Don Julio Doesn’t Care What You Think, Yanqui

If you are interested in Argentinian football, you have to realize one thing–it is a dictatorship, utterly, incontrovertibly controlled by one person: Julio Humberto Grondona.  Like all proper dictators, he is corrupt as hell, and an anti-Semite to boot.  And he really hates the English, lord does he hate the English.  Have I mentioned that this man is a FIFA Vice President?  That would normally tell you all you need to know about FIFA, but let’s face it, in the annals of FIFA, a corrupt anti-Semitic dictator merits but a footnote.

Don Julio has seen it all, and more importantly lived through it all.  Dictatorship, democracy, liberal, conservative, it makes no difference to Don Julio.  He controls his personal fiefdom with an iron grip, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Don Julio is like the Pope, only Argentinians actually care about what Don Julio does.  He is as close to all-powerful as one gets in sports administration.

Or so we thought.  Two announcements came today in Argentina that show that perhaps Don Julio is bending a little to popular will.  The first, and sadly less surprising of the two announcements, is that Argentina will completely restructure its league so that all teams in the top two divisions will now comprise one much larger first division of 38 teams.  Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the current first division sides agreed to this change, no doubt afraid that of what would happen if they go down.

Coincidentally, River Plate is biggest beneficiary of this new rule.  Had the old format been maintained, River would have played in the second division for the first time ever.  Now River is back up without ever having gone back down.  What fortuitous timing!

No one is pretending this was not done to protect River.  This isn’t the first time that the system was changed to protect River from relegation.  Even the Argentine Football Association admits that this was done to prevent River from going down.  Which leads to a second thing you should know about Argentinian football: it is utterly dominated by clubs from Buenos Aires.  There is a big five from Buenos Aires, River, Boca Juniors, Racing, San Lorenzo, and Independiente, but the only two that really matter are River and Boca.  The matches between those two are among the most intense and storied in the world.  Despite the fact that both clubs have fallen onto hard times of late, the eyes of the world still turn to Argentina whenever those two legendary clubs play each other.  Even though under this new system they will be in separate divisions, River and Boca will still play one another.  So sayeth Don Julio.

Despite all the lip service about decentralizing Argentinian football so that other cities could develop (La Plata does not count), the Buenos Aires clubs, especially River and Boca must be protected at all cost.  Otherwise, the revenue would fall.  No club from Córdoba, Mendoza, San Juan or even Rosario can compete with the Buenos Aires clubs in terms of popularity and revenue.

Frankly, I’m surprised this change didn’t happen sooner.  It looked like it wasn’t going to happen at all.  I wonder if part of the reason why River is being protected now instead of earlier is because the Copa America was such a bust for Argentina.  The attendances looked fairly anemic, particularly in the northern cities (especially after Argentina were eliminated), and because the national team is in such disarray, Don Julio is being forced to go back to what works, a strong Buenos Aires rather than a decentralized football nation.  River fans were really pissed off when their club was relegated, and the Argentinian league needs their bodies in the stands and their money.  Without River, the first division would suffer.  If they stayed away entirely, there would be real problems.

On the other hand, so long as the Buenos Aires clubs are being protected, there is no need for them to reform, which is a shame because they desperately need reform.  Argentinians clubs, especially the big Buenos Aires clubs, are toxic; none more so than River, which suffered from years of rot.  Changing the league when the biggest teams were threatened with relegation used to happen in Brazil all the time (Brazil has its own fair share of corrupt and mismanaged clubs), but surprisingly, it has stopped.  Corinthians, Brazil’s second largest club went down a couple of years ago, and it came back up the next year.  It’s actually a better club now than it used to be; it even challenges for titles.

As long as Don Julio is in charge however, reform will never happen in Argentina.

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The more surprising of the two announcements to come out of Argentina today is that national team coach Sergio Batista was sacked.  Although the federation claims that “he wasn’t fired,” I’m not exactly sure what else you could call it.  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck….

In any other country, this would have been called firing your coach.  It can’t be called that in Argentina though because Don Julio prides himself on never having fired a coach.  In fact, this is the first time I recall Argentina actually firing a coach.  Argentina doesn’t renew contracts, but firing?  Never.  I cannot wait to hear Tim Vickery’s take on this because it goes against everything we know about Argentina.  I sense that these two announcements coming near the same time are connected, and I also suspect that Don Julio is facing real resistance from the public for the first time in a long time, and needed to do something to shore up support.  Hence fire Batista and ensure River Plate stays in the first division.

Argentinian football is in real trouble.  I touched on the clubs (although there is far more to say about them), but the national side, Argentina’s pride and joy, has not won a senior title since 1993.  Not only has Brazil passed them by, but now their other continental arch-enemy Uruguay has too.  On top of that, as evidenced by this year’s  Copa American, the rest of the continent has finally caught up to the big boys.  Don Julio can no longer let in former players without tactical acuity take on a team that has World Cup championship ambitions.  The Argentinian public, which has been fairly docile toward him, will rise up, and it will not be pretty.

