Di Stéfano – We Argentines are the Biggest Bullshitters in the World.

– Bah, the team we wanted to win, didn’t. Argentina went out with a whimper. So much enthusiasm, so much blather, and then poof, it all falls apart. I didn’t like it one little bit. Not a jot.

– Now it all seems so clear. But many people were shocked by the 0-4 against Germany.

– Sure we hadn’t shown we were a proper team, what are you on about? How far are you going to get without something to prop up all the quality we had in attack? No-where, no, no, no. Three or four small lads played up front, all those lads, they played a bit, but the rest, the rest are guys you wouldn’t… you wouldn’t… Look: you can’t have everyone doing their own thing. We Argentines are the biggest bullshitters in the world. We’ve always been like this. We can’t get enough of being right smart-arses. We, we, we – no, sir, we poppycock! The time for me me me is over. The thing is we’ve had good players plenty of times, good groups, a good team spirit, and we’ve even put together some good teams. But then we go on hailing victories [that haven’t happened yet], we’ve cheered so many victories, but look at us now. In my day there was a school, an idea, a style – a style that was also a great show! Now even that’s gone. Argentine football is constantly up for sale, the players spread out all over the world. They sell everything they can get their hands on, they’re going to end up bollock naked: our football is going to end up bollock naked. We won’t even have any players. That’s where we’re at. And the farce goes on.

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Pegamequemegusta’s been silent for a few days now, days that have been spent licking our wounds like a particularly assiduous cat after an aborted open-air vivisection down at the tar pits, days spent feebly fending off ham-carrying neighbours eager to steal the glaze from our tear-filled eyes, days like any other, then. We tried to take out our rage on poor unsuspecting day editors of reputable newspapers with many a missive featuring the words ‘shoddy’ and ‘outlandish’. Yet they weren’t interested in what we should name our children.

Today's Olé cover: a self-mocking 'We weren't the best' in response to FIFA's team of the tournament

At least we had the World Cup for one week more. Yet even that was ultimately disappointing. Uruguay would’ve given Spain a better game, we bellowed in yet another missive. This time it was to the RFEF insisting Spain abandon the dull, defensive European Championships to take place in yet another sprawling, poverty-stricken sub-continent in favour of the Copa América next year, which will be in, er, Argentina. Only there will they get a real balompié challenge and the Street Fighter 2 background people kind of atmosphere a real football tournament needs. Plus, Japan will be there! Pegamequemegusta will keep you up to date on this campaign.

In the meantime, we have not been the only ones trying to make spurious links between Spain and Argentina. Today we bring you another interview from Olé‘s irrepressible Ignacio Fusco (the original interview was in Sunday’s Olé as part of their preview of the final, but we just found it). No matter who he talks to, no matter how apparently anodyne the matter, his interviews are always fleghmy and bespittled. Usually Nacho is the irascible one, but today Don Alfredo Di Stéfano is the one who betrays a crankiness of spirit that makes Kaká look like Karol Wojtyła.

Señor Fusco appears to be intent on outdoing Cruyff’s attempt to claim all the credit for Spain’s win for himself by sending his Paulian tentacles even further back in time to the 1950s. Despite the fact that Argentina either didn’t participate or went out in the first round, the fact that Don Di Stéfano originated here seems to be enough to launch a claim in this War of the Spanish Success[ion]. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go into why they didn’t participate [political wranglings involving Perón himself], why Di Stéfano led such a peripatetic career or why, having won 6/10 Copa Américas between 1945 and 1959, Argentina could still be thrashed 1-3 and 1-6 against West Germany and Hungary in the group stage in Sweden 1958. [The kind of story a good blog would pounce on as if it were a tasty mussel, given its parallels to the present, where they’ve won 5 under-20 WCs in the last 15 years without getting past the quarters finals of the real thing. Hmm, we may look into this].

Nonetheless, spurious credit-hunting aside, it’s a good read. Di Stéfano’s fuse is shorter than Howard Webb’s… fingernails and he goes on an almighty rant. We don’t think he’s 100% right about that either but we do feel a certain affinity with the cynical wallowings of grouchy ex-pats. The translation, as always, is ours. Let us know what you think – pegame, que me gusta.

