Sodom & Begorrah

I

“Pegamequemegusta, I presume?” came the words of the Foreign Correspondent as we nestled drowsily in the long grass, “Whither thy pen?” The address was relayed to us by a translator, so long had we been without hearing our mother tongue. We rose, adjusted our once-robust loincloth and wiped the sleep from our eyes. Cocks, we replied, why do they crow? Fifteen months we’ve been out here, far from the net, and none the wiser. The dawn, it had soon become clear, had precious little to do with it. Unless they perceive some ultraviolet rays several hours before first light, many of the neighbourhood roosters were clearly taking the piss. Several hypotheses we developed: sometimes they sing when one of their hens lays an egg; sometimes they sing for joy, like good Nietzscheans. Further observation, study and dressing up in discarded feathers with a red sock on our head led us to float the idea sometimes they sing just to let other roosters know they’re there.

Yet what about cock fights? They seemed so peaceful day after day pecking, puffing out their macho chests, strutting and preening in their colourful get-ups like little Sergio Ramoses, yet nary a bout of gratuitous violence. Could the rooster really be such a temperamental fellow? It would explain its adoption as mascot by the fickle, impotent French, while simultaneously provoking the question as to why no-one had ever thrown a second cockerel onto the pitch at the Stade de France… No, those who tear at each other in the ring must be biffed about and egged on, or subjected to some kind of Ludovico treatment.

The Foreign Correspondent’s response was unequivocal: “thus is their nature. I am a foreign correspondent and can testify. Indeed, I must testify; ’tis my calling. No puff-piece will be my work. Ah begorrah the lip on those my dear subjects may be enough to make a round-bellied calf bleat wholesome country airs but I shall shine a thousand megawatt dental lamp on their rotten molars and wrench away with a force that’d make the yeller sun whimper. I shall perform a perfect plex on their psyche so severe their children’s children shall wince at the mere whisper of the grass that bends before my path, like Enda Kenny before an email from a third-class Finnish clerk: ‘thy suggestion is my obligation – we still have some people left, and they would be happy to gain the experience, free of charge, of course, of serving as gnomes in your doubtlessly magnificent winter garden, a buachaill.’ For I am a foreign correspondent.”

We here at Pegamequemegusta have our own thoughts on the matter, and we shall bring them to you by and by, oh hunchèd one. Nature, though, is more blind and inscrutable than that bowsy, Justice; and the esteemed correspondent would do well to turn his gaze thence where the cocks crow so he might temper with the heavens’ gentle rain earth’s all-consuming fire. Entropy is, after all, Nature’s mercy plea; yet all we ask for is a little empathy. Empathy, above, all, for the correspondent, whose lonely, coddled existence being ferried around to meet political leaders, social workers, priests, authors and the like, going on ride-arounds with the police if the country is regarded as being in the least bit insalubrious, it all contributes to frustration of epic proportions, a frustration that, in V. S. Naipaul’s articles on Argentina in the early 1970s, results in the blackest, most apocalyptic prose you’re likely to see outside the footnotes in Zlatan’s notorious On Baldness.

Typical Argentine asado
Typical Argentine asado

Indeed, while he was writing his series of extensive reports on Argentina in the mid-1970s, Naipaul wrote to his wife that he was having a recurring dream of an exploding head. Sent by the New York Review of Books to cover the increasingly desperate, incestuous and bloody disintegration of the grass desert by the port, the dispatches are among the most interesting examples of the Foreign Correspondent genre we’ve read. Published between 1972-’74, ‘The Corpse at the Iron Gate‘ and ‘Argentina: Brothels Behind the Graveyard‘ discuss the return of Perón after nearly 20 years in exile in Spain. Ousted in a bloody coup in 1955, any mention of Perón, peronist slogans or songs, not to mention Evita, was outlawed by the military government. Nevertheless, his benign national socialism exerted such an influence over the country that it has remained the basis of almost all political discourse in the country – even among those who despise Peronism. It’s as controversial as it is inescapable.

Back in the early 1970s, after almost 20 years in exile in Spain, everyone wanted a piece of Perón. He was seen as the saviour. Indeed, the religious comparison is not too out of place as the movement had far outgrown the man. Think Jesus coming back to interrupt the Council of Trent or Mohammed interrupting some young jihadi yapping into his webcam. (What, you mean you didn’t..?) It became a rather macabre case of why you shouldn’t meet your heroes. When thousands turned out at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires to welcome the general home, there was a bloody massacre. Left-wingers, right-wingers, everyone thought of themselves as peronista. That raised the question as to what the hell peronism was, then. Everything, apparently: “Another peronist day,” remarks one of the characters in Osvaldo Soriano’s novel No habrá más penas ni olvido as dawn breaks following the night of the Ezeiza massacre. After what has transpired it should be bitterly ironic. He is deadly serious, however.

The return of el General came to look a bit like Saturn eating his babies. According to Naipaul, however, Argentina has no real father figure, not even any patriarchal founding myth in which to seek solace in the recurring periods of strife. “Argentina has no history,” he says, just vague ‘stages’ that repeat themselves in a stunning, maddening, dull manner. No myth was found to replace that of the aristocratic colonial land exposed as baseless and cruel and overturned by Perón after just a few short years in power.

