Messi, Francescoli & Sports Illustrated

This may seem like curmudgeonly criticism, but when a magazine like Sports Illustrated rolls along with its feted, prizewinning auteurs deigning to shed a bit of light on Argentina only to tell a story anyone who’s at all interested in the topic already knows by heart, present bits of other peoples’ interviews as its own work and even make smug, condescending and downright stupid comments about a country the writer clearly doesn’t know very well, pegamequemegusta don’t like it; we expect better.


Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, so does pegamequemegusta churn out these cold, wet and unpotable posts. My brothers, oh handsome brothers (and we stress this as narry a lovesick sailor after three years on the yardarm has espied more females than are wont to frequent this inhospitable coast), pegamequemegusta was forced out on its crutches to stalk the shoreline today for two reasons: firstly because of the usual financial imperative that sees us selling cigarettes to schoolchildren and, secondly, as the words of two contrasting Messi interviews in one day had set our salt-encrusted sinapses firing alternately bursts of delight and outrage as in the 50-gun salute once held by our dear, late schizophrenic skipper after what he claimed to be te vanquishing of his evil twin.

The first piece that set our ears as pointed as a horny cocker spaniel with a Nosferatu make-over comes from Sports Illustrated. The piece is imaginatively titled ‘Lionel Messi: the World At His Feet’. When we came across it, it had already been retweeted many times, nearly all of which referred to it as ‘outstanding’.

Although the sarcasm leaking from the previous lines is about as appealing as being dripped on by a paedophile, it is a good article, of course. Pegamequemegusta was even quite thrilled with such great lines as these:

The fact is, with a talent as otherworldly as Messi’s, charm would be a distraction. Miles Davis played a diabolic trumpet with his back to the audience, and that was more than enough; any hint of charisma would have blown the roof off the place. Maradona’s career, meanwhile, played out like a war between a glorious body and a corrupted mind; when, in 1994, his days as an international player ended in disgrace after he failed a World Cup drug test, the personality seemed to have consumed the player whole.

Great stuff; and it’s accompanied by interesting claims such as Messi “has indeed shifted Maradona’s gambeta, his capering dribble, into a higher gear.” Pegamequemegusta goes all Polonius: ‘capering’ is good.

Yet by page three we began to feel irked by the excessive name-dropping. When left to its own devices, the prose is good, so why laden it down with all these quotes? Well, they’re there to create a veritable chorus of respected football voices who can testify to Messi’s greatness, who can justify the interest (and, indeed, the length) of the piece, you say, oh handsome reader. Grand. But perhaps it’s just padding since Messi doesn’t have much to say. Perhaps we don’t need any more interviews with Messi. Pegamequemegusta is pretty bleedin tired of reading and watching these things, so god knows how the man himself feels.

Yet what does SI care? It prides itself on having an interview with Messi the day after his stonking performance against Real Madrid last November. The day after. Yet SI wants water for its souvenir-studded mill so bad that in its classic Gonzo, look-at-me intro, Price complains of Messi’s churlish reluctance to speak about the comparisons between himself and el Diez: “Messi spent the first 5½ giving clipped and preemptively bland replies. Now Maradona’s name pops up, tucked into the idea that it must be both tiresome and flattering to be compared with perhaps the greatest player in history. Messi’s face hardens: Here’s the ball he’s been waiting to boot out-of-bounds.”

SI try to get through to their man

This isn’t a minute by minute of Mr Price’s work but suffice it to say that it covers all the ground familiar to anyone who’s paid any attention to Messi over the past five years or indeed pegamequemegusta over the past three months: Newell’s, Rexach, Barcelona, Jorge Messi, criticism in his native land, Maradona. Though in fact, apart from some delightful prose describing Maradona’s character (“Diamond earrings flashing, waistline ballooning, marriage falling apart, Maradona soon became a cartoon figure”), there is almost no discussion of Maradona as manager, leader, or the country’s hopes in the World Cup, nothing for better or worse. Being turned down by Maradona, who gives about ten interviews a day, coupled with Messi’s unwillingness to speak on the matter seems to have stumped the eminent reporter.

He regales us with an unsubstantiated anecdote about Verón (“one of the team’s veteran midfielders”) changing the tactics at half time against Brazil and claims that Argentina attacked ‘more effectively’ in the second half’. Yet they didn’t. Maradona is not a good manager and his selection for that match and others was wrong but the pathetic goals they let in the first half had less to do with tactics or Messi’s position on the pitch than they did an inexperienced, bricking-it defence ahead of a startled goalkeeper and massive Brazilian centre halves. There’s enough shit to throw around already to keep a squadron of hyperactive monkeys happy for a month, so surely one expects a celebrated journalist to get their story straight.

