Many of the players for Argentina are stars in the top leagues of Europe. Among them are Lionel Messi, the most skilled player in Spain and the world; Gonzalo Higuaín, record holder for most goals in a Serie A season; Sergio Agüero, consistently among the top scorers in the English Premier League. The entity in charge of wrangling such brilliant talent and turn it into a national team is the Argentinian Fútbol Association, the AFA, whose incompetence is often overshadowed by corruption and cluelessness.
And that is Argentina: prodigious natural resources, WTF mismanagement.
Argentina’s name comes from argentum, the Latin word for silver. The country’s main geographical features are the fertile plains known as La Pampa. According to my professors, the Pampa had so much livestock that travelers spent weeks living off steers that were everywhere—more precisely, eating beef tongue (which a prof. said was considered the best part of the animal), and the rest of the carcass was left to rot. Personally I would’ve gone for tenderloin, but Argentinians living off tongue seems apt AF.
For Latin Americans, the “humble Argentinian” figure is somewhere between fiction and myth. As the current Pope is from Argentina, and thus infallible in matters of faith, Argentinians can now claim to have the monopoly of being right about all human and extraterrestrial matters. But it’s not just arrogance; there’s plenty of grandiosity too. Everything is larger than life there, especially fútbol. The hottest ticket in Argentina, Boca Juniors vs. River Plate, is not just a heated Buenos Aires derby, or merely a clásico: it’s known everywhere as El Superclásico. In Spanish, “God” is Dios; in Argentina, D10s is Diego Armando Maradona:
Maradona is a divisive figure. But set aside the cocaine abuse, the mob connections, the stuff with Diego Junior—wait. Uh…
[skims open browser tabs, closes all of them]
Maradona is a celebrated figure in most of Argentina, Naples, and my home. The Napoli fútbol club was founded early in the XXth Century, and signed Maradona in the 80s. With Diego, Napoli won its first Serie A title and first European Cup. He’s also credited with giving Argentina the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, a tournament remembered for the quarterfinal against England. Argentina won 2-1, with Maradona scoring both goals, the first on a handball:
The video shows the ball going in, Maradona hesitating briefly, then celebrating and calling on his teammates to join in. The goal stood, giving credence to Col. Korn’s observation in Catch-22: “act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail”. But for anyone who doubts Maradona’s brilliance, his second goal:
Controversy and a win-at-all costs attitude have been staples of the Argentina national team. Traditionally, La Albiceleste has been liked only by Argentinians, fans of Maradona, and douchebags who couldn’t tell a churrasco from a cube steak (YMMV).
The only other World Cup won by Argentina was in 1978, when it hosted the tournament during the military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla. The Argentina coach at the time was César Luis Menotti, recognized as a brilliant tactician, but also candid about being a leftist idealist—you know, the type of Argentinian who stood to be arrested or “disappeared” under the Videla regime. Here’s Menotti at work on the sidelines, a picture that could not be more 1970s:
Per the rules at the time, Argentina needed four goals against Perú to advance to the final of the 1978 World Cup. From Jonathan Wilson’s history of Argentinian fútbol, Angels with Dirty Faces:
(Aside: normally, an Englishman writing about Argentinian fútbol would read like “The Hamas Guide to Israel”. But mister Jonathan Wilson is a scholar with an addiction to primary sources.)
The game ended Argentina 4 : 0 Perú, and the locals went to the final against the Netherlands. Wilson writes that the bus driver took the Dutch team through a longer route to the stadium, allowing Argentina fans to crowd and hit the bus. Once in the stadium, the Argentina team remained in the tunnel and allowed the Netherlands to take the field for the anthems, alone to be booed by the crowd. The final ended 3-1, and the bad taste was felt everywhere but in Argentina.
Cheaters and bad losers has been the generalized knock on La Albiceleste. They lost the final of Italia 1990 on a very late penalty against Germany. What I remembered about that game was the Argentina players crowding the referee menacingly; watching the video now, it sure looked like the defender got to the ball first:
In the USA 1994, Maradona made a comeback but was sent home for a doping positive, and Argentina were then dispatched. In France 1998, the Netherlands eliminated Argentina after a red card for this:
In Japan / South Korea 2002, Argentina did not make it out of the group stage (1-0 win against Nigeria, 1-0 loss to England, 1-1 tie with Sweden). Then, in Germany 2006, Argentina lost in the quarterfinals to the hosts in a chippy game by both sides. Germany ultimately won in a penalty shootout, and then Argentina started a brawl against the tournament hosts. Thus ends the pre-Messi era.
Lionel Messi was born poor in Rosario. As an infant in the youth leagues, Wilson writes that Messi scored “four and five goals per game, even though he was so small the ball came up almost to his knee”. His youth coaches “were struck by how natural a player he was, how he needed little guidance rather than a full-on education”. He was quiet, reserved; solitary even, Wilson writes, and far too small for his age: standing 4’2” at age 10. His body was not producing a growth hormone, for which he received injection treatments that “cost fifteen hundred dollars a month”. The treatment worked, but the family could not afford it and the club Messi was in promised to pay (didn’t). Then a man from Rosario, who owned property in Catalonia, passed a video of Messi to FC Barcelona. After the club agreed to pay for Messi’s treatment and get his father a job, Messi left Argentina at 13 and won every possible trophy with Barça. In the meantime, the “You think you’re better than me?” Argentinian wags clamored for Messi to play for the Spanish national team.
