There was a lot to dislike about Argentina’s conduct at this World Cup, and it’s important to remember they have a long history of defying moral boundaries.
The best thing to come out of England’s run in the latter stages of this World Cup is the hue and cry the media raised over Colombia’s use of the dark arts. It magically transformed progressive, globalist citizens of the world into Victorian gentlemen complete with top hat, tails, and a great deal of moral outrage. They tut-tut, shake their heads at the effrontery of those foreign fellas pressuring the referee, and adjourn to the study for conversations about the purity of sport on the playing fields of Eton with cigars and sherry. I can get behind that sort of opprobrium though. Indeed, I am at my most comfortable in this environment of footballing umbrage.
I attended a strict religious school as a young man where John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was studied in great detail every year of secondary school. It is an allegorical novel that follows the protagonist Christian as he makes his way through the world to the afterlife. It was popular with my teachers because it provided straightforward moral lessons. I could not have told you the first thing about Homer’s Iliad or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but I could talk at length about the allegory of the Slough of Despond in the First Part of Bunyan’s classic. As I got further and further from that phase of life, I thought I outgrew the easy moralism that I received as a student. But then I watched Argentinian players needle and surround the referee at this World Cup – the pietism and religiose outrage came flooding back. What a bunch of scoundrels, I thought (my inner monologue has the same vocabulary as the easily offended Victorian gentlemen in the previous paragraph).
This should not have surprised me. I knew Argentina and its history of gamesmanship. Osvaldo Zubeldia’s Estudiantes and his antifutbol in the 60’s made a mockery of the “cheaters never prosper” proverb. They kicked, punched, goaded, stamped, pinched, headbutted, and spat their way to three consecutive Copa Libertadores titles. The provocateurs also triumphed in the 1968 Intercontinental Cup (thanks to a goal from Juan Sebastian Veron’s dear old dad) over Manchester United after outrageously needling Nobby Stiles and George Best into red cards over two legs. They followed up this scandalous performance by reaching new lows against AC Milan in the 1969 final, resulting in players being arrested for assault. The stories and conspiracy theories surrounding Argentina’s World Cup win in 1978 are too outrageous to be false. And, of course, there is the most iconic act of foul play in all of football, Diego Maradona’s 1986 Hand of God. The willingness to defy social norms by shamelessly cheating to get ahead has its own term in the Spanish around the Rio de la Plata: viveza criolla. As Jorge Luis Borges pointed out, Argentinians lack moral conduct, not intellectual conduct.
I knew the history of the team and the sociology of viveza, but I did not know that I would still react so strongly to it based on my past puritanical schooling. Discovering this, it brought into focus my inability to enjoy antiheroes and picaresque literature (and La Liga). Argentina’s unsuccessful time at Russia 2018 would read very much like darkly funny picaresque novel in three parts.
Part I: Qualifying
The first chapters consist of the football association’s president and scoundrel-in-chief, Julio Grondona. He ruled the AFA with an iron fist within a velvet glove of bribery and kickbacks for 35 years. Ed Malyon put it best, suggesting his hidden bank balance resembled a phone number. Don Julio was the epitome of the South American political truism that if one steals, he must get things done.
Upon his death, two pretenders to the throne arose; the organisation was so corrupt, however, its 75 members managed to vote 76 times. The election was postponed. Messi, after a painful loss in the Copa America, retired from the national team until it could get its act together. Eventually, a successor was named and qualification for the World Cup began in earnest. Or at least it should have. Instead, the new AFA head was charged with fraud, and no one left had the administrative abilities to put together a team for the Olympics. The manager, Tata Martino, resigned in disgust.
The new coach, Edgardo Bauza, only won three out of eight matches though, and the newest AFA president attempted to shove him out. It didn’t work, and Bauza was given a golden handshake that the AFA could ill afford after Grondona’s pillaging. Messi returned to the fold, Jorge Sampaoli was appointed head coach, and they managed to just get over the line and qualify.
Part II: Russian Road Trip
At this point, the story becomes a road movie following the ensemble cast of characters around Russia: Sampaoli is the nominal captain of the venture who is comically undermined at every turn, Mascherano is the wily veteran, Otamendi the (un)lovable rogue, Higuain the deadly striker who concentrates so hard on proving he can do it in the big games to the point of distraction, and Caballero is the keeper who must still be wondering how ended up there.
And then there is Messi, the golden goose. He was carted around like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to make everyone else’s fortune for them. In the first game in Moscow, however, he failed to convert a penalty and Argentina had to settle for a point against Iceland. As painful as that was, the trip to Nizhny Novgorod was worse. Croatia rattled three past the inept South Americans, and Sampaoli was left begging fans for forgiveness – the lowest point in the second act. They made the trip to St. Petersburg more out of obligation than hope, but the chancers in the sky blue and white pulled it out at the very last. Argentina would indeed make it to the knockout rounds. When coverage of the match threatened to turn serious, Maradona provided the comic relief in the stands by extending his middle fingers, praying to heaven with arms outstretched, dancing with a Nigerian fan, and falling asleep.
Part III: Climax and Denouement
Having avoided the embarrassment of an early exit, Argentinian players then set about to use all of their streetsmarts to get past a French team oozing talent in Kazan. Unfortunately, this was the part of the story where society’s rules and structures crush the picaresque hero. That and Kylian Mbappe. Up until the very last, though, I was convinced these rascals would pull some sort of trick or con to make it through to the quarter finals. Even if these beaten men could summon one last deception, there were four video assistant referees to spot any sort chicanery.
It is for the best that Argentina left so early. It now has the time and space to step back and look at events with critical eye. The slapdash approach of the AFA has squandered this generation’s chance for glory; they must not be given the chance to ruin another. For too long, the game was run by grifters and embezzlers. It is time for the sober administrators.
It is fitting that all of this action took place in the land of Soviet writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. These two wrote the seminal picaresque novel of the Soviet Union, The Twelve Chairs. In it, two con-men travel the country in search of a treasure. At a particularly low point one remarks, “We’re also floating with the stream. People push us under and we come up again, although they aren’t too pleased about it.”
Heaven only knows what 2022 holds for Messi. He will probably make one final stab at football’s biggest prize, a la Maradona in 1994. One suspects it will end on a slightly different note for Leo though. There will also be a new cast of characters: technicians like Paulo Dybala will feature more prominently and streetfighters like Mauro Icardi will punch their way into the setup. They will need every trick in the book to overcome the institutional problems of these wilderness years though. Argentina is down now, but it will be back. And I will still tut-tut disapprovingly at their antics while also admiring their damnable resilience.