Zanetti and Jazzmaster D.

There is method in the madness: a deliberately anarchic approach where improvisation is prized above all else, a cauldron of character-forming uncertainty where real men will float to the top like alphabet spaghetti. No doubt the words said tinned pasta spells out will be transcribed onto the first team sheet, too. All this talk of having the team decided already is just a fudge for fat bloggers to chew on, chum for the chumps. He said it last month, we just weren’t listening: “The players aren’t going to have any excuses, they’re going to run and run.” What we failed to understand was that they would be running from a team of automated fire-breathing dragons controlled by Wolf from Gladiators.

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If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn –

Charlie Parker

Pegamequemegusta wrote a few pieces last week about Maradona’s preliminary squad (first this, then this). Of course it shared the widespread annoyance with the omission of Zanetti and Cambiasso, as well as Nico Pareja, Gabriel Milito, Banega, Aimar, Zabaleta, Zárate and Perotti, even of Maxi Moralez. Such are the players who have not been included you could arm a shadow squad along the lines of F365’s brilliant series on England’s B team during the alternate Euro 2008 with Jimmy Bullard & Co. However, we are getting a bit sick of seeing these names now and bizarrely find ourselves defending Maradona’s selection.

On Football Weekly today the ever-enthusiastic Paolo Bandini mentioned a theory that had apparently first gone out on one of ESPN’s multifarious platforms. It went like this: during some game with Argentina, apparently “the one where they qualified for the World Cup”, Zanetti disobeyed Maradona’s instructions, leading the team on the pitch like a lion while Diego, a sea lion, then, I suppose, thrashed about on the shore. Thereafter, Maradona’s wrath being akin to Poseidon’s, Zanetti has been ostracised from the national team.

Insofar as we care, it’s a shame we don’t have what ESPN actually said, of course, but as the theory stands it seems pretty preposterous. Firstly, it would be odd that nothing has ever been said or even intimated in the tidbit-hungry media about the matter. Secondly, what match was it? “The match were they qualified” was the last one, against Uruguay. Zanetti wasn’t in the squad if memory serves us right. The match where qualification was saved at the death was against Peru. Zanetti didn’t play then either. His last match for Argentina was in the 1-0 defeat in Paraguay, where he looked utterly hopeless.

© LatinContent/Getty Images

So we come to point number three, that of ferociously taking charge on the pitch, using all of his experience and respect as the usurped captain. Yet far from leading any kind of an albiceleste charge after Paraguay’s domination of the first half, Zanetti was completely anonymous in attack and ineffective in defence. In fact at no point, even when he was captain, did Zanetti really show any leadership qualities whilst playing with Argentina. He never looked like the kind of character his experience would have one believe him to be. Indeed, one might, as pegamequemegusta is wont to do, don one’s shit-stirring pub hat and ask: captain of who for the last decade? Inter? Up til Iron José arrived some of the game’s most celebrated bottlers! What kind of a captain is he anyway? Maradona agrees: the first thing he did on taking charge was to strip him of the captaincy.

This is important as, unlike other players who haven’t convinced either when turning out for their national teams, Zanetti’s very longevity, the amount of instances that we can cite build up a body of evidence which does not do him much good. His excellent season and his hugely impressive – and clean – stuffing of Messi’s exhaust pipe in the Champo League semifinal notwithstanding, perhaps Diego is justified in reckoning he has failed to convince one too many times.

After all, unlike Cambiasso, he was given many opportunities and never stood out. He wasn’t the only one. Maradona experimented fitfully with a good few full backs: Zanetti, Papa, Insúa, Zabaleta, even Jonás played right back once or twice. He even played without full backs a couple of times, setting up 3-3-1-3, 3-4-3, etc. He was never convinced by any of them so he ended up abandoning them altogether in favour of his current formation with four centre backs. Although this makes some sense in that Argentina are clearly not particularly blessed in the position, the drawbacks are obvious and require no further treatment here.