Argentina with Messi won the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, and he became the point man of La Albiceleste for South Africa 2010. That Argentina team was coached by Maradona, Messi’s peer in skill but the polar opposite in every other way. Incidentally, the 2010 World Cup is my favorite: my wife and I root for Uruguay, but our daughter chose Argentina and Messi, for whom she developed a massive crush. (Aside: that was her third; the previous two crushes were Joey Ramone and Roger Daltrey. OK, I’m done bragging.)
In that tournament, Argentina made it to the quarterfinals, and before the game Maradona went full dis track on the opponent: Germany, which won 4-0. My daughter was angry and inconsolable. Since it was a Saturday 10 AM game, I’d gotten hammered—which turned out for the best, as sympathy tears came easy. To this day, the kid hates Germans.
Maradona left, and the Argentinian Fútbol Association signed Checho Batista as Argentina coach. His praise for Messi was backhanded: the Messi we’re getting is the Barcelona one. The next tournament was the 2011 Copa América, which Argentina hosted and got eliminated in the first game of the knockout stage by Uruguay. Batista was fired, and the “Messi sucks for Argentina” contingent was out for blood:
The AFA then hired Antonio Sabella, who commanded this much respect from his players:
Sabella took Argentina to the Brazil 2014 final, and Argentina had its best World Cup since 1990. To be accurate, Messi dragged Argentina to the final. His late goal in the 1-0 win against Iran in the group stage (which Iran should have won), is just…
Argentina lost that final to Germany 1-0, but Messi was named the best player in the tournament. Then Argentina made, and lost, two other finals in a row: the 2015 Copa América in Chile, and the 2016 Copa América Centenario in the U.S.A. Both times against Chile, both times losing in penalty shootouts. For the 2016 one, Messi took the first penalty and missed it. After the game, he retired from the national team, citing the frustration of three lost finals and hinting he may be hexing the team. Many of his countrymen agreed, and argued with ironclad asshole logic: since we’ve won nothing with Messi, why do we need him? It’s fucking infuriating.
By August 2016, Messi had won every fútbol trophy but Copas (World and América). His club is Barcelona, one of the top organizations in the sport. He gave all playing for country, and Argentina fared better at World Cups since he’s been a starter on the team. I don’t think he’s much fazed by stupid fans, but having the AFA as an employer is definitely a downgrade, for Messi and for any self-respecting fútbol player.
In 2015, the AFA held presidential elections between two candidates. There were 75 voters and the result was a 38-38 tie. The votes were cast in envelopes; however, no one noticed who had placed two ballots in one envelope, or which candidate was favored with the extra vote. Another voting was held a later date, and the winner, Luis Segura, lasted a few months. He was discharged from the AFA presidency by FIFA due to an investigation of misuse of public funds over TV rights—a dismissal made two days before 2016 Copa América Centenario final. The timing seemed suspect, but you have to hand it to FIFA: they act immediately when receiving information on: (1) bribes being waaaaay obvious, or (2) not getting a taste.
Imagine being a top talent, but working under total shitheads with absolute power over your dream job: playing for country for a World Cup. The average fan of the sport would say that Messi deserves a World Cup—for his skill, competitiveness, dedication, and because the guy NEVER dives nor loses his cool. And Argentina’s in Russia because of Messi.
In August, 2016, a new national team coach, Edgardo Bauzá, persuaded Messi to return to La Albiceleste for the Russia 2018 South American qualifiers. A couple of months later, a local journalist reported that one of the Argentina players had been smoking a joint in the national team facilities. All 26 players, fronted by Messi, held a press conference to deny the allegations and say that the team will not speak to the press anymore. Argentina’s qualifying campaign was also in trouble, and Bauzá was fired after eight games: 3 wins, 2 ties, 3 losses.
The AFA then turned to another coach, Jorge Sampaoli, who looks and acts like a middle-aged skinhead:
Sampaoli is an Argentinian who was successful in various clubs in Chile before getting the Chilean national team job, leaving in his wake a trail of broken contracts that would offend an NCAA football coach. His predecessor at the Chilean national team says:
I’m always asked about Sampaoli and I divide him in two [parts]. A sporting part which is fabulous, extraordinary, glorious for Chile. And a human part which is being a disaster of a person. (via 24horas.cl)
As to the first part, Sampaoli did get Chile its first international trophy, the 2015 Copa América it hosted. His favored tactics are revealed through a popular joke in Chile.
Sampaoli goes to a bar and meets a girl. He spends the night buying her drinks and listening to her. At last call, she goes to the bathroom, meets another guy, they make out, and she leaves with him. “That’s immaterial”, says Sampaoli. “I dominated possession all night.”
So yes: being a stubborn sunuvabitch is part of the “being a disaster as a person” part. But there is so much more!