Batista is definitely to blame for his own misfortune, but not completely.  He was able to coach Argentina to the Olympic gold medal for what it’s worth, which is not much actually.  Batista’s mistake was in trying to replicate Barcelona, and he used a system ill-suited to his team far longer than he should have.  One could rightly say that the Copa America exposed him as a poor coach, but he was undermined from the beginning of the Copa America campaign.  He did not want Carlos Tevez.  Tevez did not fit into his plans, and he didn’t like Tevez on a personal level.  But unlike Messi, the Argentinian people love Tevez because, having grown up in the slums, they see him as one of them.  In contrast, when they are angry at Messi, he is a Catalan.  They demanded the inclusion of Tevez, and when Batista yielded (no doubt with some Don Julio persuasion), that was the beginning of the end.  Ironically, it was Tevez who cost Argentina, both with his horrible play and his missed penalty kick.

No doubt Maradona is anxiously awaiting a call from Don Julio that will never come.  Despite the chants for him to return, the Argentinians are crying out for a real coach, one with actual ability.  Maradona and Batista, two former players with little to no prior experience just couldn’t cut it.  Why Don Julio picked them is no great mystery.  Batista was his man from the word “go”, and making Maradona coach was the only way to defang his criticisms.  In the end choosing the coach was all about Don Julio.

But perhaps now too many things have gone wrong, and Don Julio’s reign is shakier than it was a month ago, or ever.  Perhaps now he will have to give up some of his power, bite the bullet, and appoint a real coach.  A poor result at one more World Cup, and perhaps the Argentinian public will finally rise up and end Don Julio’s reign.

Elegy* Written For A Fallen Legend

In the same week that saw South American legends Santos and Peñarol renew their glorious ancient Copa Libertadores rivalry, another of the continent’s giants suffered arguably the worst misfortune in its history.  River Plate of Buenos Aires was relegated for the first time in its 110 year history, leaving Independiente and archenemies Boca Juniors as the only clubs to have never been relegated.  Belgrano de Córdoba was the beneficiary, beating River in a two-legged playoff.  As expected, River fans acted with the grace and charm we’ve come to expect from Argentina football hooligans (or any hooligans.)

River may very well qualify for the Primera División again next year.  All the club needs to do for automatic promotion is finish in the top two of the Primera B Nacional.  It’s not unheard of.  When Newcastle United was relegated two seasons ago, they won the Championship handily and moved right back up to the EPL.  When Juventus was forcibly relegated due to Calciopoli, they too came right back up.  Corinthians of Brazil went down and right back up a few years ago.  Last season Corinthians almost won the league.  It can be done.

But in the end, that is not the point.  Nor is River’s remarkable history success the point, although the club won 33 league titles (a record) and 2 Copa Libertadores.  What matters is that River is an institution of Argentinian and world football.  It is one of the most famous clubs in the sport.  For all of its very tangible problems, the River has moved into the realm of mythology.  Everything about River is larger than life, including the famed rivalry with Boca Juniors, easily the equal of the Old Firm or El Clásico.  Next season will be the first in ages not to feature a meeting between the two sides, and Argentinian football will be both financially and spiritually worse for it.

The teams and players that the River produced truly captured the imagination of the world.  In the 1940’s, River’s famous front line of Muñoz, Moreno, Pedernera, Labruna, and Lousteau, called La Máquina [the Machine], was the avatar of La Nuestra, Argentina’s glorious style of attacking play.**  La Máquina were a side so talented that a young Di Stéfano could not find a place.  Of course Di Stéfano was the greatest player to come out of River Plate, but he was by no means the only one.  After Di Stéfano there were other legends including Sivori and Passarella, though none ever came close to Di Stéfano.  The club’s youth system has produced such talent as Crespo, Saviola, Higuaín, and Mascherano.  Yet because of the change in South American football, as European clubs vacuum up players earlier and earlier, River could not maintain a strong team.  River too is at fault for this; the club has been run into the ground over several years.  Save for the young Erik Lamela, who no doubt will be gone soon, River no longer produces the talent it needs to succeed.

River’s decline over the past several years has been well documented.  Tim Vickery has written and spoken a number of times about River’s years-long crisis.    Mismanagement, corruption, administration, and the organized thugs who are allowed free hand by the club have taken their toll.  It is ironic that monetary problems would do in a club nicknamed Los Millonarios.  Passarella, now the club president, tried to blame Argentinian Football Association head (and resident caudillo) Julio Grondona, but the truth is that the problems lay within.  Who knows when River Plate will be back, and if they will ever be the same again.  Juventus has never reached its pre-Calciopoli heights.

In another twist of irony, River was done in by a relegation scheme designed to protect them.  In 1983, River would have been relegated, but the complicated system of three-year averages was put into place to prevent that, or the potential relegation of the other Big Five clubs (Boca, Independiente, Racing, and San Lorenzo.)

Despite this, River found a way to fail in a system  intended to be fail safe.  I suspect that River will not be back up for some time, if ever again; the systemic problems are too deep and the piper must be paid.  Yet, River’s relegation is not merely a trauma for Argentinian football, it is a trauma for world football.  It is a reminder that even the greatest legends can falter and fade until all that is left is the mythology of the past.  And now River has truly lived up to the other more poetic nickname given to La Máquina, Los Caballeros de la Angustia [The Knights of Anguish.]  What else but anguish is left for River fans?