Neither was pegamequemegusta too fond of the suggestion that ‘Their marriage has felt strained since September 2008, a month before Maradona took over, when he clucked, ‘Sometimes Messi plays for himself; he feels so superior that he forgets his teammates.” Again, ‘clucked’ is good, but the claim is outlandish and simplistic: what about the performances of beloved, world-class players such as Tevez, Cambiasso, Zanetti and even Riquelme in the last year of Coco Basile’s reign?

But this is going on for far too long. There’s some orchestra-heavy Woody Harrelson/Wesley snipes flim that’s not White Men Can’t Jump on TV (with lines like “You’re busted and you’ll be licking the inside of your asshole for a month to get the taste out of your mouth” – jaysus), the missus is snoring and pegamequemegusta is tired. Suffice it to say that Mr Price’s well-written article is littered with faults.

'El Príncipe' Enzo Francescoli

Yet it was just earlier tonight that we saw an interview with Messi that did ask some questions that he was willing to answer. It was on Canal 7 with Enzo Francescoli in a program with an equally tacky title, ‘Juego Sagrado’. Unlike the Sport’s Illustrated piece, which had a gestation period of a few months, this chinwag took place about ten days ago, as evidenced by Messi’s wearing a Barça training top. It’s very relaxed and Enzo is impeccably turned out in a dark sports jacket and dark navy shirt. Rather than looking to bathe a lack of details in a sea of prose, it is more focused on chatting about what it’s like to be Messi and play like Messi. Obviously, the scourge of a thousand interviewers so far has been the standard response ‘I don’t know, I just do it’, yet Enzo, if his lack of journo credentials meant he couldn’t do the interview alone and had to be accompanied, at bottom is a real football man and he managed to extract a few gems from Rainman himself.

Some of pegamequemegusta’s personal highlights were when they got Messi talking (how about this for a question, SI?) about his favourite players. Aimar, was the immediate response. He even sat up in his chair. Soon he mentioned Zidane and original Ronaldo but watching Aimar back in his Valencia days was one of his great joys. Very interesting, we said as we slapped our good knee, especially since arguably he should have been in the squad.

The next nugget wasn’t long in dropping either. Enzo wanted to know what Messi thinks about when he’s in the box. “For example,” says Francescoli, “whenever the ball would be in and around the box i’d always look to position myself on the left-hand side of the area and look for knock-downs, short passes, one-twos and the like.” Messi stirs, looks up and smiles, certainly picturing the scene to himself as this slick legend talks about playing football. “You, however, score all sorts of different goals but do you think about it? Or do they just happen? Take the third goal against Arsenal, for example, such a lovely goal, to have the calm to lob the keeper like that, was that improvised?”

“Nah,” says Messi, “that one wasn’t improvised actually. I had decided that if I was in a one-on-one I was going to do that as Xavi had got into that position in the previous match and he’d missed it. You know,” and he grins whilst nervously scratching his arm, “with Almunia you had a good idea of what he was going to do.” And they all titter knowingly. Ah, Almunia.

Messi dinks the ball over Almunia for his hat-trick

It wasn’t a laugh a minute by any stretch of the jaw. They spoke about competition in training, practising free kicks, trying to get better every day, etc. The interview inevitably covered much of the same ground, (he’s twenty-bloody-two) yet it seemed more comfortable than the impression given by Sports Illustrated of their encounter. When the other journalist – sorry, pegamequemegusta doesn’t know who he was and I couldn’t find any clips so far – asked about Maradona, you could see immediately his face tensing up, ready to give the same spiel Again. “I always said there’d only ever be one Maradona, and to be honest the comparisons make me uncomfortable,” he said. Yet Enzo arrived to take the edge off with one of his characteristically long interjections, which we don’t have to hand, and they end up talking about how the important thing is what you’re like as a person.

What Messi did say on the team’s chances in South Africa was that they were going to have to work hard in the build-up once they all get together. Could they play like Spain? “Ojalá,” he said, “that’s what we’re missing, we have to get used to keeping the ball and creating chances; we’re going to try and get that nailed down.” The Germany match helped greatly in stabilising things, he assured Enzo. “Whatever about the result, you could see we grew as a team and we have to keep on that track.”