After a group game in the 2015 Copa América, Chilean star and head case Arturo Vidal went on a bender and crashed his Lamborghini. Many in Chile called for Vidal to be kicked off the team; Sampaoli said that if Vidal goes, he goes too. Then, right after winning that tournament, Sampaoli had a year left but wanted out.—which required HIM to pay a $6 million penalty. While negotiating to weasel out, Sampaoli turned up his self-regard:
I never imagined that in such a short time the image of an idol that gave so much to Chilean fútbol [i.e., ME] was going to be destroyed. (via clarin.com)
Sampaoli ended up negotiating a payout and got his wish: signing with Sevilla in La Liga, but not before calling Vidal a drunk who needed professional help.
During his first season in Sevilla, with the team doing very well, there were backroom talks with AFA to take over the Argentinian team. He finished the year in La Liga being booed by the fans of the club he coached.
Then, after a couple of months of occupying his dream job as coach of La Albiceleste, Sampaoli was involved in a traffic stop in his town, at the early hours of a Saturday. The car was stopped because it had seven people on it, among them Sampaoli. He took the “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” route towards the police officer, and also shamed him for earning only “$4 a month”. Everyone wanted him fired; the AFA kept him and he issued an apology in which he accepted being in the wrong—which I understand is, in itself, a fireable offense in Argentina.
These were the results in qualifiers that AFA deemed OK enough to not fire him:
Don’t be fooled: that goal against Venezuela–LAST PLACE VENEZUELA playing in Argentina–was an own goal. That’s three games, ZERO goals for Argentina. So, with one game left in Ecuador, Argentina had to win to qualify. Ecuador scored in the first minute. Then Messi scored a hat trick and Argentina won 3-1. This was the celebration by the Argentinian players:
For those with a rusty Spanish, at 0:34: “I don’t care what those putos journalists say, whores gave birth to them.”
Sampaoli’s next game was a friendly in Spain in March, and Argentina was beaten 6-1. Messi did not play in that one, which makes that game a nice addition to the discussion on whether the Argentinian national team would be better with a striker who’s gone up the Argentinian league system since birth—instead of, I dunno, THE BEST FUCKING PLAYER IN THE WORLD?! Jesus Christ.
Argentina’s Russia 2018 schedule:
JUNE 16 – 8:00 AM Central: Argentina vs. Iceland
JUNE 21 – 1:00 PM Central: Argentina vs. Croatia
JUNE 26 – 1:00 PM Central: Argentina vs. Nigeria
There’s gotta be two wins there for Argentina, despite, uh, recent events.
After all the underperforming, coach turnover, press freeze, and Sampaoli bullshit, a couple of days ago Argentina’s starting goalie, Sergio Romero, injured his knee and will be out of the World Cup. This is serious; Romero was one of the most dependable players of La Albiceleste, who will now have to choose between two candidates: itinerant Chelsea dude Willy Caballero, or River Plate’s Francesco Armani.
Tryout in progress
Once the AFA announced that Armani made the team, the AFA called him to report at once to the national team headquarters—only to be rebuffed by his team, because River Plate still had games pending in the Copa Libertadores, the continental club competition. Keep in mind that River is a club overseen by the AFA, but that was not the most pathetic moment of the fútbol federation.
The AFA announced that it was going to give a course on Russian language and culture to coaches, players, managers, and journalists. A manual was published, ostensibly by the AFA’s “Commission of Sportsmanship, Social Responsibility and Sustainability”. The manual included a section titled “WHAT TO DO TO HAVE SOME CHANCE WITH A RUSSIAN GIRL”.
These are some of the socially responsible nuggets:
- Russian girls like any other girl pay much attention on whether you are clean, smell good and if you are well dressed. The first impression is very important for them, pay attention to your image.
- Russian girls do not like to be seen as objects. Because many Russian girls are beautiful, many men only want to take them to bed. Maybe they also want it, but [Russian girls] are persons who want to feel important and unique. The advice is to treat the woman in front of you as someone of value, with her own ideas and wishes. Pay attention to her values and personality. Don’t ask stupid questions about sex. For Russians, sex is something very private and the topic is not discussed in public. (Maybe you don’t believe me, but I know men who do it.)
- Russian girls hate boring men. […] Remember, you are a foreigner and you can talk to her about your country, how you live, or the interesting things you’ve seen in her country. Remember that is very important to invite her to participate in your topics. Try to speak with her in a very honest way.
- Don’t be negative. Women avoid persons who only see negative things, in work, relationships, in life.
- Don’t ask typical questions, be original […] Remember many of them do not know your country, so you have an advantage over Russian men, you are new and different. Give yourself confidence.
- Russian women like men who take the initiative, if you don’t have confidence in yourself, then you need to practice talking to more women.
Turns out, those bullet points were a copy / paste from a blog called Amar está en ruso (“Love is in Russian”), specifically the May 14, 2015 post titled “How to have a relationship with a Russian boy or girl” AFA did not get permission for use, much less credited the author.
So then: the AFA is a shitshow. Sampaoli is the stereotypical Argentinian asshole. And La Albiceleste‘s players are behaving like the adults of the delegation–which, if you think about it, is a more improbable outcome than Argentina actually winning the World Cup.