River’s fate is a chilling warning to the European clubs whose reckless spending may eventually imperil them in the same way, but no doubt the warning will go unheeded.

Footnotes:

* I understand that an elegy is a poem, but this is not a eulogy, it’s a lament.  Therefore calling it an elegy seems more appropriate somehow.

** Another side that was relegated along with River was Huracán also of Buenos Aires.  During the amateur era of Argentinian football, Huracán won four titles playing a beautiful attacking game two decades before River’s Machine.  Unlike River, Huracán never lived up to its early promise and is no stranger to relegation.

The Messi Side of Football

I.  Introduction: Brazil v. Argentina

On November 17, 2010, I watched the Brazil National Football (Soccer) Team outplay traditional rival Argentina but lose 1-0.  The match was an international friendly held in Qatar; only prestige was on the line.  Argentina had not beaten Brazil since June 2005.  In fact of the five matches played between the 2005 victory and this one, Brazil won four and drew one, outscoring Argentina 13-2.  The winning goal in this most recent match was scored in stoppage time at the very end of the match.  It was scored by Lionel Messi, probably the greatest football player in the world.

II.  Football and Me: A Love-ish Story

My love of football (sorry fellow Americans, I reclaim this word for what you call soccer) is a relatively new thing, but my awareness of the game goes back to when I was seven years old.  My parents signed me up for a local league, and I played all of one match before quitting–Saturday cartoons were far more important.  In retrospect, I wish I could have slapped some sense into my younger self, but at time football did not seem like much fun.  It was the mid-1980’s when I turned my back on football.  At that time most Americans had yet not realized that the sport was not just some novelty game that little children played only until they were old enough to play a more American sport (or could get a college scholarship for playing.)

At some point between age 7 and 1994 I learned four, and only four, facts about football: (1) the rest of the world loved it, but Americans did not because it is boring and our sports are better; (2) there was some competition called the World Cup and Uruguay won the first World Cup; (3) Pele was the best player ever; and (4) in 1950 the United States won the World Cup by beating England 1-0, but the English thought they won 10-1.

Before I continue with this post, I feel I should deconstruct and correct these four “facts” for any soccer newbie.  (1) Football is indeed the world’s most popular sport.  It is not however, the most popular sport in every country.  As a whole, nations that had once been part of the British empire favor other sports such as cricket (India), rugby (New Zealand), ice hockey (Canada) or their own weird variation of football (Australia, the United States).  Given that England is the home of football (the word ‘soccer’ is British slang, a nickname for Association Football), maybe the former colonies’ preference for other sports is a form of imperial rejection.  Some of the Caribbean islands and Venezuela prefer baseball.  (This is wise for Venezuela.  If you play football in South America, there is far too much competition.  Better to learn another sport that your neighbors do not play.)  Also, football is a very interesting sport, but like any language, you have to learn it before you can understand it.  And although Americans experience a strong feeling of exceptionalism, Americans are in no way objectively better or no worse than football.  (2) This is true.  I have no idea how or why I knew that Uruguay won it, but I knew they did.  It may be the only thing I knew about Uruguay at the time.  (3)  Pele’s status as “the greatest ever” is very much debatable.  Argentinians will tell you it is Diego Maradona.  The sniping that goes on between Pele and Maradona because of their narcissism and jealousy is embarrassing, but they need the attention and newspapers love it.  More on this later.  (4) Please, please, please do not think the United States won in 1950!  They did beat England, and that did shock and embarrass the English players, people, and press, but the Unites States team did not even make it to the next round.  I have no idea where I learned such a ridiculously false fact except that I probably thought there would be no reason to care if the United States did not win.  For the record, Uruguay won in 1950 (again).

In 1994, the World Cup came to United States and for about a month Americans deeply cared about football.  Partially this was because the American sports calendar is at a lull during the World Cup.  Of the big three American sports (and ice hockey), only baseball is in season, and baseball has not yet reached its full intensity.  The 1994 World Cup was a big deal for the United States, as it is for every host, but it was a big deal in a different way.  Before 1994, every World Cup had been held in a nation that loved football.  Each nation already had its own professional league and an international team that carried the hopes of a nation.  The United States had no major league of its own, most of the players were not connected with a club (just contracted to the national team), and most importantly there was no real football culture and very little interest in starting one.  After 1950 the United States did not qualify for a World Cup until 1990.  So little faith was put in the United States team that they were expected to be the first hosts not to advance out of the first round.  Despite all this, the crowd support turned out to be excellent, and the United States did advance to the second round (at the expense of Colombia, which sadly cost Colombian defender Andres Escobar his life–probably the first time the American public were confronted with the deadliness of football.)  The success of the Americans led to the birth of Major League Soccer.  All the gains made by American football and American football culture are directly traceable to the 1994 World Cup.