Rather than come up with conspiracy theories, however, it seems more likely that Zanetti has been discarded because of his poor performances and a consistent lack of leadership, despite it being so conspicuous at Inter. Nonetheless, there is a definite political element in the omission of him and others: if not big egos, the very nature of the personalities left out of the 30 showed Diego didn’t want a tough decision for the final squad, didn’t want a close run. Discarding players out of hand has been one of Maradona’s most defining traits. He was hardly going to turn his back on it now. And if the reasons for Cambiasso’s consistent omissions are even harder to fathom and so explanations tend toward the personal (was it the missed penalty in 2006?), Zanetti’s is somewhat easier to understand once one takes his overall contribution into account.

He’s wrong, of course; they should be there as back-up, but it seems  among other things, that Maradona wants a group he can dominate. He’s intrigued by the apparently metamorphic power of the World Cup, a time of such pressure a whole new level can be reached. He never tires of talking about Mexico ochenta y seis, and the Niembro interview was no exception. “When we got to Mexico, no-one knew who Burruchaga was, no-one knew how strong Valdano was, no-one knew Ruggeri and el Tata Brown were going to be so solid. We had Nery [Pumpido – GK]. Carlos [Bilardo] had to make decisions as we went along that weren’t worked out in training. Now they’re all respected household names.” From his selections and his statements, and just listening to him an awful bloody lot, pegamequemegusta reckons el Diego’s after coming down with a bit of Theo Walcott 2006 syndrome.

Dionysus, rumoured to be on the plane to Pretoria later this month

There is method in the madness: a deliberately anarchic approach where improvisation is prized above all else, a cauldron of character-forming uncertainty where real men will float to the top like alphabet spaghetti. No doubt the words said tinned pasta spells out will be transcribed onto the first team sheet, too. All this talk of having the team decided already is just a fudge for fat bloggers to chew on, chum for the chumps. He said it last month, we just weren’t listening: “The players aren’t going to have any excuses, they’re going to run and run.” What we failed to understand was that they would be running from a team of automated fire-breathing dragons controlled by Wolf from Gladiators.

So many plaudits have been raining down on the heretofore quiet men of Inter’s squad over the last week, yet shame on us jittery, chattering type-monkeys, useless halfwits most of whom don’t even get the opportunity to feel their work in print, let alone get bloody paid. Maradona knew long ago Zanetti and Cambiasso had no feel for the horn, too long Italy have they been, too, too Apollonian are their souls. South Africa will be a Dionysian feast.

The Homecoming

“People say we only play for money but i’ll tell you, Mario, that’s not how it is. I love this jersey. I love it for my country, for my family. I couldn’t give a crap about the money – that I can make in Europe or wherever. The players always show up to put on the jersey. Anything else is a lie, you can believe me.”

Ah yes, May every four years is a special time; the return of the country’s illustrious departed sons, those who make the people proud and represent the nation in all its glory, those who despite their absence prove that Argentine genius and, more importantly, balls, are alive and well even if they can’t ply their trade in the fatherland. If they can’t what? Oh dear, it seems we’ve touched a nerve… Of course they could play here but there’s better money on offer elsewhere. Yes. Well, you know, that’s how things work these days… and they do very well there so why would we complain?  I suppose they don’t do so well with the national team, no… Ah, could you spare a cigarette? Thank you. Well it’s probably just a question of tactics, of the manager, of luck, you know, don’t get in a strop about it. Just enjoy the homecoming.

Like those Yanks in Irish or English plays from the 60s onwards who get fleeced and/or murdered, however, the return to the patria can be uncomfortable. To pegamequemegusta’s flawed mind, there are many reasons for this, answers for which are undoubtedly best sought elsewhere. Among those we feel qualified to advance, however, there’s the question of money, which is double-edged: a rift valley-sized chip on the shoulder of many Argentines with regard to the good life of those who triumph in Europe, and, consequently, a suspicion that the players don’t give their all when they are obliged to come back to the homeland. They forget about us, they’re comfortable while we struggle, they’re more worried about getting injured than giving their all, it’s not like the good old days.

No, it’s not. When they won in 1978 all but two of the 22-man squad were playing for Argentine clubs; in ’86 fourteen were doing so; in Italia ’90, eight; in USA ’94 ten (with three goalkeepers making up the Argieball bunch); in France ’98, six (2 keepers); in 2002, two; in Germany 2006, three (two keepers). Besides telling us that Argentine goalkeepers don’t seem to appeal to European teams, these sickeningly nerdy stats tell us that despite the Bertie-like false affluence of Menem’s (touch your left testicle, it’s bad luck even to name him) Argentina in the 90s, there has been a gradual distancing of the national team from the pueblo.

