The Wait

“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. 

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Demichelis: ‘Stop making my kid cry, man!’

Cábalas, cábalas! The world is a drunken snake-cum-conveyor belt except it’s not fixed to the floor and it moves in several different directions at once! It is a river a-flood ten thousand fathoms deep on whose purely hypothetical bed of mud dead fish feed on the detritus of other dead fish, and it flows nowhere. Order! Order must be established. An Anchor, a Fisherman, an amulet, a stout blackthorn to banish ghosts and goblins, some sense of certainty like the loyal look in an old mutt’s eyes.

Such were, we venture, the night terrors of the Argentine coaching staff. For, as we mentioned yesterday, it appears Sabella has had enough of certain players’ bad performances so far in this World Cup and decided to second-guess himself in a search for security. Of the dead certain starting eleven, when Argentina play Belgium in under an hour’s time (bejaysus), four will have been changed, owing variously to injury (Agüero), suspension (Rojo) and poor form (Gago and Fede Fernández). The curious thing about it is Sabella is – cliché alert – a cautious man yet the certainty he seeks is actually bound up in two players in particular who he obviously likes but has either sidelined from the squad previously or never plays.

Demichelis, you may remember, dear be-flaggèd one, has not appeared for Argentina since the very first matches of qualifying, more than two and a half years ago, when he committed quite the blunder. Biglia, on the other hand, who was called up as a back-up to Mascherano, has long been a favourite of Sabella yet has practically never finished a match and has only played 20 minutes at this World Cup. Another curious element is the fact that the decision puts more a Glen Whelan type than an (in good form) Andy Reid in midfield while seeking to improve the side’s ability to play out from the back with, well, pegamequemegusta can’t think of any ball-playing Irish centre backs. It’s all somewhat back-to-front, certainty in relative novelty. At least Sabella has shown he’s not afraid to make big decisions, especially Given Messi’s predilection for playing with Gago. As he said himself in yesterday’s press conference, though,, winning is what determines whether you were right or wrong; you either look like a genius or a fool. Let’s hope, etc

Finally, this translation is yet another piece by Marcelo Sottile and Hernán Claus, of Olé, whose work we enjoy greatly. Check it out below, pegamequemgusta.

Zatoichi

  • You weren’t even dreaming of the call-up, were you?
  • As far as I was concerned, I was out. When the coaching staff came to Manchester to see Agüero and Zabaleta, they didn’t get in touch with me. I lost hope.
  • So to you the Bolivia match seemed like a kind of death certificate for your international career?
  • Yeah, but I hoped that match wasn’t going to be the last. That dream kept me going. I had been in love with la Selección since my first game under Pekerman in 2005, and I hadn’t been able to finish my time there in the right way.
  • 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.’
  • You had already had some bad experiences with la Selección, like in 2006 when you were left out of the squad on the last day. You even said you were thinking of giving up football…
  • That was an exaggeration; it was shock talking. Coming back to la Selección this time completely made up for that. That’s why when training started before coming to Brazil, they asked if I was nervous and I answered: “No, I’m enjoying myself. The others have been nervous for months wondering if they’d be called up.” I was out of the picture.
  • And how are you feeling now?
  • Honestly, and with all due respect, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone as happy and with as much energy as me at the moment. Obviously I’m ambitious and always want more, but at the moment all I want is to help the team win the World Cup.
  • So all’s well and you’re going to take things as they come?
  • It’s hard to change at 33. All my life I’ve been schooled and coached the same thing: respect for the ball, whether in Renato Cesarini, River or Bayern Munich. I remember one time, and I’ve never told this story in public, when I was playing in the Champion’s League final against Inter: I was on a yellow and I wasn’t playing well. To be honest, I thought Van Gaal was going to take me off. But then, in front of everyone, he said: “The next time you belt it long I’m taking you off. That’s not what we’re about here.” That had a massive effect on me… Pellegrini, too, in a match against Everton, said: “Even though I don’t want you to take risks, even though sometimes I feel like — and he makes a gesture of something tightening around his neck — I’d prefer if next time you’re going to make a clearance, instead of whacking the ball into the stand, you try to do so with a bit more class. Long balls like that embolden the opposition.” Still, sometimes you just have to get rid of it, take no risks.
  • Are you ready to play?
  • Yes, I’m raring to go. I’m happy and morale is good. We’ve got a lot of support… We have to be respectful, but ambitious, too.
  • How far do you think this team can go? The performances haven’t been great so far.
  • We have to put an end to this quarter-final curse and play all seven matches.
  • After all these ups and downs, you must be dreaming of scoring a header like Tata Brown’s?
  • Well, who doesn’t?… Talking to the press I try to play it safe, but at the same time I have this feeling that if I got into this squad through the back door, it’s because something big is going to happen. Now that I’m here, I can allow myself to dream a little.
  • At least your kid already got his picture with Messi.
  • Bastián, my five-year-old, is mad about football. He watches matches with me and he understands it – and like all kids, Messi is his idol. He has Messi toys, he sees him scoring goals for Barca, he wants to have Messi’s boots, he practices Leo’s moves…
  • It’s not easy, though…
  • A short while back I said to Leo: “Stop making my kid cry, man!” We were in Buenos Aires watching the telly and they showed a video of Messi as a kid, doing keepie-uppies. Bastián started crying. “I can’t do that,” he said, frustrated. I calmed him down and told him: “Don’t worry, either can I.”

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.

creature-from-the-black-lagoon

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.