Platitudes. You see, it’s not just an awkward, defensive reflex on the Diego question: he won’t truck any nonsense about naming his ‘Ideal XI’ either. Nor does he ‘dream’ about lifting the trophy: of course he thinks a lot about winning it but, you see, Messi don’t dig oneirism much. He may be a likened to a poem-in-prose but he’s no soothsayer or poet. He’s no Valdano, Maradona or Victor Hugo Morales. He hasn’t got the words to express himself; he doesn’t even seem to think much and he doesn’t watch much football. I imagine the staff employed to keep him happy never tire of sending gracious letters of thanks to Sony.

As everyone who’s met him seems to concur, he’s a lovely boy but grade-A interview material he ain’t. Of course, he brings it on himself with the outrageous number of endorsements he does. Sports Illustrated say he earns in the region of $46m a year. Utterly insane. If you’re Beckham and that’s your world, grand, but if you’d be just as happy sitting in a wicker chair with a piece of straw in your mouth, please, for the love of God don’t sign any more contracts once the current ones end. Don’t do any more underpants ads.

Beckham has nothing to be worried about...

This isn’t another of those cheapest of cheap shots whereby Jorge Messi is accused of treating his son like a particularly fertile hen, that he has been too quick to cash in on his son, right from the initial decision to up sticks and go on the grand Barcelona adventure. While it’s clearly rubbish, it is interesting to wonder how Messi how might have been different had he stayed in Argentina, had he developed longer in the vicerrealista culture of Argieball. For all his undoubted picardía on the pitch, he doesn’t have the same swagger of an Agüero, say.

For pegamequemegusta, these are more interesting topics than his relationship with Maradona. Enzo Francescoli got much closer to the heart of the matter than Sports Illustrated, who besides mentioning that he spoke in Spanish (!) didn’t feel it was necessary to point out how Messi speaks, the fact that he still has a real bogger accent and still uses Argentine slang despite living in Barcelona for most of the last decade. Does Mr Price speak castellano? In any case, he does go out of his way to quote an idiot like Sergio Almirón: “He has a Spanish mind,” Almirón says at last. “He thinks he’s Spanish!”

Even if they’re someone else’s words, it’s another cheap shot: You wouldn’t ask Don Givens why McGeady doesn’t play well (and Almirón is far less important than even Don Givens). Also, the line about the picketers smacks of condescension: protesting about the hail may have something to do with the fact that the response to their no doubt shoddy houses being fucked on was nonexistent. And Argentines don’t eat beef for breakfast since the rate of inflation in the country means most people – including pegamequemegusta – can hardly even afford it.

This may seem like curmudgeonly criticism, but when a magazine like Sports Illustrated rolls along with its fêted, prizewinning auteurs deigning to shed a bit of light on Argentina only to tell a story anyone who’s at all interested in the topic already knows by heart, present bits of other people’s interviews as its own work and even make smug, condescending and downright stupid comments about a country the writer clearly doesn’t know very well, pegamequemegusta don’t like it; we expect better. ‘Grab some wire, duct tape’ – excuse me, pero quién te creés, yanqui conchudo ? Do you know how hard people bloody well work in this country and the fact they get almost nothing for it, and have no security to speak of? Is this due to their ‘lunacy’ alone? Would your own government care to offer an opinion on its involvement in multiple disasters in Argentine history, its role in constructing the stage on which all this madness unfolds, from the overthrow of Perón down to the their complicity with the dictatorship and the crash of 2001?

Sports Illustrated seems offended that Maradona’s qualifications aren’t as impressive as their own, yet they singularly fail to identify with the subject of their interview or to shed any new light on the man or his situation. Francescoli hasn’t got much experience either yet he got a lot more out of Messi in more or less the same amount of time. ¡Viva Enzo! Sigan mamando, SI.

*Tonight Enzo is interviewing Zidane!

Cappa and Powerman versus the Money-go-round

Welcome to the Monumental. A legend at the place, you’ve just been elected presidente of the club with which you share your birthday. Times aren’t great but you’ve never been a shirker and, hey, surely ’tis better to have a chance to bring about change than to be a puppet or just meddle unnecessarily like some silly Pharoah.

So the party ends. You thank your supporters, make a few declarations and go upstairs to check out your throne. It feels good. It feels good to look out over this vast bowl, the scene of so many triumphs, a World Cup, even. So there haven’t been too many triumphs lately, sure it needs a lick of paint, but this is River, che!

You open a drawer and take out a jotter. When you open it at a random page a strange burning smell fills the air. The pages are covered in satanic doodles, exclamation marks abound and it’s written exclusively in red ink. Very curious. You close the book and look at the cover: Club Atlético River Plate: End of Year Accounts 2009.