Hmm, that actually sounds intriguing and thought-provoking, considered, informed and radical. Moreover, in his carefully wrought text Naipaul is a human camera, a tracking shot from a taxi window shunting along the scream-ridden streets of the capital or rolling along a dirt road in the country’s portly belly, so fecund yet so famished. Unmediated, he beams back objective scenes of rape. And sodomy. Oh the sodomy. Like a wailing Dylan epic, there pile up scenes of utter degradation, waste, despairing reflections (“How many feet of topsoil does the pampa have? Eight? Or is it twelve?”), as well as paeans to British colony-building (if only they had got their mits on the Río de la Plata!), impossible now given the lamentable, superstitious immigrant hordes now hulking on the south bank of the Río de la Plata. He mixes in creditably-translated quotations like a sultry dee-jay, punctuating his ballad with the recurring refrain: And Perón at the Iron Gate (evoking the general’s exile at La Reja in Spain). How to disagree with the assertion that this is a Hardnosed Investigative Journalist who has read, observed and consulted and is not afraid of applying a couple of correctional knees-to-the-groin if he thinks they’re necessary? Chapeau, señor!

II

That exploding head, though. The black, viscous venom that pours from the pages; the superior, dismissive tone of the Only Man who can see beyond the tip of his own nose. If Naipaul keeps behind the camera, so to speak, his personal neuroses are a thick wad of grease over the lens. His account features some of the blackest scorn, the thickest vitriol and the most prudish guilt you’re likely to come across outside of the kebab wrapper-lined walls of a defrocked priest’s bed-sit.

Goya_women

Argentina is ‘spewing on itself’. Its society is a ‘diminished one’, he says, one characterised by mimicry. Here words which make sense in other lands – like “general, artist, journalist, historian, […] museum, zoo,” etc. – have to have to be placed in inverted commas, so little relation do they bear to their first-world archetypes. It is a hollow-chested fake, a sterile society so completely lost it mistakes form for content: “For men so diminished there exists only machismo.” (Re: Evita: “She was the macho‘s ideal victim-woman — don’t those red lips still speak to the Argentine macho of her reputed skill in fellatio?”). However, straight sex does not interest the Argentine macho so much, says Naipaul: “His conquest of a woman is only complete when he has buggered her.” Like their hideous society, this ‘black mass’ of sex is but a parody. While poor Evita, overcome at the tender age of twenty-nine, “was dying from cancer of the uterus, and haemorrhaging through the vagina.” He really doesn’t hold back. No-one is undeserving of a swipe. This is a Paschal passion-level rage that oozes through the pores and erupts onto the page like an octopus whose just emptied its ink sack before cocking its smooth snout snootily and propelling itself back to healthier northern waters.

The South is a mess, in his view, not so much because of economics as the ignorance and backwardness of the people. The South is Bizzarroworld, where the cooly-formulated rock-institutions of the North wobble and shake zanily as if the laws of physics themselves have less sway, less purchase here, unable to grant the same sturdiness they do in the sane hemisphere. 

Not even Borges, whom Naipaul interviews several times, is spared. Sure, he admits, Borges may have “about a dozen successful stories” after 50 years in the business, but for the most part these are mere ‘intellectual games’ – more parody. He sees him as a hypocrite, a fraud whose art hides the realities of the ‘hate-filled city’; he’s a crude, backwater oddity who tells tasteless jokes and mumbles incoherently with the gormless enthusiasm of an autodidact. The Nobel’s increasing exasperation with the old man’s ‘performances’ are unwittingly comic. Argentina is a barren mongrel bitch, incapable of raising bastards, even. It’s spiritually dead and no amount of phony, intellectual pussy-footing by a one-trick-pony like Borges is going to change a damn thing. Jorge Luis himself, who excelled at the snide put-down, would perhaps have envied the viciousness with which Naipaul remarks: “And Borges is Argentina’s greatest man.”

Goya_fates

No, for Naipaul the ‘promise of ease’ alone attracted men to this vapid, insubstantial land where “intellectual resources are scant”. Goya’s fat, naked Fates could be the degenerate sudaka versions of the pristine, Hellenic Furies. If only Argentina had the cultural weight of, say, New Zealand, whose three million people, he says, have made more of a contribution to the world than Argentina’s twenty-three million (circa 1970, now fourty or so).

These intellectual and cultural shortcomings left the country susceptible to the empty rhetoric of Perón, according to Naipaul. All those speeches about the pueblo were an oral narcotic nobody really believed in; little more than demagogic bluster – exhilarating, sure, but classless. Pegamequemegusta doesn’t get the impression Naipaul would have appreciated much the despotic granting of holidays to the feckless ‘workers’ of the phantom republic, for example (and in a frivolous place like Mar del Plata!). While Evita’s ‘charity work’, bringing the state to the masses, was nothing more than “a child’s vision of power, justice and revenge.” For the New York Review of Books’ foreign correspondent, the rhetoric of peronism is a metaphor for an empty shadow country, yet it’s also the cause: it helps to create the vacuum that thereafter must be filled by magic and machismo.

