sad to see these sturdy friends of ours hacked down and replaced by puny, inescapably French specimens. The natives had been robust yet wavy, the geometry of their cylindrical trunks offset by a delightfully asymmetric dispersion of branches. They were well able to take a storm. The colonisers, on the other hand, were straight from the pristine Jardin de Luxembourg. They took the form of rectangles and looked shakier than a frigateful of General Hoche’s wastrels. Pegamequemegusta stared aghast at the manicured Parisian abominations, shorn like effete poodles. The Sons of Róisín had made a very poor investment indeed. The Paddies had bought into the idea that Nature not only had been overcome but was also ripe for humiliation. Pegamequemegusta saw it was time to leave. 

II

It was no coincidence, of course, that the fawning Eurofiends in the Corpo had taken their dull inspiration from Paris. They spoke openly of copying the Champs-Élysées. However, it is not just toadiness or the lack of imagination of their employees that led them to this. Nor is it merely the wealth or pervasive quantities of elusive qualities such as class that have made Paris so influential. No, dear naïve, handsome reader, its strength comes from the adoption of geometrical principles. Amazingly, it still appears to be largely unacknowledged even today that these abstract forms are effectively a unique kind of cerebral nosh – brain cocaine we might say, if we were sufficiently recovered for another tilt at David McWilliams’ crown. Rectangles, triangles, – my God – squares! All of these transcendental ideals, not just eternal but eternal and unchanging, evoke the same slathering response in the French intellect as our rocky, moss-stained cliff-base in pegamequemegusta’s poor Paddy mind. 

But why the French? For we would never make so outrageous and unfounded a claim as to suggest that the French people were always thus. No, this is not a characteristic of their race, nor a product of some geographical conditioning unique to the west of the European peninsula. The poor sods had the rule run over them, quite literally. A diabolical pastry chef flattened them with the rolling pin of rationality before using dialectics to mold their minds into predetermined shapes. The genius of it was that it was all under the guise of liberté – just as the McVickers would do with Play-Doh some 150 years later. The infection can be traced to the 17th century and an apparently innocuous flirtation with Aristotelian poetics. Initially it appeared to be benign, and even proved to be a useful tool for getting rid of despots. However, they were already lost; the age of chivalry was gone. The Enlightenment hadn’t brought about any real revolution; ’twas merely a crass exercise in rebranding. The Sun King remained.

The Revolution abolished the traditional provinces in order to institute even greater levels of control. They were replaced by départments to ensure all towns and cities were no more than a day’s horseride from their respective centres of judicial power. In addition, there was a sweeping program of name-changes to destroy regional identity that would make Brian Friel’s worries look  like the hysterical witherings of a man yearning for the time when Snickers was still Marathon. A further aspect of this process was that thenceforth standard French would be imposed ruthlessly by the odious Académie francaise so that everyone would speak the same way. Order, control, homogenisation, the obliteration of all identities deviant from those approved of by a central power. Vive la révolution!

Lest you doubt our assertions here, oh dear francophile reader, barely a few weeks after the Bastille was stormed, the mob had succeeded in having the nobles relinquish their control over the system of weights and measures. In the midst of revolutionary turmoil, Condorcet and his buddies set about decimalising the world in a unified, universal system “for all peoples for all times”. Arbitrary abstractions seeking global, a-historical hegemony. 

It was clear the process had been completed when this mental perversion was extended to the very physiognomy of Paris. Under Napoleon III, the city was redrawn by Baron Haussmann. Perspective, angles, abstract forms brought down from the realm of pure mind; straight from Rome, the Eternal City. Straight avenues are about military parades, about showing power. Whether capital or military, they’re about control. These straight lines also imposed themselves in our consciences – masquerading as rationality when they’re anything but. They’re but ghosts, spectres haunting centuries of classical thought wasted on mind/body dualities. Everything outside or but on the threshold of this fortress of order is irrational, subjective, inconsequential. Such a strong hold does this classical way of thinking exert on the mind that it sees itself as uniquely valid, the only way of approaching truth, despite the fact that the only truth attainable through the method is implied by the original premise. Thus over time, the apparently liberating exercise of rationality becomes, in Foucault’s phrase, the castle of our conscience. 

