La pelota no se mancha


After several years of acute disillusionment with the rough and tumble of the millionaire’s game, admittedly fuelled to an extent by the barren years supporting Arsenal Football Club and my growing realisation of the considerable irrationality of my large emotional expenditure on it all, I am glad this World Cup has to an extent restored my love of the game, or better said my understanding of the reasons for this. It would be no exaggeration to attribute this to the relative successes in Brazil of the two countries that did more than most to nurture a passion for football within me.

Nowhere did this become more apparent to me than in the confines of a bar in South London last Sunday. Alongside hundreds of other Argentines, decked in the pristine blue and white colours, singing and dancing for nearly five hours, my brother and I swirled in a sea of emotion and joy. No matter the end result, ‘argentino en las buenas y las malas.’ Jumping, singing, waving the flag and banging the sides of the carriage with a couple dozen others on the underground minutes after the final whistle, to the utter bewilderment of Londoners, was a highlight in its own right.

There is something unique about being able to genuinely support a team in a World Cup final, a privilege not everyone can claim. It had never previously happened to me; supporting my club team at the final hurdle has never quite stirred the same raw emotion in me. Not least this being Argentina’s first appearance in a World Cup final in nearly a quarter of a century.

I first arrived in Argentina in the autumn of 2001. Racing were the local team I warmed to, enjoying rare success in the national championship at the time (although admittedly they were also the first Argentine team I had ever heard of, preceding even the likes of Boca Juniors and River Plate, having previously studied the fortunes of the Lisbon Lions). I remember watching Diego Armando’s testimonial live not long afterwards, an obscenely corpulent man I had difficulty associating with the mystical name Maradona pronouncing the words ‘la pelota no se mancha,’ which only years later did I truly appreciate the significance of. Argentina’s World Cup involvement in Japan ended in disappointingly premature fashion, during which I regrettably wholeheartedly cheered on Beckham et al and was subsequently scouted to appear on national television as an ‘English fan,’ making few friends in the process at school. Boca’s thrilling Copa Libertadores and World Club Cup triumphs of 2003 ensued, as did the golden age of the national youth teams and much more.  Not only did my education in Argentine football teach me to sing wonderful verses until my throat and lungs were sore, as well as hurl ever original insults; it also made be cherish the values of sacrifice and loyalty to the last just as much as a wondrous piece of artistry.

Watching Argentina’s progression at this tournament was all the sweeter, since I had been brought up with this very crop of players and witnessed their respective careers from a relatively early stage. In a sense, defeat is all the more frustrating since this was the golden generation’s best hope of success; most of its members will be on the wrong side of 30 by Russia and their successors cannot be said to be as auspicious. The sense of regret will endure. But the parallels with the run to the 1990 World Cup final, immortalised almost to the degree of the earlier triumphs, may just mean we fondly look on Brazil 2014.

And so onwards to Russia, where the chances of securing a ticket to watch la selección may well be slightly higher, and the prospect of doing so in Kaliningrad or Saransk rather than in Brazil supposedly all the more enticing. It has been five years since I left Argentina. With every passing year I felt proclamations as to my segunda patria grow slightly more hollow, especially from afar. But after a week in which I attended a protest against the vulture funds edging Argentina closer to a default, and Sunday’s party, I am perhaps a little more at peace with this component of my multi-layered identity.

Returning from the game on the underground, a passerby with an uncannily striking resemblance to Lionel Messi, after actually discovering to their gentle surprise that I was not in fact Argentine, asked me what it was about Argentina that made me so fervently passionate about them. Try as I could, there was no succinct answer to his query. Perhaps quoting Pablo Sandoval, the Racing supporter at the heart of Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winning picture ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’ would have been more appropriate: ‘a man can change everything, his face, house, family, girlfriend, religion, God; but there is one thing he cannot change, he cannot change his passion.” The same can be comfortably said of my affection for the Argentina national football team and the virulently infectious passion of its game, wherever I may be and no matter the passage of time since I left Buenos Aires.

PS A word about Costa Rica, another exotic outpost whose football I have had the opportunity to closely sample. No matter how much I grumbled about the quality of the national team and game for the two years I was there (both of which I nonetheless followed with a keen interest), I was enamoured with the fanaticism of the country’s football supporters. The son of the national team manager at the time, and at this World Cup, was a grade below mine at school, often leaving me for dead while playing as a defender on the school field. I even had an outing for a sub-division of the Saprissa football team on the artificial turf of the country’s biggest stadium, memorably suffering a grazed and bloody elbow on the slick artificial turf after a last ditch tackle.

The last I witnessed of the national team was the shambles at the 2006 World Cup. Save for Arsenal signing some starlet by the name of Joel Campbell, and reading about the country agonisingly failing to qualify for South Africa, the national team and game had hardly featured on my radar since leaving the country in 2006. Much like 99.9% of all so-called pundits, I gave them next to no hope in Group D. But what a joy to behold the likes of Cristian Bolaños, Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umaña, survivors of the World Cup in Germany, avenge the pain of that tournament and write their names into the annals of national and Central American sporting history in such fashion, complemented by a cast of athletic, dogged and often skilful players. The outstanding wins over Uruguay and Italy and titanic, backs-to-the-wall defensive masterclass against Greece will forever remain with me.


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