III

Magic and machismo were also to the fore in a piece by ArgentinaFW’s Dan Colasimone a few years back. Colasimone is a rare case of a writing gringo (Australian in this case) in Argentina who knows what he’s talking about – someone who spent years in the country, travelled around it (much more than us), speaks the language more than competently, understands the place as much as a foreigner can, and cares for it. The piece centres on caudillos, the warlords of the pampas, if you will, how they emerged in Argentine history and how the influence of that tradition continues to this day. However, even in his article, one perceives a tendency to present the pueblo as dimwits taken in by razzledazzle, wowed by power. He speaks of “the population’s willingness to throw themselves at the feet of a figure postulating as an omnipotent redeemer”; talks of their “mercurial love-hate relationship with these arcane figures of power and passion”, and conjectures that Menem in the eyes of the Argentines was “a knight in shining armour”. The awesomely corrupt Carlos Menem was certainly popular enough to win two presidential elections – after all, he was in power during an economic bubble. Yet so was Bertie Ahern, and we’ve never heard the Irish psycho-analysed in quite the same way: such that Irish history is a tale of robbery, poverty, betrayal, epic drunkenness and emigration… hence Fine Gael.

We don’t think this reduction was a conscious one on Colasimone’s part. Rather, as so often in these kinds of pieces, in the Foreign Correspondent genre, the object of study – a people, a culture – is personified as a thinking, willing subject. The disinterested tone of hard History adds a veneer of scientific objectivity yet the operation is more akin to a psychologist’s divan, without the empathy and without the subject being allowed to speak. We have a little person to analyse, an autonomous subject who is oddly, catholically, liable to judgement, blame and guilt – and there are few more insidious myths than that which says people get the government they deserve. 

The foreign correspondent is half-Odysseus, half-detective, a man entrusted with unmasking his subject, be it a person, a situation or a nation, with a word limit and travel expenses equal to his epic task. He travels, interviews and amasses items of local colour, the key to verisimilitude. Then, more often than not, when the sheet is pulled away from his subject, we are confronted by a new mask dripping with fresh paint.

Pegamequemegusta is fond of masks, of course, and we imagine having the space to develop ideas rather than being restricted by a five hundred-word limit, say, and getting to see a place with your own eyes, must be the ideal for many reporters. Perception is a tricky old business, however, and long essays about unknown lands often turn out rather cock-eyed. S. L. Price’s exercise in journalistic autism was one of the first pieces we turned our attention to in this vexing sub-genre; while over at The Financial Times, the oft-astute Simon Kuper has also got our heckles up on more than one occasion. One that passed us by at the time was laurel-laden Wright Thompson of ESPN’s trip to Rosario to investigate Messi’s origins. Now, Wright Thompson knows how to string sentences together. On Second Captains, the counter example to everything we dislike, they openly and frequently refer to his class. There is a consistent approach in his road pieces, however, that really sticks in our craw.

Thompson is given the assignment and studies up. He arrives in Rosario, most likely with a clear idea of what he wants to write, travels around for a few days accompanied by a paddy who has apparently been living there for a while and so can translate for him. His thesis sits up prim and appealing like a bibbed-up pincher in a baby-chair for a dog food advert: Messi’s desire to maintain contact with Rosario has more to do with nostalgia for his childhood than any real connection with what the place is really like; nostalgia that to some extent may have fuelled his determination (and angry determination, as opposed to grace, is one of the most mesmeric aspects of Messi in full flight) to so consistently exceed, and indeed, eclipse, himself.

What follows, however, is a farcical bout of door-stepping and slow drives by empty houses. When he reflects on the basic facts, he can be almost astute – as when he says: “Growing up in Rosario might not have shaped him, but leaving it certainly did.” (The first part of that sentence is questionable, but the second part seems spot on). Yet the rest of the time the trip seems to have been pointless. Thompson travels to the site of Messi’s origins, yet the distance between him and his surroundings is immense. His palette fills with glib globs of local colour: flags flapping in the wind, old women hawking produce, “gas station empanadas”; “it felt like Havana”, he tells us. Thompson has less balls and know-how than a third-rate backpacker. Days of logistical planning are spent “trying to find someone who could guarantee safe passage into Fiorito,” where Maradona grew up. He’s lost and lonely on the road. A beautiful city like Rosario is described as a “piece of dirt [….] an urban moonscape of Soviet-style apartment blocks and howling dogs,” an unkempt stable “that once produced greatness.” The rosarinos – the cattle and asses in this figure – he presents as a feckless bunch of pool hall assassins with dodgy orthodontists who smoke “off-brand” cigarettes. “They don’t understand how he plays or how he acts.”

Goya_duel

Maradona, on the other hand, they get, for he has “an ultra-typical Argentine personality,” our foreign correspondent approvingly quotes a Spanish journalist as saying. Pegamequemegusta shudders at the thought of what this idea in Thompson’s head must entail: cheat, drug addict, loud-mouth megalomaniac, preternaturally gifted, massively flawed, hypocritical, demagogue, of scant intellectual resources, quite possibly a communist… “Maradona grew up poor and has spent his whole life running from the blue brick hovel, never looking back.” That just about contradicts everything we know about Maradona, everything he’s ever said and done. He has always seen, we venture, his origins as his strength, something he wouldn’t change for anything yet that must be overcome – not just in Fiorito or Buenos Aires, but in all of South America. The only factoid we get from Thompson’s trip to Fiorito is that el Diego’s house was blue.