Ironically by 1994 the American women had already won a World Cup–the 1991 Women’s World Cup in China.  For all the attention paid to the men’s team success in 1994, practically no one knew or cared about the triumph of the women’s team three years earlier.  It would not be until the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when the women’s team won the gold medal that people started to notice.  In 1999, the United States Women’s National Team won the World Cup in front of a home crowd of 90,000, and, for a brief shining moment, Americans cared about women’s soccer.  This has yet to be repeated despite a track record that the U.S. men could only dream of.

III. Becoming a Brazilian Nut

One of the great joys of football fandom is rooting against the teams you hate.  It is a wonderful sensation of schadenfreude; all the more so at the national level–when a national team loses, an entire population is devastated.  There are so many good reason to hate a national team, not all of them necessarily football related.  For example, I detest the English media and take great joy in seeing England lose.  I cannot root for any team from a nation under totalitarian control.  Conversely, I root against the Italians for purely football reasons. The Italian team is made up of cheaters and divers; their World Cup victory in 2006 was like torture for me.  However, when they bombed at this year’s World Cup, I could not stop smiling for three days.

Sometimes tastes change.  I hated Brazil in 1994 for eliminating the United States (who played far above their talent level in that match) and I rooted against Brazil for the rest of the tournament.  Still bitter in 1998, I was glad when France crushed Brazil in that year’s final.  I rooted against Brazil all throughout the 2002 World Cup qualifications when the Brazilians almost missed out on qualifying.  I rooted against Brazil all tournament.  In the final match, however, Germany had become the focus of my ire for eliminating the United States in the quarterfinals, an unfair result given the way the Americans played (and I also rooted against Germany because I am Jewish–an irrational hatred that I no longer feel.)  For the first time I cheered for Brazil.

Following the 2002 tournament I was momentarily hooked, and I tried to learn as much as possible about the sport.  That was when I learned about club football, the Premier League, the rivalry between Pele and Maradona, and Spain’s woeful record in international competition.2002 was also when I first heard about Jogo Bonito, futebol arte, and the legend of Brazil.  Ironically by 2002, Jogo Bonito had long since passed; the Brazilian game focused on strength and speed than creativity and beauty.  The rest of the world say this in 1990 but thanks to Nike marketing, I would not learn for another five years or so.  I warmed to Brazil because of  Jogo Bonito.

My interest eventually waned.  I drifted away from football because (1) I could not understand what I was reading (no Football for Dummies), and I knew no one who could explain it to me; (2) the European game was interesting but the American game was far slower and sloppier.  I knew of no channel that showed the European game; and (3) Philadelphia did not yet have a team, and the only American teams I cheer for are Philadelphia teams.

In 2006 I caught the World Cup fever again.  Thanks to his status as the world’s greatest player, I focused on Ronaldinho.  I could easily find highlights on the Internet, and I watched as much of Ronaldinho as I could.  I was hooked; through Ronaldinho I found FC Barcelona, his club at the time, and the best club in Europe.  Because I had lost touch with football in 2002, I had thought that Barcelona was just the second best team in Spain after the Real Madrid juggernaut.  In 2006, I learned about Barça’s success and its history (the Barça good/Real Madrid evil version; it would be a few more years before I learned the more rounded picture.)  Although I no longer have illusions about Barça as the team of the angels, it is still my team and always will be.  Years after Ronaldinho squandered his talent and left for Milan, I still root only for Barcelona.

I cannot profess the same devotion for Brazil.  For four years they were my second team behind the United States.  The more I watched Brazil though, the more my feelings changed.  In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Brazil were very successful but not spectacular.  Individual players could do amazing things, but as a whole the team was more respectable than lovable.  I was especially annoyed at Robinho; his blatant diving was aggravating and his juvenile antics at his club were disgusting.  Moreover, I can never love any team that has Kaka; his holier-than-thou evangelizing grates every one of my nerves.

I cannot stay mad at Brazil forever.  I feel a connection to that country, despite never having been there.  The people are beautiful, the movies are enjoyable, the music is spectacular, and the language is sensual. I also have distant relatives in Brazil, and I would like to meet them one day.  Following the 2010 failure, Brazil are starting to play creatively again, which is very nice to see.  Given that the next World Cup is in Brazil, the squad will face more enormous pressure in 2014.  The last time the World Cup was held in Brazil (1950) the national team lost in the (de facto) final.  The nation mourned as if struck by an actual disaster.  The 2014 Brazil national team will need all the support it can get.

IV.  The Thrills and Dangers of Flair

I am a Barcelona fan and a United States National Team fan.  Beyond that I root for teams that play beautiful football.  It is a loyalty to the game than to any particular one team.  “Beautiful” football means a clean, high scoring game, intricate passing and dribbling, and goals that belong on a highlight reel.  Brazil played like that from 1958-1970 and again in 1982.  Despite not playing that way anymore, Brazil are still considered the foremost example of that style.  Conversely, a team that is associated with a defensive style of play can also never shake it.  Italy is most famous for using an ultra-defensive style called Catenaccio, which literally means door bolt and is designed for the lifeless 1-0 win.  Although true Catenaccio died by the early 1970’s, it is forever associated with the Italians (although it was originated by the Swiss and brought to Italy by an Argentine.)  The Italians national team today does not help its cause.  Every tournament, the Italians employ an overly defensive style, but with so much diving, fouling, and play acting that they are more spaghetti western villains or a bel canto divas than footballers.