The War of the Spanish Success rages on

An idol and an adopted son of Spain, who today will play their first ever WC final, Don Alfredo Di Stéfano laments the state of our Selección: they didn’t keep the ball, it’s not a proper team, there’s not even a recognisable style anymore. Once again, he says, we were arrogant, and the best football has been played by Spain: “But today they have to win, eh.” Cheers, old fellow.

The story starts in Chamartín. In the north of Madrid on the night of the 23rd September 1953, Spain is getting ready to take its first steps. Few things are as inevitable as an inheritance, as being what others have been: to learn, plagiarise, continue. That day Alfredo di Stéfano makes his debut with Real Madrid. He’s fat, slow, irksome: it’s been nine months since he last played. Despite his goal, French side Nancy win 4-2 in a friendly that laid the basis of the current story, the continuing past, today’s final. Don Alfredo was Xavi, he was Iniesta, he was Cesc: the Motherland’s stars spring from his branch.

“These days they talk about midfielders. Rogelio Dominguez, a lovely fellow, once said to me: ‘Alfredo, you are an all-over-the-fielder!’ What can I say, I liked defending. I’d drop back and they’d say: ‘What are you doing here? Get back up front!’ laughs the maestro, the man who came up with this kind of football, ‘the Founder of the modern game’, according to Platini. The crack, who more than 50 years ago played the way Spain do now, patient, pleasure dripping slow.

  • What did you make of the World Cup, Alfredo? Did you watch much of it?
  • Why the hell wouldn’t I have watched it? It’s my job, don’t you know, I have to watch it!
  • And?
  • And what?
  • What did you make of it?
  • Bah, the team we wanted to win, didn’t. Argentina went out with a whimper. So much enthusiasm, so much blather, and then poof, it all falls apart. I didn’t like it one little bit. Not a jot.
  • Now it all seems so clear. But many people were shocked by the 0-4 against Germany.
  • Sure we hadn’t shown we were a proper team, what are you on about? How far are you going to get without something to prop up all the quality we had in attack? No-where, no, no, no. Three or four small lads played up front, all those lads, they played a bit, but the rest, the rest are guys you wouldn’t… you wouldn’t… Look: you can’t have everyone doing their own thing. We Argentines are the biggest bullshitters in the world. We’ve always been like this. We can’t get enough of being right smart-arses. We, we, we – no, sir, we poppycock! The time for me me me is over. The thing is we’ve had good players plenty of times, good groups, a good team spirit, and we’ve even put together some good teams. But then we go on hailing victories [that haven’t happened yet], we’ve cheered so many victories, but look at us now. In my day there was a school, an idea, a style – a style that was also a great show! Now even that’s gone. Argentine football is constantly up for sale, the players spread out all over the world. They sell everything they can get their hands on, they’re going to end up bollock naked: our football is going to end up bollock naked. We won’t even have any players. That’s where we’re at. And the farce goes on.
  • We don’t even have our own style anymore?
  • We had one, we had one; but not for years now, not for a long time.
  • How long ago?
  • When we were admired. The world copied our style of play, and look at the depths we’ve sunk to now, a real nadir. If there were some kind of continuity at least, a style to cradle all these 18 year olds for when after they’re sold, for those who rushed onto the market before they’ve been able to become cracks… but we don’t even have that.
  • Were you happy with Maradona?
  • Sure Maradona didn’t play!
  • It would’ve been no bad thing to have had the ’86 Diego…
  • What of it: he’s not a player anymore. If he were, things might be different.
  • And as a coach?
  • I don’t know, I don’t know… Look: the players are the ones who win, and buenas noches.