The piece on Luis Suarez, published last Tuesday, reveals many of the same flaws in its conception and execution. He’s given an assignment on someone he clearly isn’t very familiar with, he has to travel to a place for the first time, he’s unable to speak the language and is saddled with an apparently unshakeable conviction that South America is a viper’s nest, somewhere to be pitied, a place populated by blokes with fistfuls of chest hair sticking out of their unbuttoned shirts, a place so unpalatable people would rather chomp through their opponents arms rather than be sent back there. The love story of redemption he uncovers about Suarez and his missus is enjoyable, true or not, but the segue from that to the archaeology of the striker’s mind, the identification of his deepest fears, is clunky and unconvincing – not to mention easily refuted by a passing comparison with, well, every other Uruguayan footballer. “Three points make a trend, but in a World Cup year, two points are good,” as the inestimable Brian Phillips put it on Grantland last November.

Perhaps it’s a question of editing, but all these travel pieces also exude embarrassing touches of the exotic – margins-porn. The titles alone are striking, with words like fury, anarchy, martyrdom, brutality. Thompson’s article on Pelé from last year, on the other hand, involved a couple of interviews on home soil and so focuses on the subject and the sports business in general. The difference in quality and accuracy is considerable.

The real problem here is not our somewhat sanctimonious complaints about the ignorance and prejudice of Thompson and others. Rather, it’s a question of style. ESPN’s man would have been as well off staying at home watching Messi’s goal against Getafe again and again on youtube. Even if he had ended up writing a similar gloss based on pieces like Price’s, at least his prose wouldn’t have been so grossly puffed up with the illusion of views grounded in empiric evidence, the lie of authority.

IV

It’s a question of travel and lenses, motives and style. One thing is to travel in order to gather evidence, quite another how you analyse it. Don Carlos Darwin’s beaglings around Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1830s are far from being dry, naturalistic reports. Indeed, they’re remarkable for their freshness. The pampas deer, the snorting water hog, the gnawing tucutucu, the quarrelsome carrancho, the resourceful burrowing owl, the jaguar that roars when a storm is coming and is pestered at night by the foxes that yelp in its wake, it reads like the hit cast of a Pixar flick. What we were surprised by is that he pays as much attention to the people he comes across, and that the gaze remains the same, not trying to classify them but understand them. He sees the gauchos hunting by slinging these rounded bolas over their heads and decides to try it out himself. One of the bolas, though, strikes a bush, stops spinning and falls, wrapping itself around one of his horse’s legs: “The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried out that they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.”

He’s independent, he’s curious, he’s clearly got a good enough buzz off him that despite being from a Different World these rudeboys reckon ‘This guy’s alright!’ That attitude is not reserved just for when he’s around the gauchos either. If he laughs at them for thinking dinosaur bones seen in the side of a cliff must mean the creature had buried its way in there, like a mole, he quotes them respectfully on the things they do know about. The following could be a description of Messi or Suarez in a one-on-one, Mascherano stealing the ball effortlessly at the right moment, or an extract from a Taoist text:

I recollect seeing a Gaucho riding a very stubborn horse, which three times successively reared so high as to fall backwards with great violence. The man judged with uncommon coolness the proper moment for slipping off, not an instant before or after the right time; […] The Gaucho never appears to exert any muscular force.

Goya_witches

Far are we from Thompson’s Rosario. This isn’t condescending reverence, it’s not dead prose masquerading as objectivity, it’s not creeping pop psychology, gonzo demagoguery or apocalyptic fulmination. Rather, it’s characterised by – an impossible dream, perhaps – a kind of sober delight.

In the next few days, hundreds of journalists will descend on Brazil, ostensibly to talk about football. They will go to press conferences and training sessions. Otherwise, why travel, right? Many will have wi-fi problems at some point or other, maybe they will even have to wait for a bus. Some will also discover a long-suppressed need to comment on the host country’s budgetary policy. We hope they have a great time. A word to the wise, though – cocks probably crow due to combinations of all of the above, and not everyone down here is that big into sodomy, begorrah.

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Bring Back Maradona

Maradona was rightly Tombstoned for his selection policy in the World Cup qualifiers. Some of the players Diego called up he would then treat like embarrassing mementos of late-night tv shopping sprees. The final count was 108 different players in about half a qualifying campaign and a few friendlies. However, we are concerned that there are also too many token gestures when Sabella names his squads. Although he’s characterised as being staid and serious, some names just come and go with little or no game time, just as with Maradona; or they go from the first eleven to not even being called-up, without any tales of guitars or Ra tunes. At times Sabella’s lists reflect a hipsterish desire for notoriety, validation for being the biggest football freak around. He knows he’s the only guy at the party with a vinyl of Phil Collins singing the Lion King soundtrack in Taiwanese, and he’s loving it.

Svensson?! Svensson?! Can you tell me who the hell Svensson is, where he plays?!

– H. Crespo

The cat is bored. No, she’s not. She doesn’t even have a sense of time. She can be nervous or frisky but bored she cannot be. You are bored. No, my dear, you are bored. I am boring, you are bored. You see? The cat may be boring, but only if you deliberately avoid finding joy in the miracle of her confused dilly-dallying. Now I am bored. Yes. You are boring. Yes, wanna make out?