Since 2008, that team that played the most interesting and beautiful football has been Spain.  I was ecstatic to see Spain finally win the World Cup in 2010 and end decades of national frustration.  The Spanish win was more than a joy; it was a relief.  Football fans, particularly those who follow the international game, know that the best team does not always win the World Cup.  In fact, there is a running list of magnificent losers.  This list is topped by the three most famous sides not to have won–Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974, and Brazil 1982.

The 1954 Hungarian team conquered all who played them.  Most famously, they humiliated the English 7-1 at Wembly, the first non-British side to beat the English on home soil (and then beat them again 6-3 in Hungary.)  En route to the World Cup final Hungary became the first team to beat reigning champion Uruguay at the World Cup.  A Magyar victory seemed inevitable, but they lost to West Germany (a team they decimated earlier in the tournament) in the final round.  So unlikely was the German victory that it is referred to as “The Miracle of Berne”.

The Dutch team of 1974 was similarly legendary and even more beloved.  Led by the great Johan Cruyff, the team introduced “Total Football” to the world, a style that involved players taking over their teammates positions at any time so that formations were constantly in flux.  Like Hungary, the Dutch–in a fit of hubris–lost to West Germany in the final round.  Although the Dutch stopped playing Total Football decades ago, the style is so associated with the Oranje that most (lazy) writers call any attacking Dutch play Total Football.  The 2010 Dutch team disappointed the world by choosing a thuggish defensive football over a free-flowng attack.  To fans of the Dutch teams of the 1970’s, the 2010 squad betrayed their heritage.

The 1982 Brazilians were the quintessential practitioners of  Jogo Bonito/futebol arte.  Even their names were cool: Zico, Falcao, Socrates.  They played free-flowing attacking football with lots of crowd-pleasing tricks.  To say they had flair is an understatement.  As they swept through the early rounds, their victory seemed a foregone conclusion, but mid-tournament they lost to Italy in one of the great World Cup matches.  Sadly, this was the match that destroyed Jogo Bonito.  No Brazil team since the 1982 squad had as much panache and élan, and most likely none ever will again.

Given this history, I was terrified for months that Spain 2010 would be added to the list of beloved losers.  All the signs pointed to a loss.  First, Spain always failed at the World Cup.  Reasons given for this were as poetic as a Quixotic national ethos and as prosaic as the players could not get along with each other (the ethnic and regional rivalries in the Spanish dressing room mirror those that fracture Spain.)  The 2008 European Championship win, which was nothing short of magnificent, was hoped to be a turning point, but by the World Cup, most people (including in Spain) thought a solid Brazil would beat a stylish Spain.

Second, Spain played by using a specific style called tiki-taka.  Tiki-taka is a nonsense phrase that describes a style in which teammates exchange the ball to one another via rapid short passes, thereby dominating possession and creating a quick tempo.  It is a game of patience as well as speed, as the offensive constantly probes for weaknesses in the opposition defense.  Tiki-taka is also Barcelona’s style, no surprise given that so many of the Spanish first team played for Barcelona or trained at the Barcelona youth academy.  The problem is that a distinct attacking style does not necessarily usually translate into victory at the international level.  Teams with an attacking style garnered but generally few titles.  Argentina’s early sides had La Nuestra, Hungary had its domineering style, Austria’s Wunderteam of the early 1930’s pioneered in attacking play in Europe but came in fourth in the 1934 World Cup, the Netherlands had Total Football, Brazil 1982 had Jogo Bonito.  The exception to this rule was Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970, but those Brazil teams had Pele,  Garrincha, or both.

Why do attacking styles fail at the World Cup?  If I had to guess I would say there are two reasons: (1) Attacking requires a stronger team both in terms of players and overall ability to work together.  International teams are made up of players drawn from multiple clubs (sometimes worldwide) who play together only a few times a year.  International teams are not as good as clubs because players do not have the same time together.  (2) Styles change in football as opposing teams uncover exploitable weaknesses.  Styles start at the club level, and by the time a World Cup arrives coaches know how to structure defenses against these attacking styles.  International tournaments, by virtue of being so short, do not allow for tinkering, especially with an attacking game.

Third, defense usually wins the World Cup.  When Spain lost to Switzerland in the first match, it looked like the World  Cup was about to claim another victim of style.  Every team that Spain faced, with the exception of Chile and possibly Germany, chose to concentrate on defense and counterattack.  All of Spain’s matches were low scoring for that reason.  The commentators missed an important part about Spain’s game–although Spain played an attacking style, tiki-taka in inherently defensive.  True, Spain were constantly on the attack, but there is no counterattack if Spain keeps possession.  Opponents could only defend, not score themselves.   Holland came closest to disrupting Spain’s style in the final by forgetting the ball and attacking Spanish players.  It was awful to watch.