    Don Alfredo last month with Satan himself

It’s been one long night for Don Alfredo, one long, unforgettable night: in spite of having turned out for Argentina, Colombia and Spain, he never did play in a World Cup. He could have gone to Brazil in 1950, but Argentina didn’t go owing to strained diplomatic relations. “And Colombia didn’t go either,” recalls la Saeta Rubia [the Golden Arrow]. It sounds like a joke: “Switzerland ’54 came along when I was in bureaucratic limbo; and for Sweden ’58 I finally had Spanish citizenship but la Furia failed to qualify,” recounts the honorary president of Real Madrid. Then comes Chile in 1962: the Argentine Helenio Herrera includes him in the squad. Now’s the time, he’s ready, finally he’ll play in a World Cup, “but I got injured in a friendly against an Austrian team just before we travelled. I was so anxious to play that at night in the hotel i’d put a lamp on my right knee so as to keep the muscle warm.”

Di Stéfano
  • Politics, paperwork, injuries, it sounds incredible, doesn’t it? But I never lost any sleep over it, you know. At that time I wanted to play in a World Cup so that my parents could see me out there. That’s all.
  • And to think that this Spain team, Don Alfredo, plays just as you did: passing, keeping the ball moving.
  • But if you don’t move, if you don’t ask for the ball, if you don’t get free of your marker, tell me, how am I supposed to give you the ball? It would be flat football, lifeless and just plain bad. Spain play like Barcelona. It’s not about such and such a player: it’s about everyone coming together to form a team, that’s the secret. That’s how you win a championship.
  • How do you see things turning out today?
  • Spain have been the best team at the World Cup. The Dutch can play a bit but they’re not great. We’ll see.
  • Have la Furia already earned their place in history or do they need to something else to seal it?
  • [Silence] Do they have to what?
  • Win, Alfredo.
  • No, no; these things have to be finished off. Spain have to win. Since when is winning the same as losing? Spain have tried to play a certain way and it’s worked out well. Let’s hope they win. It’s us who haven’t been doing things right for a long time. Let’s take it piano piano, nice and slow, and try to build a team.

    Us, especially us, the best in the world.

    Argentina v Germany – Maradona, Di María and Savaging the German Sausage

    Pegamequemegusta has been amazed by how judiciously Diego has used his squad so far. Maybe that’s overstating it: we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of mad, panicky decisions such as those that characterised the farcical qualification campaign, or England’s World Cup. He’s betted heavily on Di María – it should’ve been safe enough – and seems determined to see it out.

    Much as Del Bosque with Torres, however, the question appears to be whether he can afford to wait and see if this potential game-changer and game-winner will come into form in time. He assured us yesterday that Di María is fulfilling all his duties and is “ready to explode”. If he doesn’t, though, and keeps on failing to impose himself on games, one of Maradona’s most astute choices could well end up scuppering his World Cup dream earlier than expected.

    Regular visitors to pegamequemegusta will be familiar with the regular exalting of violence, machismo and a total disregard for the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Nonetheless, even we were disgusted with the downright scaldy behaviour of a Brazilian journalist in Wednesday’s press conference with Javier Pastore and Diego Pozo (the third-choice ‘keeper). “So you’ve had Mexican burritos,” the filthy bugger began, “but how are you going to deal with the German sausage?” Pozo said something in Pastore’s ear and a bit of a hubbub began to develop as the other journalists there expressed their distaste. The provocation was not taken up and the cheeky Brazilian was left muttering something unintelligible about how his homeland’s feijoada was the toughest dish of all to get down.

    It was quite funny but pretty insulting, especially as he wasn’t exactly dealing with two heavyweights. Yet in any case, it reminded us how those nasty burritos had stuck in our craw last Sunday. A nasty case of heartburn came upon us as images of the game came flooding back as if our mind were a hastily constructed apartment in the jerk, sorry, ‘commuter’ belt.