Ah that ser y estar difference, rendered in English as internal -ed and external -ing. What a world eh. Nonetheless, this is getting fookin boring. We miss Maradona. This is getting boring. Another bloody victory. Another night, another one-two-three of cameos in the box: oh Pipita it’s your turn, now you Kun, now you Messi, go on, oh drag it back you devil and smack it round the keeper. Tra-la-la. Beat Chile in Santiago, beat Uruguay, beat Sweden, knocking in three goals in twenty minutes. And tonight, when Argentina play Venezuela at home, it will be in front of a sold-out Monumental, a place where even River win these days. It’s one big bag-o’-dicks love-in. What the hell is a cranky, supposedly provocative blog meant to write about? Full backs? Transitions? Gago? Maybe we could talk about what a jerk John Carlin is; or speculate on why Messi’s newborn child has such ginormous hands.. We’re bored. We miss Maradona.

Maradona Telegraph

Even off the pitch everything is rosier than a kitten’s tongue on free cream day at The Big, Comfy Pillow Factory. According to an article on canchallena, unlike previous management teams, there are now strict restrictions on the access of AFA dudes, club presidents and other entitled-feeling moneymen to the players and management. Lines have been drawn, there is a schedule. Sabella is tough but fair, for he recognises the importance of having family around, given how few days the players have in the country. Moreover, as long as these guys are in charge, the AFA’s coffers will not come ahead of the interests of the national team: first comes qualification for the World Cup, only then will Sabella contemplate lucrative friendlies or outings with B-teams to places like Puerto Rico. “I understand business and I will do everything I can to enhance the brand behind the national team, but only as long as it does not interfere with the make-up of the squad or team performance,” Sabella reportedly told don Julio Grondona. The old man must be tired; he’s even going to retire in a while, so much does he miss el Diego.

Love of Messi is, in Olé’s words, “unanimous” at this point, and there is unanimity in terms of people’s opinion of the team – awesome up front, a bit weak at the back, but hey, did you not see who’s up front? Sabella himself has candidly expressed the same thing; he’s not even brazenly claiming there is a balance that will come to the fore with a few more games – and everyone’s fine with that. Unanimous as the night.

Nor are there any of the paddyish murmurings about who should be included in the squad. Of course Argentina’s surplus of very talented players means some must be left out, yet Sabella’s choices, if not frothingly Trappist, can be a little perplexing. Maradona was rightly Tombstoned for his selection policy in the World Cup qualifiers. Some of the players Diego called up he would then treat like embarrassing mementos of late-night tv shopping sprees. The final count was 108 in about half a qualifying campaign and a few friendlies. However, we are concerned that there are also too many token gestures when Sabella names his squads. Although he’s characterised as being staid and serious, some names just come and go with little or no game time, just as with Maradona; or they go from the first eleven to not even being called-up, without any tales of guitars or Ra tunes. At times Sabella’s lists reflect a hipsterish desire for notoriety, validation for being the biggest football freak around. He knows he’s the only guy at the party with a vinyl of Phil Collins singing the Lion King soundtrack in Taiwanese, and he’s loving it.

“Yeah, man,” he told pegamequemegusta over a few rollies, “I know you like Pastore and Lamela but they’re so obvious. I’ve been tripping out with spider monkeys for the last two weeks with my friends and it totally changed my perspective on things. José Basanta’s been doing things at Monterrey that make Jimi’s exploits at the similar-sounding-but-altogether-different-Monterrey seem just darn fanciful.” Further questions regarding the selection criteria for those players called up from the Argentine league, which left out arguably the three most skilful players – namely, Ignacio Scocco (27), Luciano Vietto (19), el burrito Martinez (27) – while including two men who under no circumstances will be at the World Cup – Leo Ponzio (31) and Maxi Rodriguez (32) – were brushed away like yesterday’s Plimsolls.

maradona telegraph 2

There are questions to be asked, however. While 2012 was enjoyable with its 4-0 (Ecu), 3-1 (Par) and 3-0 (Uru) home wins, along with a delightful 2-1 away victory in Chile, it ultimately seems pointless to continue playing a 4-2-4. It is highly improbable that such a narrow, weak team could go any further in a World Cup than they did in the last two. They would be found out. Hell, they almost were away to Chile and Peru (1-1) in just the last six months, where it was truly miraculous that the high-pressuring home teams did not run in several more goals before Argentina got back in the game. In both matches the home teams pressed Argentina high up the pitch, didn’t let them get into any rhythm and then killed them down the wings, leaving their topsy-turvy centrebacks munching air like goggle-eyed hungry hungry hippos. The formula for beating them is already clear; to work it just needs a team with a decent defence and/or an inspired goalkeeper.

That the management team has not been able to resolve the problems in defence is no reason to just hope the attack will always get the team out of a hole. Maradona was accused of tactical naivety for his ‘broken’ team, with the four forwards and the four centrebacks, but at least he recognised the need for some kind of a wall behind that attack, no matter how crude. Sabella’s formation is more extreme than Maradona’s 4-3-3, as the latter’s system required Di María to help out in defence (in the end he contributed nothing in either defence or attack, and was the only player to publicly criticise Maradona, who stuck by him when he was awful). Sabella’s team includes more mobile full-backs, and is still considered more coherent. 