Ironically, Spain’s style owes its existence to Holland.  Barcelona plays tiki-taka.  Barcelona is managed by Pep Guardiola, who, in his Barcelona days, played for and was mentored by Johan Cruyff, the prophet of Total Football.  Cruyff’s arrival at Barcelona as coach (he played there too) was the beginning of Barcelona’s Renaissance as a stylish team.  Before Guardiola, the Dutchman Frank Rijkaard managed Barcelona.  Rijkaard’s first played football at Ajax Amsterdam, the ground zero of Total Football.  When Cruyff played at Ajax in the early 1970’s, he led them the club to three straight European Cup victories.   In his final seasons at Ajax, Rijkaard too was managed by Cruyff.

Spain’s dominance is ending.  They have had a tremendous run, and will go down as one of the great international sides.  Bad losses to Argentina and Portugal show that Spain’s run may have ended.  Although tiki-taka may no longer win tournaments, the resurgence of the stylish attacking game as spearheaded by Spain is showing itself in the most unlikely of places.  At the 2010 World Cup, Germany played an elegant attacking game.  Over seven matches Germany were a joy to watch.  Should they continue to play like this, I will gladly root for them at Euro 2012.

That any non-German could love Germany is surprising.  That Germany play a beautiful style is downright shocking. Germany is the quintessential solid team, respected for their mechanical work ethic and domineering style, but never loved. Germany are also the most consistent performer in the world game.  Germany/West Germany won three World Cups and three European Championship, which is impressive enough.  At the World Cup, no team–not even Brazil–has Germany’s consistency.  In seventeen appearances, Germany won three times, came in second place four times, and made the semifinals five other times.  The last time Germany did not make the quarterfinals was 1978.  The only time Germany lost in the first round was 1938.

Germany’s beautiful game reminds the football world of how fluid national styles become in an age of globalization.

V. Don’t Cry for Argentina

Of all the national sides, I am most ambivalent about Argentina.  Since 2006 when the team shamefully started a fight with the Germany after being eliminated by them, I have rooted against Argentina.  That particular loss was difficult for Argentina.  In the group stages they played like the were destined to win while their rival Brazil (who, as we were told over and over was full of the best players in the world) played without passion.  Argentina outplayed Germany, the home team, for 120 minutes but could not break down the German defense.  Poor coaching decisions took their toll, and Germany won on penalty kicks in front of an ecstatic home crowd.  Some Argentine players started a brawl, which humiliated both teams. Argentina’s coach, José Peckerman resigned as a result.  Right then and there I decided I could never be an Argentina fan.

The truth is though I cannot completely hate Argentina the way I can Italy.  I rooted against the Albiceleste with satisfaction when it looked like they could miss the World Cup.  I especially wanted them to lose once Maradona came in as the national coach.  When they were eliminated 4-0 by Germany (again), I practically danced for joy.  On the other hand, I have difficulty rooting against a team from a nation that is so so progressive on LGBT rights.  Moreover, as a Barcelona fan, I cannot in good conscience root against Lionel Messi.  In 2010 my distaste for Maradona won out–El Diego makes himself so easy to hate–but now that he is gone, and Messi is still there, the balance is starting to shift.

Argentina has been a powerhouse in world football for decades.  They were runners up to reigning champions Uruguay at the 1928 Olympics and lost again to Uruguay in final of the first World Cup in 1930.  The Italian side that won the 1934 World Cup played Argentinian expatriates (who played in for Argentina in 1930) whose ancestors had left Italy for Argentina.  Argentina and Uruguay pioneered the South American style that enchanted Western European audiences–an attacking style that showed off passing, dribbling, quick reflexes, creative thinking, and dazzling individual talent.  Argentina’s stylish attacking play (called La Nuestra) found its apogee in the legendary River Plate side of the early 1940’s, La Máquina (a side perhaps more mythical than anything else–the five forwards who made up La Máquina only played together about 18 times.)

On the heels of La Máquina, River Plate produced Alfredo Di Stéfano, another candidate for greatest player of all time (my pick) and the icon of Real Madrid.  Di Stéfano briefly dominated in Argentina before a football strike led him and fellow players to leave for Colombia where they essentially built Colombian football.  Barcelona tried to sign Di Stéfano in 1953, but due to very controversial circumstances Di Stéfano ended up at arch-rival Real Madrid.  It was there that Di Stéfano reached his apex.  Already dominant in La Liga, Di Stéfano and Real Madrid essentially built the pan-European game by winning the first five European Cups (the forerunner of the UEFA Champions League.)  Two things keep Di Stéfano out of the Pele/Maradona debate: (1) a poor international record; and (2) lack of television exposure.  Both of these strikes against Di Stéfano boil down to bad timing.  Television coverage as we know it did not come about until after Di Stéfano retired (the 1970 World Cup was the first time that tournament was broadcast in color.)  Di Stéfano was a just plain unfortunate in international play.  There were no World Cups held in the 1940’s.  Argentina did not enter the 1950 World Cup, FIFA declared Di Stéfano ineligible for the 1954 World Cup.  By 1958 Di Stéfano played for Spain but Spain failed to qualify for the World Cup.  Di Stéfano led Spain to qualification in 1962 World Cup, but an injury kept him out of the tournament.  Di Stéfano retired from international football shortly thereafter.