III

In Argentina, too, there were many who would have the trees cut into rectangles. President Domingo F. Sarmiento, in particular, championed the idea that a chronic lack of form was responsible for the barbaric character of its people. He begins his 1845 book Facundo with a lament that no scientist had thus far been able to measure, with “barometre, compass and octant”, the sprawling Argentine Republic. Subtitled Civilisation and Barbarism, Sarmiento argues that only an influx of European culture, of European order, can save the land from its native wildness. Now this attitude is immediately familiar to us from many other tales of colonialism, the Paddy included. Yet what really grabs pegamequemegusta’s attention in his analysis is that he attributes this wildness to geography. The bleak expanse of the pampas, he claims, is to blame for the formless mess that is the national psyche. The lack of mountains and fortifiable strong points in the Pampas, according to Sarmiento, “has imprinted upon the Argentine character a certain stoic resignation to violent death […] and perhaps this may explain, in part, the indifference with which death is given and received.” This “sea on land” results in a dispersed populace which is impossible to govern and which, shock horror, is not inclined to construct follies or develop culture as there is no-one to show it off to! Instead, the habitants of the Pampas, the gauchos, are “happy in their poverty”, in their barbarism. Sarmiento tuts along with Walter Scott that their main past-time is knife-fighting and racing horses “til they burst”.

How sorely do they need the octant, the compass; how essential is it to run the rule over them so that civilisation can impose some soothing form on the chaos! In 1868 Sarmiento received a medal for having introduced wicker to Argentina, but he was after something far more solid. As president, he had the width and breadth of the land pinned down with telegraph poles (“to bring peace to the Republic”) and he established the first telegraphic communication with Europe. He also oversaw the first census of the nation. The beast was being tied down, now it had to be civilised, educated – in the ways of the West, claro. Hence Sarmiento’s insistence on the extension of Argentina’s schools network, the murder machine.

Another key aspect of Sarmiento’s attempt to tame Argentina in the name of science and progress was the genocide of the indigenous peoples who inhabited the land.  One of the surprising things you notice when you travel around the provincia de Buenos Aires, which is bigger than France incidentally, is the amount of towns whose names reflect the languages of the long since dominated indians, such as Mar de Ajó (guajhó ti meaning a swamp or marsh in the tongue of the original inhabitants). Far more abundant, however, are those named after colonels and generals or with military names, such as Las Armas. These come from the campaigns, contemporaneous with the extermination of the natives of North America, led by Sarmiento’s army.

“For the savages of America I have an overwhelming and irrepressible repugnance. These indians are no more than disgusting wretches, every one of whom I would have hung without a second’s thought. [….] Incapable of progress, their elimination will be providential and useful, sublime and grand. Not even the youngest must be spared, for even he is already consumed by the instinctive hatred of the civilised man.”

To this end, Sarmiento conscripted gauchos into the armed forces, in order to take out another enemy of progress. “The only human quality they have,” said Sarmiento of the now celebrated gaucho, “is the blood that flows in their veins.”

The gauchos also had a voice, however, one that expressed quite a different view of the rolling pampas. Like all weak-minded ideologues, spiritual cowards with a neurotic obsession with certainty, Sarmiento was distressed by the ungovernability of the pampas, the country’s sprawling id. The gauchos had embraced it, however, made it their home, accepted its hardships, rode free across the wilds unencumbered by barbarous rationality. José Hernández’s Martín Fierro relates the end of the gaucho way of life as progress steams across the land. Unlike the legend of John Henry, however, technology is not the enemy here, rather agents of the City:

The enduring popularity of Martín Fierro is testament to the fact that Sarmiento’s attempt to digitise the minds of the pueblo was not entirely successful. However, to this day the play of opposing forces implied in the subtitle of Facundo, Civilisation & Barbarism, remains part of the nation’s discourse. The idea that Argentina is but a distorted mirror image of Europe, its crack-addict cousin, and that it must strive to copy the motherland, is firmly embedded. It has become one of those tropes, commonplaces, a reflex in the national psyche. Despite the fondness for Martín Fierro’s andanzas, in the minds of many ‘Europe’ remains a synonym for progress, efficiency, modernity. Europe is good. When the new stadium in La Plata was inaugurated in advance of the Copa América this year, the commentator’s spoke of how European it was, how modern, as if it was another triumph by the Argentines over themselves. In a similar vein, despite being quite nationalistic in many respects, Argentines are never slow to run their country down, saying ‘Ah only in Argentina, eh?’, when usually they aren’t unique at all in their failings. Affording too much respect to the backward West is an unfortunate aspect of Sarmiento’s legacy.