Furthermore, Tevez’ inclusion in Maradona’s team precipitated no end of speculation regarding macho rituals of pueblo-enthralling fist-bumping, proletarian nepotism and Messi-bothering. Messi and Tevez don’t get on; Tevez demanded he be in the team, and Maradona was too crazee to say no; Tevez being on the team was the real cause of their collapse, etc. If things don’t work out this time, however, you can be sure that there will be no such rush to make similar claims about the man in the ‘Tevez role’, Sergio Agüero. El Kun is much more loveable, you see, more happy-go-lucky, less acid, less funny, less interesting than Carlitos. This means he projects a much more consistent image. Of course, he’s also great friends with Messi, and the extent to which Messi is calling the shots is The Question Sabella must answer.

It is pretty well-known that Messi likes not only to play in the middle but also to have Di María, Agüero and Higuaín all on together. We’ve seen it works to some extent, but if the team is set up to satisfy Messi’s whims, to make Messi happy and just hope for the best, then why all this pretence of sober management and meticulous planning? Sabella in that case becomes a tour manager, a logistics man with free rein to pick weird and wild subs from far-flung leagues like Mexico and the Ukraine just as long as they don’t interfere with the real business, which is kowtowing to Messi. In that case, you may as well bring back Maradona.

The part of that theory that fails to convince even us, however, is that pegamequemegusta suspects all this we-must-please-Messi stuff is more a case of projection than a reality. It suggests Messi is really an ogre hidden behind layers and layers of fake blandness and unflattering ads. More likely is that the need to Please Messi is a sycophantic reaction to the lack of an articulated vision for the team and a lack of will to bring it about; a lack of control.

A vaguely similar but certainly recent example of this, although it feels a tad cheap, is the power vacuum at Barcelona following Tito Villanova’s illness. Of course Messi and Barca turned things around in remarkable style against Milan, but perhaps it was a case of pride fuckin with them. Similarly, when Argentina lost for the first time away to Venezuela in late 2011 and then drew at home to Bolivia, they were at a rather low ebb. Away to Venezuela Sabella had tried a new formation (5-3-2/3-5-2) that sought to shore up the defence and create a solid platform for the attack. It didn’t work that one night and was abandoned. Soon after, again losing away, this time to Colombia, it was the arrival of el Kun off the bench and all-out-attack that rescued the tie and changed the team’s fortunes, leading to the run we mentioned above. It seems Sabella lost his nerve and from then on was only too happy to chime in with the Make Messi Happy Make Everyone Happy buzz. Perhaps a real manager, though, would make Messi happy without acting as if he’s a child that needs to be pleased; perhaps a real manager would think up a way to get the whole team working and so, in turn, make Messi and everyone else happy. Perhaps a real manager would come up with a way to beat Germany. Otherwise you may as well bring back Maradona.

Tonight against Venezuela at home could offer us a glimpse of the cunning Football Sabella we’ve been told exists. With Di María suspended and Agüero injured, he has decided to change shape to a 4-3-3. Lavezzi will replace el Kun up front but Santos’ number 10, Walter Montillo, will add an extra body to midfield. So far the real star of Sabella’s time in charge has been Gago, who has been both a tackling midfielder and arguably the finest playmaker. With Montillo on the pitch, Gago will no longer be almost solely responsible for getting moves going and the forwards should receive just as much service as they do now. If it doesn’t work, though, pegamequemegusta wonders whether Sabella will have the nerve to stick with it or just revert to his super-attacking version of Maradona’s formation. For in that case, you may as well etc.

Doña Tota, la madre de Maradona

Giving birth to Jesus wasn’t easy. Only a woman could do it. Giving birth to a little Che Guevara wasn’t easy either. Only a woman could. Giving birth to Diego Armando Maradona, a more than outrageously talented footballer and around 1986 one of the most famous people on the planet, wasn’t going to be easy either; not in the least.

I didn’t realise ’til I was thirteen, I was a bleedin’ idiot until I was thirteen, that when it was time to eat my mother always had a pain in her belly. I swear every time we were going to eat she’d get a pain in her belly, but she wasn’t really sick. It was that there wasn’t enough food, there wasn’t enough to go round so she’d go without in order to make sure we all got enough to eat…

That’s el Diego talking a while back about his mother, the much-loved doña Tota. She died on Saturday, aged 82. Beyond his headline-grabbing declarations, the genuine grief expressed in the newspapers and on the radio over the last day or so has shown the grip Maradona continues to hold on the nation. Free of controversy or bombast, it highlights how important he still is to the heart of the country.

Furthermore, the outpouring reflects one of the most interesting aspects of the Argentine character, how family-orientated they are. Fine, maybe it would be more interesting if to a man they spent their Sundays hunting imaginary geese with silver spatulas clad in lead dungarees, but thus far we have yet to witness such a spectacle. No, despite working long hours, not to mention the extremely high divorce rate, family gatherings remain a central part of Argentine life; most regroup for an asado on Sundays, meat prices permitting. They love their mammies. So when el Diego’s mammy passes away, we think it’s fair to say that far from any nonsense on tv, the nation really does mourn.

To mark the occasion, highlight this, and bring you, dear info-hungry web trawler, something a little different, we’ve decided to translate a short story written about the woman who gave birth to the best player ever. (You can hear an interview with the author, Rodolfo Braceli, with Victor Hugo here). It’s a bit silly at times, we’ll admit, but it’s got some good lines.