    Besides the endless montages we’ve been subjected to over the last few days that unfailingly culminate in Carlitos’s onion bag rippler, we can’t help remembering the look on Di María’s face as he slowly got off the ground after about two minutes with a panic-stricken look we well recall from the first time pegamequemegusta tried to buy shoes over here and realised all the sizes were different; we remember how it took all of three minutes for Heinze to start hitting the ball over the top such were the lack of options in midfield; how Messi’s shoulders slumped so as the ball appeared to grow smaller and smaller in the second half, as if it were but vaguely reminiscent of a toy he had once enjoyed as a child. Thinking of all the possession Mexico enjoyed, the free-run they had in midfield and the fact that only their own stubborn insistence on shooting from distance meant they didn’t create more chances, we struggle to come up with quick solutions for what will inevitably occur in pegamequemegusta’s underpants on Saturday morning if the same situations repeat themselves against ze Germans.

    2 v 11?

    Nonetheless, our habitual incontinence aside, we’ve been pretty sore this week at some of the less smart criticism of Argentina. The increasingly farcical Lothar Matthaus, for example, upset that Beckenbauer and an octopus have been stealing all the punditry limelight offered his two cents in the last few hours:

    “Maradona doesn’t have a clear idea of how he wants the team to play; he hasn’t got a system [we’re translating fromt he Spanish here; presume these quotes are accurate]. He puts all his trust in the skill of certain individuals. I don’t think that’s enough against a German team that’s full of self-confidence, enjoys playing and under less pressure than Argentina.”

    Dunphy, too, spoke on Newstalk’s World Cup Daily about Argentina v Germany basically being 2 v 11, seeing as Argentina depend far too much on Messi and Tevez.

    Both very questionable views. First of all, it’s a rather facile, churlish argument: obviously if you have players like Messi and Tevez in your team you would do well to get the ball to them as often as possible. Even if the squad had been selected with a little more coherency, one wonders what they’d say. Would they be calling out for Tevez be be replaced by Cambiasso and Argentina be a ‘proper team’ that seeks to attack with Zanetti to push forward down one of the flanks to link up with Messi, Capello-style? Would they be insisting on Riquelme or, God forbid, Lucho González, to play as a classic number 10 and try to ‘play in’ Messi and Higuaín?

    Pegamequemegusta doesn’t get the argument. After all, the tactic has not just been, as many have said, just to ‘give the ball to Messi’. Neither has the ‘clueless’ Maradona just asked Messi how he wants things done and set up the rest as he sees fit. There’s a considerable difference between giving him a ‘free’ role and just sitting back and hoping to Christ he’ll resolve all your problems.

    Rather, Argentina in this World Cup have tried to implement quite a sophisticated system that aims to make the most out of Messi’s gifts precisely by surrounding him with plenty of options to give and receive the ball. It’s obvious that while Messi is devastating in one on ones – hell, one on threes – you can get a lot more out of him in his general play if you keep him involved: by bringing Messi into the game he’ll inevitably bring others into the game, too. Over-dependence? It’s the only bloody way!

    Maradona hasn’t been so boorish either that he’s just told his players to ‘do what Barcelona do’ in order to get the best out of Messi, to vainly try to imitate their play but with the passion the jersey requires. Again, no matter who’s in the squad that wouldn’t be possible. They just don’t have the players. Argentina don’t have Xavi or Iniesta to orchestrate so they’ve tried to create similar associations between the attackers right across the front of the attack. Of course a lot is left to the individuals once the ball is in play but this is what having good players is all about. It’s also eminently smart and ballsy when you know that you just haven’t got the resources to line up with a back line and midfield that’s both as solid as a pegamequemegusta’s biceps and as bamboozling as pegamequemegusta’s trousers. It’s classic Maradona: an impressive mix of pragmatism and inspiration.

    Carlitos Tevez

    It’s quite interesting in this respect to think back to the travails of Carlitos Tevez over the last three seasons in English football. He had his ups and downs with United, yet even when he was lamenting the lack of goals in his game he found some solace in the fact that he had improved more in terms of his all-round game. There was a good interview in September 2008 before Argentina played Paraguay in Buenos Aires where he recognised that while he was no longer Carlitos the goal machine, he had at least learned to play all across the front line. Indeed, in August he had won the player of the month playing almost exclusively as a number 10, a responsibility he took upon himself given the lack of creativity in United’s midfield at the time.