This has been given a further dimension in the past year or so with Maradona’s insistence on playing friendlies with the Selección local, a local team for local people, against rent-a-teams (not even their first teams) like Ghana, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Haiti. The idea is that the Europeans, unlike those still plying their trade in Argentina – those who haven’t forgotten their ways – are too decadent to battle n scrap; thus their undoubted skill must be counterbalanced by the balls of the locals, who will die for the shirt, etc. This nonsense – they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t bring in the bunts – has been made all the palatable by an ingenious stroke of pure populism, sorry, Peronism (for more see the article on next year’s Copa América), which claims to bring the football to the people. And it does. There’s no arguing with it; but it also has the side effect of reinforcing this sense of distance from the national team.

The greatest example of this trend is the greatest footballer in the world, Lionel Messi. Out of all the players he has had to put up with the most crap over the last year and a half. You know an opinion is widespread when you hear your ma-in-law spouting it (on football, of course), and the consensus is that, in Oscar Ruggeri’s words, “Messi is sad when he plays for la Selección”. There is the ‘perfection’ theory advanced by Ignacio Fusco in an interview brought to you by pegamequemegusta a few months ago:

  • Among the many reasons that prevents the Argentine public from taking to Messi is, I suspect, his perfection. Diego’s sins, Ronaldo’s ego, the humble background of a Tevez or an Adriano, they make the fans see the player as one of their own. While Leo is so quiet, so flawless.

This ties in to a fair extent with a larger “war for the soul of the country” as one of you handsome readers put it (Che, Gardel, Diego vs Borges, Cortázar, Messi). Really, though, at the bottom of all this are the straight out accusations of being Catalan, not Argentine. Whether the ignorant rants of truly terrible people on daytime TV or insidious sniping disguised as good-natured ribbing from two-faced sports dailies (not helped by the Spanish, who suggest he thought of playing for them), the attacks began with the tug-of-war over his participation in the Beijing Olympics and reached a nadir after the defeat to Paraguay when Olé said he “sulked like a kid who dreams of being a tennis player but who’s dad insists he plays football”. That father was complaining just last month that “in Argentina we treat Messi badly”. For his part, Messi fils was on CNN en Español on Thursday night and spoke as genially as always: “I hope it’s our World Cup. Even though we had a tough time getting there we could surprise a few people.” And: “People are entitled to their opinions, I respect that. It doesn’t get to me. I’m the first guy who wants to do well for Argentina. I know it’s a great opportunity and i’m going to try and do my best.” What a dreamboat.

La Plata, after the World Club Championship defeat of Estudiantes

Though you're close to me we seem so far apart / Maybe given time you'll have a change of heart / If it takes forever girl then I'm prepared to wait / The day you give your love to me won't be a day too late

Not all have been so congenial, however. As the players come back in dribs and drabs it has been interesting to note that there doesn’t seem to be any media restrictions of any kind in place and so these demigods, these ambassadors, these footballers have been speaking their minds. All the accusations and sniping that goes on while they’re away – or they think goes on, at least – seem to take on added venom in direct proportion to the distance of the player. And a couple of guys who spoke yesterday used the opportunity to set the record straight: they were Javier Mascherano and Carlitos Tevez.

Argentina’s captain spoke first and attacked statements made in various places about Maradona’s squad: “As a player it annoys me when you hear certain players being disparaged. In some quarters they’re cutting players but there’s 30 of us all in the same boat and the manager will decide who makes the final squad.” And as he dismissed the allegations of conspiracy that Alfito Basile had levelled at Maradona last weekend (“Sure four days before we had given everything [for Coco] with the Uruguayans biting our ankles off”), he took the opportunity to reaffirm the lengths the players go to to bring happiness to the people: “We travel enormous distances, we do our best, we don’t come here just to waste our time… always with the best possible attitude.”

