Copa América Argentina 2011

The participants, venues and dates have been set for the Copa América 2011. The tournament, which will be held in Argentina for the first time since 1987, will kick off on the 1st of July next year and finish on the 24th of the same month.

The difficulties inherent in organising a knockout competition for a ten-nation body such as CONMEBOL meant that the Copa América was always a rather awkward affair. Prior to 1993, when they began inviting teams from Central and North America, there were three groups with three teams each, from which the top team advanced, while the winners of the previous tournament came in to make up the fourth team in the second round/semi-finals. This meant that Uruguay could win the 1987 Copa with a 100% record after only playing two matches. Since 1993, however, invitations have generally been extended to CONCACAF members. In Venezuela 2007, ever-presents Mexico were joined by the USA, who sent a team of youths and duly went out in the first round. This time their place will be taken by Japan, who will be competing for only the second time. They last featured in Paraguay ’99, where they finished last in their group after defeats to the hosts and Perú.

Although the presence of the Japanese promises to be jarring enough midst the rickety boludoísmo of Argentina and South America’s finest barras, another of the intriguing aspects of next year’s Copa América is the list of venues, which were defined on Wednesday afternoon. For many reasons, from the constitution, which grants Buenos Aires autonomy, to historical and economic reasons which saw the country’s infrastructure developed with all roads leading to the Federal Capital to get the meat on the boat, Baires has for far too long been the focal point of all activity in Argentina. It sometimes appears that Argentina is Buenos Aires and little else. This is certainly true in football terms, for 13 of the 20 teams in Primera are from Buenos Aires; and so close is La Plata to the capital that Estudiantes are playing there, in Quilmes, whilst their ground is renovated for the Copa América.

However, in a rare act of true federalism, the organisers have decided to spread the venues right around this vast country. While there won’t be any games on any of Sylvester Stallone’s glaciers down in Patagonia, they will have to travel to far-flung places such as Salta, Mendoza, San Juan and Jujuy. This will clearly benefit the poor provinces in the north of Argentina and will bring even more tourists to beautiful spots such as Mendoza. Nonetheless, despite the tournament taking place during the winter holidays, Mar del Plata, which also boasts the Mundialista built for the ’78 World Cup and is usually buzzing at that time of year, has been omitted. This is most likely due to  Nalbandian’s bitchy comments about the Mar del Plata mafia and the ensuing farce that was Argentina’s Davis Cup final defeat in 2008. Likewise, it seems Rosario, despite being Argentina’s ‘second city’, has been punished for its part in the [latest] humiliating defeat to Brazil in September last year. More importantly, however, several of the stadiums in these marginal provinces are rather small, with those in Salta and Jujuy capable of holding no more than twenty odd thousand people. In Avellaneda alone, on the other hand, both Racing’s Cilindro and Independiente’s brand new Libertadores de América hold 50,000 and 32,500 respectively. (Unfortunately, the refurbished Bombonera will not be completed on time). Although such an unselfish and unusually far-sighted decision is to be praised – this is the unholy AFA/government alliance after all -, Pegamequemegusta is miffed at the omission if its home town and wonders aloud on the bus if there will be less of a festival atmosphere in Buenos Aires during the competition as a result.

Host cities highlighted

Of course, as regards the football, the Copa América may not be the greatest competition in the world. Still, as the topsy-turvy qualifying campaign for South Africa showed, South American football is full of surprises. Brazil barely scraped through to the final last time, beating a super sassy Uruguay on penalties after having been totally outplayed.  Then, despite Argentina playing their sexiest football for years, with Riquelme, Messi, Tevez, Masche, Cambiasso, Zanetti, and still-good Crespo and Ayala (ay!) all on top form, they got trounced 3-0 in the final (a result they have never recovered from, in my opinion) by the über-physical Brazil team we’ve  grudgingly learned to ‘respect’. Not even the potential for a third successive showdown between these two can be dismissed as tiresome: after all, Argentina will be at home and, incredible as it may sound, have not won the Copa América since 1993!

Pegamequemegusta watched most of the last instalment in a brothel, hence, while it is loath to criticise the opinions of ex-workmates, would like to see some more knowledgeable folk around in 2011. So come visit next year for what will be a celebration of all things criollo, a glorious concoction of road trips, football, big juicy steaks and other Sylvester Stallone-related activities.

Argentina with some of Pegamequemegusta's buddies from his barman days - Copa América champions for the last time in 1993 (six tournaments ago)
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I’ve Been Down So God Damn Long…

Ay, the soul-searching, the San Andreas-like chip on the pueblo’s collective shoulder, along with the cultural obsession with psychoanalysis, it all makes for a foul soup. The banner reads “Only 87 days to go til the World Cup!” and the chattering classes (hello) are worried about the apparent “lack of happiness with which Messi puts on the Argentine jersey.” The eminent Doctor Jorge Rocco gives his beard a hearty yet anxious stroke today, pronouncing: “He doesn’t seem happy, nor is he made to feel welcome by the fans, nor is he well integrated into the group. It’s as if he weren’t really there.”

Messi is sad when he plays for Argentina. Or at least so proclaims todays Olé:

Messi plays knifey-spoony under the knowing gaze of Charlie Bukowsky

“The same day he scored a hat trick against Valencia and was heralded on the front page of all the newspapers in Spain (and many more around the world), near midnight when the goals were still being shown on every channel in the country, Oscar Ruggeri came out with a line he could have picked from Maradona’s pocket: Messi is sad when he plays for Argentina,” […] and the debate begins again: why in Barcelona, yes, and with Argentina, no? Is it solely a footballing question or is there some psychological impediment that prevents him from delivering in Diego’s team?”