Oh shit. Welcome to the Monumental.

"Passarella: Born to Defend River"

Let there be no mistake about it: El Kaiser is a man of his word. On taking over as President of River, Passarella insisted his main concerns were sorting out the club’s finances (River are $150m in debt, only own full rights to five pros in their squad, are losing $1.2m a month and all income from TV contracts, advertising and upcoming rock concerts has already been frittered away by the previous president, José María Aguilar), trying to hold on to players and not ceding such a large percentage of their ownership to ‘investors’, making the management of the club more ‘European’ (which we could somewhat flatteringly read as ‘less corrupt’). And so far he has done so, as a delightful puff piece in Olé informed us a while back, by persuading established players, like Almeyda and Gallardo,and exciting prospects, Villalva and Funes, alike to lower their wage expectations; by insisting only he and the Vice President are authorised to sign cheques; by having the roof on the indoor pool fixed; by negotiating with Mercedes-Benz for five new vans when he learned of the scandal that buses had been rented for $300k a year to bring the youth players to training; by visiting their digs to control their comings and goings and installing an ex-player, someone he can trust, to watch over them; by replacing the security firm responsible for keeping undesirables out of the club’s various institutions and showing up at six in the morning to make sure all staff rostered to be on duty were doing their jobs. Oh, less an aloof Kaiser than a medieval king, El Rey, Supremo Juez, albeit fictional:


Y pues el día

aun no se muestra, lleguemos,
don Diego. Así, pues, daremos
color a una industria mía,
de entrar en casa mejor,
diciendo que me ha cogido
el día cerca, y he querido
disimular el color
del vestido; y una vez
allá, el estado veremos
del suceso; y así haremos
como rey, supremo juez.

Calderón de la Barca, El médico de su honra

El Médico de su honra

The one thing he swore he would not meddle in was the manager’s job. And he didn’t. Yet yesterday Passarella was forced to come down from his Bielsa-like world of administrative obsession and boot out manager Leo Astrada – and by phone, too. Today he gave his first press conference after 110 days in charge, and he defended himself over what appeared to be a rather callous dismissal: the phone call to Astrada had been to invite him to a meeting at the Monumental the following day. Ten minutes later, however, the manager rang him back, and when he asked if the meeting concerned the rescission of his contract, Passarella informed him that it was. “Contracts are made to be honoured. I said that when I ran [for president] and i meant it. But I could not honour this contract. The [team’s] campaign is hardly even worth mentioning. River’s bigger than any name or any man.”

Indeed, River is a huge institution but their performances this year have gone from awful to unbearable. They lie in 18th position, have lost 7 out of 13 games – including an anaemic defeat in the Bombonera -, scoring just 8 goals. This follows upon the previous three mini-tournaments where they’ve finished 20th (last, Apertura 2008), 8th (Clausura 2009) and 14th (Apertura 2009).

Therefore, while it wouldn’t be the first time a trigger-happy president used this line to appease the legions of fans right outside the door baying for blood (Boca finally disposed of the hapless Alves the other day), in a league where it’s notoriously difficult to get relegated, River are bizarrely close to making the impossible possible. In the relegation table, which is worked out over each team’s averages over the previous two years, only newly-promoted teams and serial relagation candidates, such as Racing and Rosario Central, are below River. There’s still a plump enough cushion below their sweating arses (they’re 15th but with an advantage of some 18 points on long-suffering Racing) but it is reasonable to ask what guarantee there is that things are going to improve on the pitch. Managers have come and gone – and come and gone again, Passarella (1990-’94) and Astrada (2004, 2005, 2010) both having had two goes at unchoking la gallina – but where are the players?

Intriguing in this era of collective hard-on for the football scientists and pedagogues at Barcelona’s La Masía, River appear to be a fine example of how to fuck it all up. Besides being cash-strapped and in a depressed market, the machine that produced enough exports to keep a small country flush seems to have ground to a halt. Where are the Ortegas, Gallardos, the Crespos, the Almeydas, the Aimars, the Solaris, the Luchos, the Saviolas, the Mascheranos, even the Cavenaghis or Carrizos, the D’Alessandros or the Demichelises? Bunanotte and Gonzalo Higuaín are the only two players to have come to any prominence over the last few years from River’s once infallible academy.