IV

One might ascribe this attitude on the part of the South Americans to purely economic and historical factors. However, pegamequemegusta contends that it is ideological, that it has its roots in Sarmiento. Football provides plenty of examples of this. Brazil, for one thing, don’t seem to suffer from the same inferiority complex the Argentines do. Instead they have mística ganadora, as the vague but lovely phrase has it.

Though perhaps the Brazilians are a case apart in South America, owing to the insanely influential Papal whim that was the Treaty of Tordesillas. Besides all the racial, cultural and economic differences, there is of course supreme pancake of language. Yet it goes beyond the mere tongue they speak, it’s a question of attitude to that tongue. A few years back, for example, the Brazilians decided to build a museum devoted to the Portuguese language. The paltry prosciutto-thin sliver of Iberia where it originated was barely mentioned. ‘Portuguese’ was the language of Brazil, by gum; the land yearning for the return of King Sebastian was little more than an embarrassment, poorly-clad relatives to be suffered out of sight at a back table.  The Spanish-speaking countries of South America, on the other hand, despite all the work gone into integration in recent years, still lack a body to observe and manage the use of ‘Spanish’. The Real Academia Española, as politically motivated and nefarious as its notorious French counterpart, remains the only entity that defines words and proper usage. This is despite the fact that castillian Spanish – insofar as even that exists – is a barely tolerable mush of brow-bespittling balderdash.

Even until the mid-20th century, most Argentine poets still regarded their own way of speaking as somehow not worthy of literature. When César Fernández Moreno finally broke the trend in 1953, the most natural thing in the world needed to be sold as an exaggerated polemic as he titled his (awesome) collection Argentino hasta la muerte, or Argentine ’til I die.

It’s an irredeemably false debate yet Europe weighs upon the country’s discourse like an invisible mass in space causing light to bend, stories to flow into pre-ordained channels. Hence we have the essentially empty Tevez v Messi talk. Carlitos is representative of the pueblo, a loveable rogue, a hardworker, rough round the edges but honest. Messi is a suspiciously perfect stranger, from another planet, a freak as opposed to a manifestation of criollo genius as Maradona was. Or you might hear a more objective-sounding, purely football-related distinction whereby the stocky, powerful deadliness that defines Tevez could be argued to be more typically Argentine than the preternaturally speedy dribbling that characterises Messi’s game. Whichever way you look at it, it’s false. Besides the fact that Messi, after having spent half his life in Barcelona still has a thick Rosarine accent, just this morning [Friday] he stopped his Maserati to pick up an Argentine radio presenter (Andy Kusnetzoff) he recognised on the street for a bit of a chat (with no image-boosting interview); whereas Tevez this week gave us a clear example that he’s suffering from Liam Gallagher syndrome, having become a parody of himself.

Today in Argentina, contrary to what some of the gringo press are wont to say, no serious folk give any credence to this particular manifestation of the ersatz Apollonioan/Dionysian dichotomy. That is the preserve of Robbie Savage types and Mary from Clontarf. Not just because they’ve been worn down by the sheer surge of Messi’s stats and achievements, but because he has changed. We’ve all seen the changes in his game, how he’s added more and more facets to it, even seeming to become hungrier as the years (he’s 24, begob) have gone by, how he’s come out of his shell. He no longer looks quite so geeky, no longer sports the pegamequemegustan autistic gurn he does in the above video.

The revealing thing about it, though is that the question arose at all. All countries have their ghosts, all teams have their rivalries, real and imagined. However, the Johnny Sexton/Ronan O’Gara question has not, so far at least, involved any ruminations on the east/west, Dublin/country, Saxon/Celt, Catholic/Protestant, Parnell/Pearse, Tayto/King, Lidl/Aldi, vehicle/ve-hi-cal derivatives. Over here, though, it would, and as we’ve seen it’s inescapably linked to questions of urban design in Ireland’s capital, so pay attention. We’re not done yet.

V

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 plantain 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.

VI

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. 

VII

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. 

VIII

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 wins the odd football match.