Ay, the soul-searching, the San Andreas-like chip on the pueblo’s collective shoulder, along with the cultural obsession with psychoanalysis, it all makes for a foul soup. The banner reads “Only 87 days to go til the World Cup!” and the chattering classes (hello) are worried about the apparent “lack of happiness with which Messi puts on the Argentine jersey.” The eminent Doctor Jorge Rocco gives his beard a hearty yet anxious stroke today, pronouncing: “He doesn’t seem happy, nor is he made to feel welcome by the fans, nor is he well integrated into the group. It’s as if he weren’t really there.” The good doctor goes on to make a case for the inclusion – why not me? he cries – of a specialist to combat any “mental strife” in the World Cup party.

Those not living here would be rather surprised, I dare say, at the prevalence of the anti-Messi prejudice. Just like the sickening feeling you get when you come into the kitchen and turn off Joe “666” Duffy only to pick up the newspaper to be confronted with the likes of Sarah Carey and Micheál Martin’s two cents on The Incident in the Stade the Jerks, so that you begin to wish you’d never bloody well heard of the damn game, here the consensus of similar amount of the populace is that Messi is to blame for the failings of la Selección.

Earlier I mentioned the chip on the shoulder the Argentines have: they constantly speak of acá y allá, here and there, the ‘First’ World and the ‘Third’. However, it’s more than that. The current malaise started as a mild surprise, with headline puns on Leo/lío, which means a debacle or a fight in castellano, but since then it has become somewhat more sinister, more widespread, bin juice trickling down the wadded chest of society, across the creases of the flabby belly and down its weak legs til it becomes a kneejerk reaction, the kind of comment your aunt or the Brother spout mechanically.

“When I see Messi play, you know, I just don’t feel inspired,” the mother-in-law says to me the other day (thinking she has carte blanche ’cause he’s Argentinian – mistakenly so, Edith). “He doesn’t seem to enjoy himself – unlike the Brazilians.” To be honest I don’t remember too many smiley faces when Ireland were pummeling the bejaysus out of France.

Barca were poor in the first half so Messi didn’t see much of the ball. When he did get it he did his Messi thing, just as he tried to do in many matches with Argentina with his gambetas olímpicas. Isolated, not a part of the group, yes doctor, but when there’s no group what do you expect? In the second half he found space, he could play, and he scored a hat trick so fantastic its likes hadn’t been seen since one David Houdini hired his first rabbit.

Ángel Cappa, for one, un capo who, sadly, finds himself far from the bosom of Argieball these days, won’t accept the Messi-bashing: “Since Messi has been playing for the national team, I don’t think they’ve ever played the same formation twice, there’s no stability, no team, so he ends up lost.” It’s not entirely accurate either, though, as Messi was part of Basile’s squad where he played regularly enough in a front two with Aguero or Tevez, when the latter wasn’t suspended. His best moments have come in settled teams, though, where wingers were sacrificed for fine ball-players in midfield (Román, Cambiasso, Aimar, Maxi, Banega) and was granted a great deal of freedom, such as in the in the Olympics and the Copa América 2007, where he scored this goal:

Cappa goes on to say, however, that the pressure of being Messi weighs on him when the team goes AWOL. “It must be disconcerting. He’d love to play in an Argentine team where he has a role – instead of being the one everyone looks at to save the day.”

Maradona did, you whisper, tears in your eyes at the memories; Messi clearly doesn’t have el Diego’s balls, you say. For what started as a joyous comparison with Maradona has since become a twisted, nostalgic obsession. Now even the farcical manner of qualifying for the World Cup and the  squabbling among the coaching staff are heralded as positive omens: sure this is what happened in ’86! And if these players can’t repeat that it’s because they’re all soft, they’ve forgotten what it means to wear the jersey, how it smells, it’s down to the fabric! If Alfonsín was still alive we could put him back in as President and go back to using Australes again!

Marcos López, from the Periódico de Cataluña, takes this apart when he points out that in Barcelona Guardiola has “indicated to the players that five minutes should never go by without Messi touching the ball as he has to be involved in the game – yet he does not ask Leo to resolve everything. In reality it’s Messi who depends on Barcelona and the structure of the team. The coach has created a world where Messi can be happy.” To give the lie once more to Baldwin/Martin/Streep fiasco, it’s not that bloody complicated! Playing the football might be if you’re not good enough, but from the manager’s point of view… Maradona said it himself last year: “I would have to be an idiot not to play Messi in the same position he plays in with Barcelona!” In fairness he tried it once or twice – but it was always coupled with loony decisions like Gago on the right wing and three mental patients at the back in front of a nervy keeper.

So he abandoned it, abandoned it in favour of the ultra-defensive, counter-attacking strategy he has used now in the last two games. Being cautious often has the advantage that it makes its adepts appear to have more nous than the common fan, who would just love to unleash the attackers, pro-Ev style. Bielsa, for one, gives the lie to this: if a chaotic reign leads to insane team selections and inspires nothing more than discord and nervousness in the players, that is no argument to effectively give up on football, to shun flair for mistrust, in an undoubtedly vain attempt to lose gracefully.

For the key aspect here surely is that despite everything that has happened, whether Cambiasso, Zanetti, Riquelme, Banega, etc. are there or not, whether the wound of the humiliation in La Paz is festering still, Messi or no Messi, Argentina’s World Cup story will probably end up the same this time. They will certainly do better than in Bielsa’s ill-fated campaign in 2002, and given their probable opponents in the second round, they’ll probably match Passarella and Pekerman’s achievements. So whether Messi takes to the field sniffing the fabric with a clown smile on his face and complete with a Maradona wig in genuine attempt to create Messico ’86, it probably won’t matter very much.

Olé cover from Copa América 2007

Time, just like every right-thinking person, laughs at blogs. But that won’t stop us giving the blade another spin.