It’s flotsom, a footballing nativity. Yet just why Diego is so important was highlighted by Braceli in the Hugo interview. Among so many other things, of course, Maradona, he says, was a kind of conductor, a lightning rod for the racism of Argentine society. When things weren’t going well, the powers of ‘mis-communication’, in his phrase, would invariably hit out at this villero; while in the euphoria of success, “at every moment that eternal goal is being scored, Maradona helped us take stock of things,” reminded them of who they were and what they could be.

Pegáme, que me gusta.

The woman who gave birth to Maradona was able to bear such a being as beforehand she gave credence to and followed the advice written down for her by la Pierina word for word. As a midwife, you could count on la Pierina at any hour of the night or day. A digression: the midwife who helped my mother give birth to my three and a half kilos was also called la Pierina. It wasn’t the same Pierina, no, but one reminded me of the other, and the other led me to this story. It was at that high point of the diary that links one year with another, when we toast and hug one another and kiss and become good, albeit for a moment, that Dalma Salvadora Franco, la Tota, leaned over to her husband, Diego Maradona, Chitoro, and whispered in his ear:

  • The next one will be a boy. I’m telling you.
  • That’s what you said the first time…
  • … and it was a girl.
  • And the second time…
  • … and it was a girl.
  • And the third time …
  • … it was a girl. And the fourth time, too, I said the same thing, I know.
  • And it was a girl.
  • But the fifth, Chirito, is going to be a boy.
  • It’ll be boy, Tota, if it’s not a girl.
  • I’m telling you it’s going to be a boy.
  • If it’s girl i’ll love her just the same. You know that.
  • It’ll be a boy. And he’ll play football according to God’s will.
  • God, Tota, doesn’t have a clue about football.
  • Well if He doesn’t, it’s about time He looked down and learned a thing or two.

A pitiless rain was falling on the little house in Villa Fiorito in Lanús, in the province of Buenos Aires. Yet la Pierina had promised she was going to be there at six in the evening and there she was on that fifth of January, soaked, with her umbrella inside out. This midwife kept her word. La Tota threw a towel over her and they went off to the only room where they could talk privately. It was a conversation for grown-ups, let the girls play amongst themselves.

  • I want the baby to be a boy, Pierina. A boy and a footballer and good.
  • A good person or a good footballer?
  • Both: a good lad and a great player.
  • I knew you were going to say something like that. But let’s pretend you didn’t. Let’s start afresh. Give me an answer for everything I ask you, yeah?
  • Yes.
  • You two have never been anything other than poor… you’ve got four little chislers there, do you really want to have another?
  • Yes, I do.
  • And your husband is fine with it?
  • Yes, he wants this, too.
  • Do you want a little girl or a little boy?
  • A little boy.
  • Then, Tota, you must look at the sun every time you have a drink of water.
  • I’ll look at the sun every time I drink water. But what do I do at night?
  • Look at the neck of the sun, the moon.
  • I’ll look at the moon when I drink water, then.
  • That’s not all. You and Chitoro, every day you must eat things that grow on trees, from wood.
  • Why?
  • So that the newborn comes with a little stick.

La Pierina was a woman with a bit of reading behind her. That line, for example, about ‘being born with a little stick’ she knicked from some poet who would include it three years later in a book titled The Last Father. These things happen. You’ve got to admit, too, that as a midwife la Pierina was extremely flexible and assured: more than once, with pain in her heart, she helped abort little dears who would have been devoured by a life sentence of poverty. No-one has the right to condemn anyone to hunger, she would say.

Giving birth to Jesus wasn’t easy. Only a woman could do it. Giving birth to a little Che Guevara wasn’t easy either. Only a woman could. Giving birth to Diego Armando Maradona, a more than outrageously talented footballer and around 1986 one of the most famous people on the planet, wasn’t going to be easy either; not in the least.

La Pierina asked for a herbal tea – with no sugar! – and sipped it slowly, pensive.

  • Tell me, Tota, are you really sure you want this nipper to be a top-class football player?
  • Yeah, of course, I want him to be brilliant, the best in the villa.
  • Look, if we’re going to bet on this, let’s go all out. While we’re at it, why not make him not just the best in the villa or the best in the province, the best in the country, but the best player of the century, the best player of all time.
  • Grand, Pierina… while we’re at it, sure.
  • I must tell you it’s not going to be easy. Having a kid like that won’t be easy. I came well-prepared, Tota. I’ve written down, month by month, what you have to do. You can’t leave anything out. If you forget one of the things or can’t get around to doing one of them, you can forget about the kid. You might get a little inside right or a holding midfielder who’s good enough on the ball, but nothing remarkable.
  • No, no, I want the kid to be a number ten, the best ever.
  • There you go, Tota, the best ever, in heaven and hell.
  • Pierina, is the hell part really necessary?
  • No, you can’t have heaven and earth without hell. They’re a package, eh.
  • Alright, Pierina, tell me what to do.

La Pierina asked for a maté or two, then she frowned and started to sip away rocking in her chair while looking at the floor. Looking at the floor as if she were staring into the very heart of the future, lost in contemplation. Her face darkened suddenly like a sky on a summer’s day. When she was done with her maté she moved her chair over and sat right in front of la Tota.

Their knees were touching.