Tevez with Román when he was a guttersnipe-cum-ballboy in the Bombonera

The filter-less Tevez, as usual, had more to offer, however. He turned up speaking on Pergolini’s show on Rock & Pop and started off speaking about the fact that he knew he had to fight for his place in the team since Argentina have such great players. Before long, however, he was complaining about the hypocrisy of people who lay into la Selección now but come looking for a hug when things go well: “A lot of people who criticise the team do it out of spite. They don’t say ‘Ah well the things aren’t going as we planned but let’s find a solution’, they don’t have the class for that. They just start throwing shit around, attacking the team.” This is because, Tevez says, many people make a living out of Argentina: “La Selección is a business.” For the players it isn’t, however: “People say we only play for money but i’ll tell you, Mario, that’s not how it is. I love this jersey. I love it for my country, for my family. I couldn’t give a crap about the money – that I can make in Europe or wherever. The players always show up to put on the jersey. Anything else is a lie, you can believe me.”

Ah, Carlitos, this is why we love you. Yet I can’t help notice that even you, el jugador del pueblo, the greatest people’s champ since Rocky, seem strangely out of touch. After all, it’s not true that there has been massive criticism of Argentina over the last while. People are too nationalistic for that. Of course there has been much complaining but considering the hole the team dug itself into in the incredibly poor qualification campaign, people had every right to voice what was in the end mild enough criticism. An indication of this is that you, despite being sent off twice in two games, scoring very, very little and taking a holiday instead of playing against Brazil away, are still by far the most loved player.

He was more on the mark, however, when he attacked the powers that be in Argieball: “The standard of football isn’t great. It’s been poor for a while now actually. The people in charge of the clubs think more about money than in the football. They’re not doing things as they should and in a few years things are going to be even worse than they are now.”

Pegamequemegusta doubts that Carlitos was this politically conscious all those years ago when he won the peoples’ hearts. He’s matured, he’s changed, he has inevitably become more estranged from the day-to-day to the extent that he comes back now with the standard criticisms of anyone who lives abroad for a long time. Yet while some will be seen as weak or ‘foreign’, any criticism offered taken as proof of a lingering resentment in their heart at the ramshackle homeland, others will never change in the eyes of the people, no matter what; they will always have a sweet homecoming.

Messi in colloquy with a true Argentine

There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions of any kind in place and so these demigods, these ambassadors, these footballers have been speaking their minds.

“I’m happy [Maradona]‘s manager, but I warn you, if you even go near my dad, i’ll bloody well crush you.”

This time, more conscious of his position now and trying to maintain some kind of dignity (is that magnificent beard an attempt at portraying a more statesmanlike image?) Diego tried to play politics; while Humbertito had the freedom to snap at him with absolute impunity and even put him down with a vertitable frase maradoniana: “He gets bitten by a mosquito and he thinks it’s Grondona’s fault. [….] If you even go near my dad, i’ll bloody well crush you.”

If you get a young kid, make him think he’s the greatest guy in the world, throw money and power at him along with a fawning press, don’t be surprised if he ends up running his mouth from time to time or giving the odd hysterical, incoherent foul-mouthed tirade. No, for once on pegamequemegusta we’re not talking about Diego. We’re talking about the capo of Argieball, the man who calls the shots, Humberto Grondona.

"Humbertito throws lighter fluid on the flames" - Olé

Humbertito, as he is affectionately known, is the son of AFA President, Julio Grondona. His pappy Julio, who has been President for 32 years now, is a don in every sense of the word and so Humbertito has been given many toys to play around with over the years, teams to manage, referees’ phone numbers, committee chairs, and even the women’s football team.

Today he sounded off against (well, he could hardly be far) Maradona. In the aftermath of the bizarre Haiti ‘friendly’ on Wednesday night, el Diego used his post match comments to launch a personal attack on Julio Grondona. Of such little interest was the game itself, Diego spoke pitch-side about how he felt shafted by Julio Grondona over the cancellation of another friendly that was to take place at the end of the month in Dubai. After the team’s send-off in Buenos Aires on the 24th May, the idea was to bring everything – beef included – for the World Cup and stop off in Dubai along the way. “It’s a joke,” he said. Why? It would have been a good opportunity to play meaningful opposition? Acclimatise? ‘Try out’ more players? Rest? It was never explained. Yet what did annoy Maradona was the fact, repeated several times, that he had done the AFA President a personal favour by granting permission for 40 ‘guests’ to travel with the squad. Diego didn’t want to but it was a personal favour. “I did Grondona a favour. Now he should do me one.”