    He was sent off in that match against Paraguay, his second expulsion in two games, and for the rest of the season he lost his place to the new signing, Berbatov. Even when the goals came back with City this year, he was full of self-criticism, admitting in December that he no longer deserved his place and that he would have to fight to win it back. Despite what is often said about his approach to training, he hired himself his own fitness coach to keep his weight down and dedicated himself to getting into the Argentina team.

    Pegamequemegusta is certain that Maradona genuinely didn’t know how he was going to line up the team against Nigeria until he saw the group of beasts he had at his disposal in Buenos Aires in May. He tends to say that the idea was ‘knocking round my head’ for a while but circumstances never allowed him to unleash it. It’s irrelevant now anyway: the fact is that it was the inclusion of Tevez more than anyone else that has changed the face of this team and allowed it to play the way it does. We’d go so far as to say that no-one else (in the world?) could do the same job. Pressure up the field, penetration down both wings, quick passing and thinking, power, tackling in midfield and goals. That’s what Maradona’s team is. Give the ball to Messi? Watch the bloody matches.

    Di María

    Another crucial piece in Diego’s plan – which is rather un-Bilardiano, too, but we don’t want to get into the cheap ‘Maradona is a puppet’ argument right now – that contradicts any supposed dependence on Messi, is Ángel Di María. Unlike Tevez, who only received two one-match bans for his red cards in the qualifiers, Di María got a four-match ban for violent conduct after being sent off against Bolivia in the infamous 6-1 defeat in La Paz. Therefore it took until the Germany friendly last March for us to really see him take another team apart cutting in from the left. In that game, Argentina played a stodgy enough 4-4-2 where Messi was more or less isolated, but the few times he burst towards the German box he left their defenders in the kind of positions that would otherwise only occur to a particularly twisted porno director.  He also put Higuaín through for his goal. Check out this nutmeg from that night:

    You will no doubt have noticed, oh dear handsome readers, that in that clip he pops up on the right. This is what we meant earlier by Maradona’s aim to create rolling associations across the entire front of attack. Unlike Tevez and Higuaín, who could in theory be replaced, Di María is unique in this squad. His particular characteristics and package of skills makes José’s new man exceptional in the group. If he plays well, he can widen the angle of attack, pin back the opposing full back, dribble past anyone almost as well as Messi, is good in the air and has a decent shot on him as he showed over and over for Benfica last season.

    Grand, we know he’s good. The delectably clever part of his inclusion, however, where another manager might have deemed three attackers quite sufficient, is that his role has deliberately been conceived to profit from the other team’s preoccupation with Messi. With both on the pitch, never mind whatever Tevez and Higuaín are up to, one should always be able to function as a decoy for the other. It’s pass and run, it’s constant domination, constant attack and it’s sass-tastic. Maradona’s smart.

    Unfortunately, the young man from Rosario (though he’s a Central man, whereas Leo’s from Newell’s) has played prett-ty poorly so far. We mentioned earlier the expression on his face right at the start of the Mexico match and in general Di María’s looked about as convinced of his own ability as pegamequemegusta does when the missus sends us out to do our Princess Leia impression down on Mardel’s main street. He has had so little interaction with his teammates that at times he seems to be hiding from the ball. And it’s not just because the rest of the team only pass the ball to Messi, when he wants it he comes looking for it, as is made clear in the clip above. It took him 25 minutes to play a one-two against Mexico. Even Heinze showed more of an inclination towards getting forward.

    From half-time in the very first match it was clear that things weren’t going right for Di María. Maradona went straight out on to the pitch to meet him before he came off to put an arm around him, so anonymous had he been. He improved somewhat against Korea but he was still a long way from his true level.

    Maradona puts an arm round Ángel Di María at half-time in the Nigeria game. It was clear from the start.

    Pegamequemegusta has been genuinely amazed by how judiciously Diego has used his squad so far. Maybe that’s overstating it: we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of mad, panicky decisions such as those that characterised the farcical qualification campaign, or England’s World Cup. He’s betted heavily on Di María – it should’ve been safe enough – and seems determined to see it out.

