Tintin, Argentina and the Land of Black Gold

Fans will be allowed to bring mobile phones, cameras and 500cl bottles of water. Yet if that water bottle is one centilitre over, not a chance, and God help you if it’s made of glass. Lighters will be banned as will belts! Are all the extra police being posted for suicide watch? They may have to be: the traditional hotdog, hamburger and empanada vendors have been banned from the stadium for the game.

“In Cutral Có, Neuquén the city of black gold, petrol, the Selección have arrived for their match against Haiti. A city of just 35,000 people, tickets have been retailing at $200 for the chance to see Maradona’s ballet. Alianza’s ground will be full, they’ve added extra seats. And the police have said that no-one carrying a thermos and maté will be allowed entry.”

So begins Olé‘s article, entitled Blue and White Gold, on the friendly between the Selección local and Haiti, a match organised to raise money for the poor Caribbean nation devastated further by an earthquake in January. This apparent contradiction of a national team consisting solely of locally-based players has been one of the projects most forcefully insisted upon by Diego. It hearkens back to an earlier age, a purer one, they would no doubt say, when Argentina could field a brilliant team featuring the idols of the teams they followed with such distinctive passion and pageantry each week. All but two of the 22 members of the 1978 World Cup winning squad was made up of players who plied their trade in the grandes equipos of Buenos Aires, such as Racing, River, Independiente and Huracán. Today, however, the situation is much changed for obvious reasons.

In pegamequemgusta’s opinion, only a sizeable chip on one’s shoulder and blind nationalism could make anyone believe that the current standard in Argieball bears any relation to that era of Argieball. Nevertheless, a couple of good performances in Primera have been known to suffice for a call-up to Diego’s squads over the last year and a half. And although those call-ups have been shown to be pretty cheap, with players discarded after barely a few minutes and others retained after shambolic performances (Dátolo made his début against Brazil, scored a screamer and never appeared again). Although Diego does seem to take these things seriously enough as auditions for the first team (Palermo, for one, has real chances of going to South Africa), it must be admitted that at this stage they are only played for cash. At least this time, the cash will go to a worthy cause.

The Haiti squad, undiminished despite the January's terrible earthquake

At least this is what the organisers are claiming as they gouge the Patagonians for seven times more than it would cost them to go see the players play in a normal league match. Bizarrely, these fans could still be paying for the novelty in six months time as a payment plan has been designed for those with limited cash flow (about 90% of the population in pegamequemegusta’s experience).

Police man the streets in expectation of a violent outburst by the irrepressible Captain Haddock

Another unusual aspect of the game is the hefty police presence. For a game, a friendly match, which the Haitian coach, Colombian Jairo Ríos, has described as “a relaxation exercise, like taking a pill”, it seems excessive to bring 380 police officers. One hundred and thirty of them will be brought in specially from Neuquén Capital. For crowd trouble? Well, they’ve clamped down on what can be brought. Fans will be allowed to bring mobile phones, cameras and 500cl bottles of water. Yet if that water bottle is one centilitre over, not a chance, and God help you if it’s made of glass. Lighters will be banned as will belts! Are all the extra police being posted for suicide watch? They may have to be: the traditional hotdog, hamburger and empanada vendors have been banned from the stadium for the game.

Alianza's Colossos, which holds 16,500 people, where la Selección local will take on Haiti on Wednesday

Pegamequemegusta was surprised upon learning that the match was being played in Patagonia. Then, in a condescending bout of big cityitis, decided it was nice for these mountain people, Sly’s peons and others crushed under the heel of the United Colours of Benetton, to be able to see real legends like Ortega and Palermo in their country’s colours in their home town. Sure it costs way more than usual, but Buenos Aires is a long, long way from Cutral Có. Plus the adventure fits in with the federalist vision propagated in the venues chosen for the Copa América 2011.

On further thought, though, pegamequemegusta wonders what powers are behind this apparently benevolent gesture. Who pulled the strings to have this game played here, of all places? Could it be a similar occasion to the utterly forgettable friendly with Belarus in 2008? Why are there so many police? If the match is to raise money for the Haitians, why is it being played in such a small venue? Is this not a vanity project for some powerful men down in oil-rich Patagonia? Dear, loyal, oh so handsome readers, this is a case for Tintin: Argentina and the Land of Black Gold.

Alemania v Maradona

Gonzalo makes the most of his chance to become Argentina’s number 9 in South Africa

While the Lahm-roasting I was hoping for was not to be, Argentina won well enough against a German team so stodgy and turgid it made me long to spend a day in the lungs of a tubercular poet. It took the intervention of the Cacau-el-cabrón to bring a bit of life to the proceedings – with not a little skill and more attitude than Bette Midler – exacting terrible vengeance on Mascherano for some harshly spoken words shortly before.

Besides Otamendi, who looked hopeless, Argentina’s defence did look alright:  Samuel was man of the match for me. Still, the limitations of such a negative approach, playing with four centre backs, are obvious enough. The most important fact of the match is that Germany were useless: despite having much more of the ball, they created next almost no decent chances. Compared to Germany, Ireland yesterday looked like… I don’t know, Brazil (oho).

Like Ireland, there was no-one to distribute the ball to Di María, Jonás or Messi. But surely that’s what Verón is there for: spreading the ball wide to lift what there was of German pressure. Except for one free kick, which he belted from an acute angle at the keeper with Burdisso rushing in for a flick, he spent the whole game sitting too deep, hanging back too far in general and contributing little or nothing. The strange thing, though, is that this was his job in the game: but why wasn’t he further forward playing more or less as a number 10? For some reason he was always behind Mascherano – that is, in Masche’s position, getting in his way and confusing things. 4-1-3-2, yes, but with Verón as the number 5 and Mascherano pretty much lost, unable to do what he does best.

So to sum up: in the first half Argentina played quite well and looked canny and smart, vivos as they say here. In the second half, though, they just looked out of ideas, bored (and boring) and without much inclination even to impress a very impressionable manager.

Not everyone can pull off this look

Speaking of whom, the best thing of the afternoon was almost undoubtedly el Diego in the press conference. He refused to be interviewed with a German player beside him! With a smile on his face, he said it “wasn’t normal for a manager to give a press conference with another player beside me… I’ll wait if you want… Over there [pointing to the side of the podium].” A man with a Spanish accent kept insisting that he stay but he ended up getting up and waddling off to the side where he signed a few autographs. The German player, Muller, stood there on the podium on his own with a morto look on his face.  After an awkward moment or two he set off towards Maradona… but walked right past him and out the door, whereupon the manager of the Selección waddled back up onto the podium.

In general he was in good humour, laughing at the interruptions of the fussy German’s translators (- Sorry but would you let me translate… – Well if you let me finish speaking, you can translate it afterwards!) and looking bemused, playing with his water bottles, as he waited for them to finish. He wouldn’t accept any comparison with the German team of ’86, nor with the supposed ‘dichotomy’ between the Barca Messi and the Argentina Messi, saying he just thanked God Messi is Argentinian.

As regards what he actually said, there wasn’t much: he said that Argentina were better than Germany in every part of the pitch, that they were comfortable enough defending Germany’s crosses, that he was chuffed with the clean sheet and that, “We wanted to show, against one of the powerhouses of football, that we’re alive and well.” The best frase maradoniana, all the same, and the most accurate, I reckon, was that “We both threw a load of meat on the barbeque and the weight and class of our players made the difference.”