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.

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)