    Much as Del Bosque with Torres, however, the question appears to be whether he can afford to wait and see if this potential game-changer and game-winner will come into form in time. He assured us yesterday that Di María is fulfilling all his duties and is “ready to explode”. If he doesn’t, though, and keeps on failing to impose himself on games, one of Maradona’s most astute choices could well end up scuppering his World Cup dream earlier than expected.

    Karma

    It would be a terrible shame in our opinion, not just because we live here, love the team and desperately want him to do well, but because it was the right decision. After everything Maradona did wrong, it would be a right kick in the balls to see him punished for one of the things he got right. Speaking of one of those things he got wrong, of course Argentina would have more options to replace him had he included Cambiasso and Zanetti in the squad in the first place. If Palermo and Garcé weren’t there, and Di María was dropped, we could have a tougher, more solid team to face Germany. As it is, the team are effectively carrying an AWOL Di María and despite their affection for him almost everyone is calling for him to go. The latest poll on Olé tonight tonight show that were the people in charge he’d lose his place to Pastore (and Demichelis to Burdisso, obviously), a fine, nay scintillating, prospect but totally unproven at this level.

    Although the Mexico game didn’t work out perfectly by any means, pegamequemegusta, like Maradona, was hoping for Di María to come good in that game too. Hence our excited exclamation before that game to the effect that the Argentina manager had got everything right so far. If he does stick with the same set-up and there’s a repeat of the possession-ceding, effectively ten-man Argentina against Germany, it’s unlikely they will get away with it a second time.

    Some would say it’s karma, they’d agree with Dunphy that Diego’s Argentina were always “a disaster waiting to happen”. Pegamequemegusta reckons that’s harsh though. While we’ve always diasgreed with the initial squad selection and feared it would come back to haunt him, in general we feel focusing solely on that aspect and criticising the team for apparently being overly-dependent on Messi and Tevez betrays an ignorance of what Argentina have done so far and what they’ve been trying to do. We’re still not used to saying it, but all we can do now is trust in Diego to savage the German sausage.

    ‘A Miracle in Polokwane’ – Ezequiel Fernández Moores

    They say that one day in the Estadio da Luz, Saramago, who was an atheist, was surprised to see so many people blessing themselves or looking imploringly at the heavens. “I, too, wait for a sign from God everyday. It’s a shame i’ve never found one.”

    Mexico, Argentina’s next opponent in the World Cup, also mourned one of its best writers during this World Cup, Carlos Monsiváis. Once Monsiváis was asked, his compatriot Juan Villoro relates, about the ‘atavistic incapability’ of Mexican football to ‘solve the matter of the maximum penalty’, which could well be a possibility this Sunday in Soccer City. Monsiváis, who believed he was being asked about troubles in the country’s prisons, answered: “There’s too much overcrowding and that provokes riots.”

    Monsiváis hated football, just like Borges, who gave a lecture in the Teatro San Martín right as the World Cup was getting under way in 1978. “Juan Villoro said that God is round. In that case,” Monsiváis once said, “you can consider me an atheist.” Villoro, in fact, wrote an excellent book with the title God is Round.

    Out of a Sabbath-like respect for the anniversary of the passing of a genius, and not at all out of laziness, pegamequemegusta has decided to bring you another translation today. Besides, while there have been plenty of noises coming out of the camp – chiefly the slushing of Bilardo eating cold spaghetti with his bare hands – about the team for Sunday’s game, we decided we’d wait just to make sure and see what the buzz is about Maradona’s decision.

    What is it, you ask? Well it looks like pegamequemegusta’s number one fan has taken our advice and dropped Jonás and Verón in favour of Otamendi and Maxi Rodriguez. Yes, folks, it’s yet another mote for all our eyes as Diego continues to get every (non-Demichelis-related) decision right: Romero; Otamendi, Demichelis, Samuel, Heinze; Masche, Maxi, Di María; Messi, Tevez; Higuaín.