Following the 1940’s Argentina, while successful in South America, underperformed at the World Cup or did not appear at all.  To add insult to injury, neighboring Brazil surpassed Argentina.  Part of this was Argentina’s own fault; while Uruguay fielded black players as early 1924 and Brazil also integrated early, Argentina maintained teams as white as any found in Western Europe.  (Race is a touchy but important subject in world football that requires far more room than I can give it in this post.  Suffice to say that just because Brazil and Uruguay integrated early does not mean that racism vanished there.  Nor is racism simply black and white.  Argentina has a long and unfortunate history of prejudice toward mestizos and immigrants from neighboring Latin American countries.  In 2006, the Argentina was led by a proudly Jewish coach in Peckerman, and fielded a Jewish left wingback named Juan Pablo Sorín who was deeply ashamed of being Jewish.)

As Argentina continued to fail on the world stage, the pleasing but now ineffective La Nuestra associated with River Plate was replaced by the more brutal style (called anti-football) most associated with South American villains Estudiantes de la Plata, who won the Copa Libertadores in 1968, 1969, and 1970.  At the 1966 World Cup, Argentina and England’s match produced enough bad blood in both nations to fuel a bitter rivalry that continues to this day—although that dislike intensified into hatred after the Falklands/Malvinas War.

In 1978, Argentina hosted the World Cup for the first time.  At the time Argentina was ruled by a military junta.  It goes without saying that totalitarian regimes do not protect human rights.  FIFA has an appalling human rights track record (that is why their campaign against racism, no matter how noble, also rings hollow), but even by FIFA standards, allowing the World Cup to proceed in Argentina was a horrific decision–a move that equalled allowing Mussolini’s Italy to host the 1934 tournament.  Under dubious circumstances, Argentina won the tournament over a Cruyff-less Netherlands.  The victory is suspect thanks to possible junta involvement and Argentinian gamesmanship, but the 1978 Argentina squad is fondly remember thanks to great players and a lovely attacking style instilled by football philosopher/leftist coach César Luis Menotti.  Although not a return to La Nuestra, Menotti understood the spirit of the old style.

Menotti omitted a teenage Maradona from his squad, and that ate at future star for years to come.  In 1982, Menotti gave Maradona his chance, but to no avail as first Maradona met his match in Italy’s Claudio Gentile and then Brazil’s team tore apart their traditional rivals.

By 1986 Argentina’s junta had ended, Menotti was gone (replaced by Carlos Bilardo, former Estudiantes villain and right-wing doctor), and the national side was, by all accounts, mediocre.  Maradona, the one superstar of the team, almost singlehandedly willed Argentina to a World Cup triumph.  In the match against England he scored both the famous “Goal of the Century” and the infamous “Hand of God” goal.  The 1986 tournament secured Maradona’s legacy as both a god and a demon depending on which nation you lived in.  What Maradona achieved with Argentina he repeated on a lesser scale with his new Italian club Napoli leading them to two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup title.

From this the Maradona/Pele debate was born.  Pele won three World Cups (except that he was injured and barely played in most of the 1962 Cup—Garrincha carried Brazil to victory), but he was the superstar of great teams.  Maradona won one World Cup, but he won it in spite of his team not because of it.  Maradona played (and won) for clubs in Europe while Pele only played in Brazil (discounting his NASL years which were a glorified retirement.)  However, when Pele played in Brazil Brazilians rarely went abroad so the competition was fiercer (although a national league did not exist.)  Pele won two Copa Libertadores with his club Santos while Maradona’s only international club victory was in Europe’s second tier tournament.  Just as Pele benefitted from television coverage that his predecessors did not have, Maradona benefitted from more comprehensive coverage that Pele did not have during his best years.  The arguments go round and round with no answer.  The debate is tiresome and fraught with nationalism.  (The greatest ever debate also generally overlooks defenders, a thankless job in football.)

What is not debatable is that Pele controlled his image far better than Maradona.  While Maradona’s teammates loved him, Pele’s merely respected him as a player.  Nevertheless, whatever Pele’s personal failings, he has largely smothered them through the image of himself that he puts out: smiling Brazilian ambassador of football, specifically futebol arte.  Maradona has no such self-restraint.  He is a creature of contradictions driven by pure id.  He was a superstar who could not play with other great players yet is beloved by his teammate.  He is an avowed leftist who talks about oppression, yet he pals around with dictators and tyrants.  He wants what is best for the Argentina national team yet would not step aside gracefully long after it was clear that he was not that solution–part of the problem in fact.  Maradona’s personality is a very difficult to tolerate, but to Argentinians he is a deity.  There is actually a church of Maradona in Argentina.  Both Pele and Maradona show that the kind of person you are can be overlooked if you played a great game of football.

VI. A Messi Sport

For years top Argentinian players fell under the weight of the title “The Next Maradona.”  In that context it is no surprise that Argentina has not won a senor title since 1993 despite the steady stream of talented youth.  It virtually certain now that Maradona’s true successor has emerged in Lionel Messi.