La Pierina opened her little notebook and began to read in a somewhat solemn voice:

  • In order to have a son who’ll become the greatest of the great footballers, an unrivalled genius, you will have to follow, month by month, what I have here written down.
  • I will, I will.
  • During the first month, a raw clove of garlic first thing in the morning.
  • Garlic!
  • Yes, garlic. Come what may.
  • Grand, garlic, then. But why garlic?
  • So that he never bites his tongue. This kind of person must always say whatever he feels, no matter if it gets under the skin of the Pharoah or His Holiness himself… But let’s continue, it’s getting late. From the second month on, you will have to sleep on the left-hand side of the bed.
  • Why?
  • So that he’ll be a lefty, a real lefty. In the third month, you’ll have to fast for three days. Liquids only.
  • But i’ll be half starved, Pierina.
  • But him, too, so he’ll come into the world damn near insatiable. He’ll be hungry for goals, hungry for everything… In the fourth month, every three days you’ll have to make yourself a soup with spinach, celery, fennel, radishes, pumpkin, sweet potato, green chili, five onions… and the grass that grows at the edge of the well. A full pot of the stuff.
  • What’s that for?
  • I’m not sure, but be sure to do it, Tota. On the thirteenth day of the fifth month, the thirteenth, eh, you have to find a big round stone, about the size of a fist, and bury it in the middle of the nearest football pitch. This you must do alone, without anyone else watching, at three in the morning.
  • Can’t my husband come with me?
  • Alone, I said. And don’t tell a soul. Not even him.

The instructions for the sixth, seventh and eight months have been lost, for la Pierina, God knows why, whispered them in her ear. Women’s secrets. Spent secrets, too, as the page they were written was immediately ripped out of the notebook and set on fire.

  • Can I ask you something, Pierina?
  • You’re always asking me things. Go on.
  • Why did you have to whisper in my ear?
  • I don’t want anyone to hear us.
  • But who? Sure we’re here alone, there’s no-one else around.
  • Not quite, Tota, I feel as if someone were listening to us.
  • Someone…
  • Yes, I feel that right here, a third person… a writer, I don’t know, someone like that.

(Right then I felt ashamed and I blushed…)

  • Make me another maté, che, la Pierina said straight away, but change the yerba first. I’m not a big fan of maté mixed with bleedin’ enema run-off.

The maté came. And then the two women sat once again face to face.

  • Pierina, do you think i’ll be able to do all this?
  • That’s what I was just thinking. Will you, Tota?
  • I want to.
  • You’ll be able.
  • And in the ninth month what do I have to do?
  • From the first day , in the morning you have to go about your business without your shoes. In your bare feet, feeling the earth, the spine of the world. This will help your son come into the world liberal, catholic, universal… a cosmic kite
  • A cosmic kite?
  • I hear the words that one day some commentator who still doesn’t know he’ll be a commentator will use to describe him, for he’s still only about 14… Yes, barefoot, every day treading the back of the world…
  • No problem there, I like going barefoot.
  • What might prove a little more difficult is, in the first week of the ninth month, to thread a needle…
  • Sure I do that every day.
  • … thread a needle with your eyes closed. The same needle you use to sew buttons on the kids’ shirts. You can’t use some great big one, eh.

And la Tota became pregnant about three weeks after that meeting with la Pierina. She began to put on weight happily, without trying to hide it. Month after month she observed every instruction.

Until the day arrived when she finally had to thread a needle with her eyes closed. It was early when she made her first attempt, locked up in the bedroom, needle and thread in hand… she had to believe. Yet the first time she couldn’t do it. Nor at the third attempt nor at the tenth. She realised her hands were shaking. Blind and shaking, not even a year’s worth of trying would see her do it, she sighed. Three, six, seven tries more, she just couldn’t. She booted the spool and the ball flew out right through the angle of the open window. Someone outside on the street saw the ball spinning out the window and shouted what a goal! Tota heard the word goal and it was as if she’d just shaken off all the angst that had threatened to derail her. She decided to shout goal! with each new attempt to thread the needle.

She didn’t need many more tries. In fact, the very first time she felt the thread slip through the tiny little eye of the needle.

She could feel it, and she began to sob silently.

Then her husband came in and found her. He didn’t dare try stop her tears, he just bent down and kissed her swollen belly. Then he, too, began to weep softly.

Two days later, la Tota, at full term, was helping her husband, standing on his tip-toes on a chair, to change a lightbulb. Chitoro, why not use a bloody ladder… but the words were hardly out of her mouth when he dropped the bulb. She managed to break its fall with her knee; the bulb flies up again and begins to fall once more – but it doesn’t crash on the floor this time either; she cushions its fall catching it on her instep and flicks it into his bewildered hand.

  • Will it still work? he asks.
  • I’m sure it will, she says.

Having followed la Pierina’s instructions to the letter, she didn’t think her little feat with the lightbulb would seal, like a precocious birthmark, the peerless destiny of he who was to be born at seven in the morning of the following day, a Sunday, naturally; he who would be born for the ages.

On the 30th of October in the year 1960 anno domini, doña Tota’s waters broke at about five in the morning. On the way to the clinic that, of course, was named after Evita, she said to Pierina:

  • I’m sure Dieguito is going to be a number 10, but tell me, will my son be happy?
  • Your son will be condemned to bring happiness to others.
  • But him, will he be happy?
  • Look, we’re almost at the clinic. Finally.
  • But him, will he be happy, Pierina?
  • Give me your hand, watch your step.
  • But him, will he…?
  • Trust me, Tota, come on, quick.