This goes to the heart of the matter: just as the match had nothing to do with football – being a farce and a vanity project for some oil barons down in Patagonia dressed up as a charity game when in reality, as the commentators revealed during the game shortly before a rocket blew up in Palermo’s face, just 2% of the gate receipts will be going towards disaster relief in Haiti – this quarrel has little to do with Dubai. It’s pure political posturing.

While Maradona has one list to define before next week, that of the squad, it is still not certain whether his beloved Oscar Ruggeri will be part of the management team in South Africa. Although everything points to a no, pegamequemegusta has reason to believe that the matter is not entirely dead, or if it is dead the matter is still kicking up a fuss like some childish vampire.

El Cabezón Ruggeri - a man's man, no chewing gum for him

Without retelling the whole sorry tale, unlike the choice cuts that will be accompanying the squad to South Africa, there’s plenty of bad beef between Maradona and Ruggeri on the one side, and the Grondona family on the other. Despite everyone having taken a pop at the Don at some point over the last 32 years, Ruggeri seems to be small enough fry for a grudge to stick. Maradona wants him in his management team, though. In February he said if Ruggeri couldn’t go to the World Cup then Humberto couldn’t either. Humberto Grondona has hit back several times, the most recent being in El Gráfico yesterday, where he called Ruggeri a tarado (a fine word some of you may recall Tevez using to describe beloved ex team-mate, the Neviller).

Meanwhile, pegamequemegusta already brought to you the hilarious exchange between Ruggeri and the AFA over the club directors and their “well-earned trip” to South Africa. There’s not a long way from that mini-scandal to Diego’s premeditated and insistent comments about how he had gone to such lengths to mollify Grondona by “making an exception” in the case of the 40 or so officials who were to travel with the team to Dubai. That the comments were premeditated is obvious first for the faux-causual manner in which he pronounced them pitch-side last night, and secondly, because he said the same thing the day before the match!  Pegamequemegusta had not deemed them worthy of comment – he also went on his usual rant about how now, just like in ’86, “there wasn’t one journalist in Argentina who wasn’t beating Bilardo with a stick” – but with Humberto’s retort today all the pieces came together.

“I’m happy [Maradona]’s manager, but I warn you, don’t touch my father. He gets bitten by a mosquito and he thinks it’s Grondona’s fault. [….] If you even go near my dad, i’ll bloody well crush you,” he stormed in a teacup on Radio La Red.

Whatever about Un traje para Diego, this beard has to stay

Despite Maradona’s persecution complex – he sees bloodthirsty hounds where puppies play – pegamequemegusta can’t think of any instance where someone spoke to Maradona like that. And especially not since he’s become manager. Even at the bleakest moment of the qualifying campaign, fear of failure merely meant less categorical cheerleading. No, no-one talks of ‘crushing’ Maradona… except perhaps the next president of the AFA. Humbertito, it seems, has called Maradona’s bluff. His last play to get Ruggeri on the plane seems to have failed – and ended in another unedifying episode in a long run of unedifying episodes, another conflagration, another feebly coded slagging match. This time, more conscious of his position now and trying to maintain some kind of dignity (is that magnificent beard an attempt at portraying a more statesmanlike image?) Diego tried to play politics; while Humbertito had the freedom to snap at him with absolute impunity and even put him down with a veritable frase maradoniana: “He gets bitten by a mosquito and he thinks it’s Grondona’s fault. [….] If you even go near my dad, i’ll bloody well crush you.” It’s not for nothing this family have been in charge for more than 30 years.

It’s got to hurt. Any move now could only jeopardise further his preparations for the World Cup so hopefully Maradona will take it on his august chin on wait for another day to take his revenge.

In the meantime, there’s only a few days to go til the initial 30 man squad is named. Pegamequemegusta will be back with all the piping hot tips and lukewarm tea, or is that the other way around?

Don Julio Grondona