    And so in the meantime, let’s listen to more voices of experience, some of which hate football as much as you or us. This piece is from La Nación on Wednesday [orginal here, Spanish speakers]. Titled ‘A miracle in Polokwane’, it was written by the eminent Ezequiel Fernández Moores. It takes the passing-on mid-World Cup of writers and intellectuals such as José Saramago and Carlos Monsiváis (who we vaguely recall appears somewhere in Bolaño’s Savage Detectives) to launch an analysis on all such folk who love and hate football in equal measure.

    It’s well written, obviously, and has a good few decent lines and some interesting ideas. Plus, it makes a pleasant change from pegamequemegusta’s frequent lambasting of the oft-navel-licking Argentine sports corps.

    The translation is ours, as always, and we hope it’s good enough despite being somewhat hastily banged out this evening after dinner. If you disagree, pegáme, que me gusta:

    Polokwane – ‘The bad thing about victories is that they’re not definitive. The good thing about defeats is that they’re not definitive either.’ The phrase was coined by the Portuguese writer, José Saramago, who died a few days ago, just as Jorge Luis Borges did, right in the middle of Mexico ’86. The former Portuguese star Luis Figo admitted that the phrase had been of great solace to him at various points in his career. Will it be useful today for Diego Maradona? The victories in the first round of South Africa 2010, it is true, have resolved nothing. Defeats, on the other hand, would have. From this point on, any defeat will mean a trip home. Whatever transpired in the games against Nigeria, Korea and Greece will have counted for little.

    Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal honoured Saramago on Monday by wearing black armbands for their match against North Korea. The only team in the World Cup to come from a communist country was trounced 7-0. Saramago was a communist, but one in favour of democracy. He may well have smiled with the same irony as old John Luc Godard. The French director once said that communism only existed for two 45-minute halves.

    It was 1953 when the marvellous Hungarian orchestra led by Ferenc Puskas gave England a lesson in collective football. That would be unthinkable in South Africa 2010, where there are plenty of teams but few stand out players. The players that make it to South Africa are just whatever’s left over from their clubs’ seasons. Miracles are hardly even possible.

    They say that one day in the Estadio da Luz, Saramago, who was an atheist, was surprised to see so many people blessing themselves or looking imploringly at the heavens. “I, too, wait for a sign from God everyday. It’s a shame i’ve never found one.”

    Mexico, Argentina’s next opponent in the World Cup, also mourned one of its best writers during this World Cup, Carlos Monsiváis. Once Monsiváis was asked, his compatriot Juan Villoro relates, about the ‘atavistic incapability’ of Mexican football to ‘solve the matter of the maximum penalty’, which could well be a possibility this Sunday in Soccer City. Monsiváis, who believed he was being asked about troubles in the country’s prisons, answered: “There’s too much overcrowding and that provokes riots.”

    Monsiváis hated football, just like Borges, who gave a lecture in the Teatro San Martín right as the World Cup was getting under way in 1978. “Juan Villoro said that God is round. In that case,” Monsiváis once said, “you can consider me an atheist.” Villoro, in fact, wrote an excellent book with the title God is Round.

    These days, along with the Argentine, Martín Caporrós, author of Boquita, he maintains a blog on the World Cup. The collaboration will no doubt take on a new aspect now that Argentina and Mexico are facing each other in the last 16, just as in 2006.

    Olé cover after Maxi Rodriguez's wonder stonker against Mexico in 2006

    “The Goddess Fortune,” Villoro tells me from Mexico City, “has been cruel placing the Argentina match right after our defeat. It was like watching the executioner sharpen his tools. I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. Our best hopes are a Virgin de Guadelupe or full-on Lacanian psychoanlysis to rid ourselves of the anxiety of playing an Argentina team that is clearly superior. One thing’s for sure, though, we’ll go out playing well and with many a fine phrase from our chroniclers.”

    Villoro tells me that that he followed the day’s football at home, “listening to the bleaters on national tv”. His neighbours are Uruguayan. “It’s not love that unites us,” he says, “but fear… of playing Argentina.”