Messi was born in Rosario.  At the age of 11 he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, and his family could not afford treatments.  FC Barcelona, aware of his talent, brought Messi and his family to Spain, and the club paid for his medical treatment.  Messi trained at La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy which also produced legends such as Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas (among others).  Messi synthesized his South American creativity with the European structure he learned  at La Masia to become the best player in the world and the sharpest sword in the attack that won Barcelona its historic Sextuple.  Every match he plays adds to his legend.

What Messi is not, at least not yet, is a leader.  At 23 this is understandable.  The only club he knows is Barcelona which has formed a structure he fits well into.  Messi can create chances and goals out of nothing, but he needs the support of a dominant midfield and the constant rhythm of tiki-taka.  Take these factors out, and Messi’s sting is not so potent.  Maradona, as Argentina manager, could not understand that and saw Messi as fulfilling his role.  In 2010, Maradona did not understand that Messi could not do it alone, especially against an organized German counterattack.  Messi had to be everywhere at once, an impossible feat for anyone, but especially one marked as closely as he was.  Germany exploited each one of Argentina’s weaknesses, and the result was utter humiliation.

VII. World Cup 2014 Fever Begins

On November 17, 2010, Lionel Messi beat a senior level Brazil squad for the the first in his career.  Despite Brazil’s technical superiority, Messi worked his magic at the very end the way he has done so many times for Barcelona.  His goal was a thing of beauty, but beautiful goals are normal for Messi.

How did Argentina succeed?  Argentina’s new manager Sergio Batista is trying to mold the team to suit Messi’s needs–something Maradona could never learn.  Although the team will be not be as skilled as Barcelona, it need not be for international play.  All Argentina need to do is give Messi the space and support he requires to work his magic.  Batista, who coached Messi and Argentina to the 2008 Olympic gold medal, understands this, or at least appears to.  Messi will be 27 at the next World Cup.  It will be held in South America where no European team has won before.

If Brazil is not careful, 1950 could repeat itself.

Music I listened to while writing this post: World of Tears “Don’t Look Now”;  Gypsy (Original Broadway Cast) “Baby June and Her Newsboys”; Zoltan Kodaly “Háry János Suite” Entrance of the Emperor and His Court; Roger Cicero “Frauen regier’n die Welt”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Orchestral Suite #4 In D, BWV 1069″  Overture; Fleetwood Mac “Everywhere”; Franz Joseph Haydn “Symphony #85 In B Flat, H 1/85, ‘La Reine'” Adagio-Vivace; Carl Nielsen “Rhapsody Overture: An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands”; Modest Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” Promenade 2; Alessandro Marcello “Concerto for Oboe, Strings & Basso Continuo in D Minor, Op. 1″ Presto; Europe “The Final Countdown”; Ma Rainey “See See Rider Blues”; HMS Pinafore “Farewell, My Own!”; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto #1 In F Sharp Minor, Op. 1″ Vivace; Värttinä “Pihi Neito”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Variatio 24 Canone all’Ottava. À 1 Clav.; The Jacksons “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground); Max Bruch “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op.26″ Adagio; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto #3 In D Minor, Op. 30″ Finale, Alla Breve; Enrique Iglesias “Be With You”; Miriam Makeba “Pata Pata”; Sarah Vaughan “Goodnight My Love”; Arnold Schoenberg “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 42″ Andante;  Giuseppe Verdi “Otello” Già nella notte; Dana International “Diva”; Howlin Wolf “I Ain’t Superstitious”; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov “Sadko, Op. 5″ Ho! My Faithful Company (sung by Vasili Damaev); Johannes Brahms “German Requiem, Op. 45″ Herr, Lehre Doch Mich; Frédéric Chopin “Mazurka #23 In D, Op. 33/2, CT 73″; Mika “Grace Kelly”; Aaron Copland “Appalachian Spring” Subito Allegro; Chicago Broadway Revival Cast “Mister Cellophane” (sung by Joel Grey); John Coltrane/Classic Quartet “One Down, One Up”; John Coltrane/Classic Quartet “Your Lady”; Jennifer Warnes “Right Time of the Night”; Dusty Springfield “In The Winter”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Cello Suite #2 In D Minor, BWV 1008″ Menuetto; Rosa Passos “Duas Contas” Virginia Rodrigus “Uma História de Ifá”; Janis Joplin & Big Brother and the Holding Company “Down on Me': Tanja Solnik “Zing Faygeleh Zing”; Camille Saint-Saëns “Carnival of the Animals” Fossils; Charlie Christian “As Long as I Live”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Concerto No. 3 in G major BWV1048″ Allegro; Ludwig van Beethoven “Piano Sonata #3 In C, Op. 2/3″ Scherzo: Allegro; Nina Simone “To Love Somebody”; Gioachino Rossini “William Tell Overture”; The Four Tops “Left With A Broken Heart”; Gyorgi Ligeti “Sonata for Cello Solo” Dialogo; Three Dog Night “Black and White”; Harry Belafonte “Sylvie”; Enya “One by One”; Ella Fitzgerald “How High the Moon”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Magnificat In D, BWV 243″ Gloria Patri; Ludwig van Beethoven”String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131: Allegro.