Of course these things often come in cycles but in this case many agree that one man was responsible for the step-up, the extra push that meant River had far more than their fair share of Argentina’s exports, even in an era when Boca produced the likes of Riquelme and Tevez and Argentine players were crossing the pond wholesale. That man was the Brazilian Vladem Lázaro Ruiz Quevedo, commonly known as Delem. Born in 1935 he joined Vasco da Gama when he was just 7 years old and rose through the ranks before coming to River Plate in 1960, where he played as an inside left until 1967. In the 1980s he began to work as a scout and, later, took charge of River’s youth program. All the players listed above were discovered by him and/or passed through his hands. In 2001 Aguilar deemed him surplus to requirements and kicked him out of the club. Delem worked thereafter on some cheap TV shows and died in a cake shop in downtown Buenos Aires in 2007.

Delem - "Doing my job well was the only crime I committed. They never gave me any explanation. If you go work somewhere and do your job well, why the hell would they mess with you?"

If you think of the real formative years of footballers, then, even 25 year olds like Mascherano would have joined River about 13 or 14 years ago, at the least. While of course River is a huge institution and they and Argentina as a whole have continued to produce and export players, hardly anyone of the same class has come through since he left nine years ago. In the meantime, players have been sold at ever younger ages (Higuaín was hardly 19 when he was sold), and the returns have become ever smaller due to the sale of percentages to groups of investors at knock-down prices (foregoing the possibility of greater revenue in the hope of profiting on a few duds – most likely for entirely corrupt reasons, too). Thus, despite having amassed an estimated $248m in player sales in the ten years to 2007, the club that boasted that it was like Buenos Aires’ famous opera house, el Teatro Colón, since not just any old dogsbody could sing there, ended up bankrupt and player-shy, another dysfunctional Argentine club riven by corruption and with a seemingly endless parade of masochists eager to have a go on the manager-go-round.

There is rarely a long time between one manager leaving and another taking his place, and today was no exception. Strangely, though, even though Ángel Cappa was given the job today, he must already sense nostalgic fans’ favourite Ramón Díaz sniping away. Passarella gave short shrift to suggestions that el Pelado Díaz was really the preferred candidate, saying “I heard on the news there was a demonstration outside the ground, but when I went out to look all I saw were twenty lads shouting away. River has 17 million fans.” Ramón Díaz, just like Bianchi at Boca, is invoked every time the media mention the good old days, and indeed he, too, seems hungry to return to the Monumental after a Sven-like jaunt with Club América, in Mexico. He was not at all happy this evening at Passarella’s line about the 20 fans; and while they can hardly silence him, or anyone else in the media, if things don’t go well you can be sure the carping Díaz will be back like a shot to regain what he regards as his rightful place.

Ramón Díaz in his last match as River manager, 2002

As for the man who has the job, Ángel “articulate for a footballer” Cappa is one of the few real football intellectuals left in Argieball management. Indeed, the blogger and author of several books on tactics exiled himself to a certain extent in Spain these last few months in order to recuperate from the dismay at seeing his beautiful Huracán team dismantled by a scurrilous administration. He took over Huracán, a classic Buenos Aires team, when they were near the foot of the table in 2008. Like Arsenal but only using the young Argentines at his disposal Cappa transformed the team, who played sparkling football, referred to in the onomatopoeia beloved of the tactile Argentines as tikki tikki. They played Velez for the championship on the last day of the Clausura 2009 and were robbed by horrible refereeing and a goal that came from a foul on their goalkeeper 8 minutes from time. Six of their first team players, all young – including De Federico, Pastore and Bolatti – were sold and Cappa was informed there would be no money to replace them. He left and the experiment ended.

Ángel Cappa

Now, albeit at a much bigger club, it will be extremely interesting to see if Cappa can work wonders again, as he did with Huracán and even Real Madrid (1994-96), where he worked alongside El poeta Jorge Valdano, giving debuts to young players like Raúl among anothers. This time, though, given the amount of scrutiny enjoyed by an institution such as River Plate, it would be surprising if he managed to unearth hidden gems. Still, as someone with a proven record and sound football principles, if he can’t do it, River really are lost.

Pegamequemegusta makes no pretence about impartiality, and so, despite pretty much hating River, hopes that for football’s sake this experiment works , that if any players are uncovered they won’t be sold before making their debuts, and that this time Passarella won’t be forced to break his promise. After all, River is not Quanglo-Irish Bank, like it or loathe it, Argieball needs an institution the size of River to be in good shape if it’s to pull itself out of the mire. And if all goes well, Cappa could end up ousting the not-so-cunning-as-he-thinks Diego, Passarella the ogre Grondona, sanity insanity, and somehow, someday, Racing might be World Champions again.

I’ll personally give a tenner to anyone who reads this far.*

*Only in person. May be 10 pesos.