    In his house in Montevideo, Eduardo Galeano, author of Fútbol en sol y sombra [‘Football in shade and sunshine’], has a sign on his door that says ‘Closed for football’. “I won’t take it down until the last minute of the last game. Helen and I live EVERY GAME really intensely. She’s an atheist since birth whereas I had a very Catholic upbringing, and traces of that remain,” he tells me before the Mexico match begins.

    Caparrós followed Argentina’s win over Greece in the best hotel in Arúa, a place with ten rooms, that costs $15 a night and has no light after midnight. Arúa is a town in Uganda on the frontier between the Sudan and the Congo. An enormous screen, six plastic tables and four silent companions. Maybe it was better that way. In Ellis Park a few days ago, when South Korea were flirting with the idea of an equaliser and we were all suffering, an Argentine fan recognised him and asked: “Hey, Caparrós, do you reckon that if Argentina win the World Cup, the government will take advantage and use it for its own political ends?”

    Cristina Kirchner does some electioneering last month

    There’s no longer any chance of that happening for the South Africans. Or for Africa either, which right when it had the first World Cup on its soil had its worst ever showing. In her homage to Saramago, the Vice-President of Spain, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, said that the Portuguese Nobel Laureate “dreamed of a liberated world, where the strong were more just and the just more strong.” Football resembles life. There’s no justice there either.

    “In every match,” Villoro says, “footballers strive to be gods and the ref to be a man. No other sport has such a weak justice system, that is to say, one so similar to what we have in life.” Caparros speaks of football, and especially about World Cups, as a ‘theatre of happy savagery’.

    Villoro wonders if it makes sense “to jettison marriage, work and even breathing in favour of what goes on on the pitch” and defines football as “a return to childhood where every game is eternal and rules are open to be changed as long as it lasts”. How long, we ask, will this World Cup last for us? Will we make it past the quarter finals? Or will it be like Germany once more, once more the prettiest team in the opening round but then dispatched, leaving the trophy in the hands of another supposedly more ‘serious’ team, like Dunga’s Brazil? Will South Africa 2010, as it sometimes threatens, be a World Cup with Mourinho’s copyright, a World Cup free of ideology – pure pragmatism?

    “Who cares about the World Cup?” The question, which could well have been posed, were they alive, by Borges or Monsiváis, was asked just a few days ago at a Literary Festival held in England by Nadine Gordiner, a South African Nobel Laureate. Neither does it interest the other South African Nobel winner, J. M. Coetzee. When he wrote Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee wasn’t thinking of FIFA or the Argentine barras.

    Borges once said that “Football is popular for the same reason stupidity is popular”, and he added: “Football is one of England’s greatest crimes.” He died eight days before the Hand of God. I found out when I saw his face on a muted tv in a press centre in Mexico. Like Bustos Domecq, a pseudonym he shared with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges, who preferred cock-fighting to football, ended up writing a story for himself where there were neither teams not matches. The grounds had already been knocked down and only their ruins remained.

    Nowadays everything happens on telly and on the radio amidst the disingenuous drama of the commentators. “Have I never suspected that it’s all a load of bollocks?” Galeano asks himself in his book How football resembles God. Yet he answers: “In the devotion of many of the believers and in the mistrust many intellectuals have for it.” South Africa 2010 required the construction of many stadia that won’t be demolished but may well be useless after the World Cup. “How can such luxurious grounds be built in an ocean of poverty?” Cissie Gool wondered aloud in a debate featuring South African intellectuals last May.

    The one in Polokwane last night, in any case, was witness to another of Palermo’s exploits. Argieball is addicted to myths. Last night you could have taken Polokwane for the Bombonera. But there’s no greater myth, for us, than Maradona. “Those of us who had our doubts as to Maradona’s divine condition,” wrote John Carlin a few days ago, “find ourselves obliged to reconsider our agnosticism.” Atheists, agnostics and believers, intellectuals and normal fans, they may all agree, at least in these World Cup days, that Palermo was an Argentine miracle in Polokwane. May it not be the last.