The stubbly wonder Sergio Batista had just taken his seat before the gang of shivering pressmen. Serious questions needed to be asked; serious answers needed to be given. This was very serious. A 1-1 draw at home against Bolivia is a serious matter at the best of times, but, seriously, when you’re looking to kickstart a long-term project of reinstating Argentina among the serious teams of the world, a project so serious even stopping to pick up the gaudy bauble that is the over-sized Copa América along the way needs to be given some serious thought, an emphatic win is hardly even sufficient – you need a serious declaration of serious principles, you need to finally see the much-vaunted footballing philosophy manifest itself on the pitch for the full 90 minutes, you need to produce a display of such earth-scorching fantasy that a mere footballing humiliation of the kind not seen since Maradona’s boys last went to La Paz does serious harm to the normally chummy relations between the Silver Surfer and the Tin Man. But a lame, frustrating, heart-chilling farce of a performance, a desperately humdrum, plodding, exasperating showing from your boys, no, that’s a very serious matter indeed.
Checho had just got into his opening mumbles about how happy he was with the group, however, when the grave atmosphere was interrupted whimsically by some unseen announcer. The Man of the Match award had to be given out. The LG Man of the Match award had priority and Batista could damn well wait. The camera zoomed out jerkily, taken unawares much like Banega at the near post, and Messi shuffled in from the right, as he once did for Barcelona. All hunched shoulders and darting eyes, Lionel had to walk across the front of the table where Checho sat statue-like in a vain attempt to maintain his dignity. The best way to do this, he seemed to suggest, was to try and put the few feet of the universe immediately surrounding him on pause.
Messi wasn’t having such a great time of it either. Although posing gormlessly for photos must be a reflex at this stage, the seconds he spent holding what looked like a giant cheque seemed seriously vexing. Not for the first time watching Messi suffer in South America, we were reminded of Kevin Kilbane, in particular his bewilderment at being named man of the match after the 1-2 win over San Marino a few years back. He tried to exit swiftly, but he was stopped by some LG stooges, who gestured to him to put his hand on or near one of their new line of phones.
Checho continued to sit upright, passive in attitude, impassive in aspect. It was only a matter of some thirty seconds but by the time Messi scuttled back across the front of the podium and straight out the door on the far side, icicles were hanging from his stately nose, the Jack Torrance impression reinforced by the greasy slicked-back hair.
That would never have happened to Maradona. Or if it had, he would have dealt with it so differently, as after the now-foreboding Germany friendly in March 2010.
Poor Checho, he never really had a chance, did he? Tonight, if the carefully orchestrated ‘rumour’ mill is to believed, he’ll become the first manager to be fired in don Julio Grondona’s thirty-two year reign. He’ll also have the ignominious distinction of having been in charge for less time than any Argentina manager since the early 1970s. The fact is, however, that Batista was never really in charge. He was just the caretaker. He has always been the caretaker.
The evil spirits at the Overlook Hotel/AFA have been calling the shots all along. We’ve been through all this before: ghouls like Humbertito Grondona and Bilardo deliberately delayed Batista’s appointment in order to accommodate themselves in their respective positions in the turmoil that threatened to engulf them following the World Cup last year. This strategy carried the extra bonus of weakening the new man’s hand. After Diego had spent a year and a half giving them wedgies and indian burns, it was imperative the next man be a pushover – someone willing to lead a band of nobodies on a Tour of Shame round Nigeria and Belgium a few weeks before the first Copa América on home soil in a quarter of a century; someone whose ear could be bent so that players bound to certain agents could get some potentially-lucrative game-time in the prestigious albiceleste jersey. A financially-secure national team coach with his own ideas about what games will be played where and with which players is merely a hindrance, an eyesore on an otherwise delightful, lush, dollar-green prairie. Besides, what’s the point of racking one’s brains for the perfect candidate anyway? Sure with better men than Batista, the results in World Cups and Copas were always the same: quarter finals or lose to Brazil. Unlike Delbert Grady, the AFA aren’t even too interested if the job gets done or not. People are not going to lose interest in football: they’ll keep painting their faces and playing for tickets. A new man can be brought in. They’re not worried about any ‘nigger cook’.
What is important, though, is that the illusion is maintained; the pueblo loves an idol, an image. And so Messi was thrust to the fore – the Messiah presented as a strong man whose every whim must be met, the man to whom the rest must bow and cower if anything is to be achieved. It was irrelevant whether Messi actually wanted any of this, – pegamequemegusta has it on good authority that lil Lionel’s only real concerns as he roamed the halls of the hotel on his tricycle was to avoid the terrifying spectre of the Milito-Burdisso sisters – but someone had to be seen to be occupying the vacuum the mumbling Checho clearly couldn’t fill.
For the last year the Selección has been all about image, an insubstantial rebranding exercise with about as much chance of success as getting rid of a tape worm by rougeing yourself up. Batista constantly tried to give the impression that he was feelin’ fine, that he was a nice, simple guy, just a football man – nothing like the media whore Maradona. Yet in reality he was far worse. His laconic, laid-back style was just as vacuous as Diego’s occasional diatribes. Lest we forget, however, Maradona is a real sociopath whereas Batista is a poser. His desperate attempts to convince us of his self-assurance never once rang true. His endless harping on about his idea futbolística was as cringeworthy as the holiday snaps he’d take with startled and/or bored footballers and show the world on twitter. The craven little captions remind us of a hip priest trying to get down with the kids.
It’s a still-frame version of An Impossible Job – but without the sympathy. Do you, dear handsome reader, think for one minute the players didn’t take the piss out of him for it?
He was isolated and alone from the start, then, but he did himself no favours. The shallowness of the ‘project’ was reflected in the gutless displays on the pitch. For all his talk of a plan, of folios, DVDs and analysis to ensure success, it immediately became clear in the Copa América that, far from producing something novel, he may as well have spent the previous few months rattling out the same sentence over and over again on a beat-up Underwood. His one innovation, playing Messi as the central striker, he abandoned after 45 goalless minutes against Bolivia. The Uruguayans bashed him on the head with a bat and locked him in the pantry. The ghouls were none too pleased.
Over the last few days, the brave administrators at the AFA have been calling for his head. Yes, in the great democracy that is Argentine football, the same people who apparently voted Batista in last October 19-1 are now, according to a report in Olé today, 16-4 against him staying on. They regard the Copa América campaign as an unremitting disaster and have lost all faith in the man who only last month signed his contract taking him through to the end of the World Cup qualifiers. Most importantly, however, some are upset they were not allowed into the dressing room in Santa Fe, while Checho’s brothers were. Now it’s Batista’s turn to stay out in the freezing cold, lost in a maze midst a blizzard of bullshit as the little pigs at the AFA yet again seek to save the hairs on their chinny-chin-chins.
The favourite for the job is Alejandro Sabella. He spent much of his career as Passarella’s assistant before winning the Libertadores and a few league titles with Estudiantes in 2009. It’s really quite irrelevant, however. Humbertito Grondona and Bilardo look likely to stay on in their posts, looking out for their own interests, messing about in team affairs, undermining the manager and generally helping to bring out the worst in the players available. Don Julio, of course, will remain untouched and will continue to sate the ghouls at the AFA with the blood of Argieball. Great party, isn’t it?