“They knocked on the door of the humble house,
            The voice of the postman was clearly heard,
            And the kid running with all his despair
            Stepped on the white dog without meaning to:
‘Mum, mum, I will make money
            I will be a Baldonedo, Martino, Boyé.’
The boys of the Argentinian west say
            That I have a better shot than the great Bernabé.
            You will see how nice it is when there on the field
            My goals are applauded. I will be triumphant,
            I will play in the fifth division and later in the first:
            I know there for me awaits consecration.”

“The dream of the pibe”, a tango written in 1943 by Reinaldo Yiso, with music by Juan Puey, illustrates clearly what the figure of the pibe has always meant for Argentinian football and the role he has played in the imagination of fans. This particular tango is well known because it was sung on television by Diego Maradona, changing the words to “I will be a Maradona, a Kempes, an Olguín”, alluding to the Argentina players about to set off for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. But it had celebrity status anyway, capturing the mood of a period that was also represented by the 1948 Leopoldo Torres Ríos film Pelota de Trapo (Ball of Cloth), a classic shot in the typical neo-realist style of the immediate post-War period that sought to portray as accurately as possible life in the barrio, with its gang culture and economic pressures.

Both tango and film deal with the fact that for the lower sections of society football has always been aspirational, one of the few avenues available for economic and social advancement. A key underlying factor in the great passion for football that was passed on from generation to generation was that in that period, in the golden era of the Argentinian domestic game, it represented a spirit of hope and expansion. Economically, too, Argentina was booming, exporting vast quantities of food around the globe as the world recovered from the Second World War.

Playfulness was a theme of life in the mid-forties: football was about enjoyment and spectacle. It was common to hear a team’s forward-line described as “a ballet” while if a team dominated another it was said to have “given it a dance”. While there were few opportunities for a direct comparison with Europe, Argentina dominated the South American Championship, while San Lorenzo beat the Spain national team 6-1 in a friendly in January 1947.

The anthropologist Eduardo Archetti was fascinated by the concept of the “pibe” (kid) and  the “potrero” (vacant lot) as part of the imaginative construction of nationhood in Argentina, stressing that while football had a British origin, it was their own interpretation of the game that allowed Argentinians to make themselves visible to the world — through the Olympic Games, the World Cup, South American Championships and European tours — once the self-definition of Argentina through the pampas had been replaced by a more urban perspective.

In that respect, the development of the criollo style [the definition of ‘criollo’ is far from straightforward: originally it referred to those Argentinians of Spanish descent, but it came to be used more generally of those of European heritage who saw themselves as Argentinian] was self-consciously opposed to the game introduced by the British in the late 19th century, focusing far more on trickery and skill on the ball than on power and aerial ability. The recognition of that aspect of Argentinian identity was powered by El Gráfico. The magazine was founded in 1919 and developed the theory of the criollo football as characteristic of the potreros (the gaps between buildings in the city) where kids, unrestricted by teachers organising them as British players who learned the game at school were, found the English game left little space for improvisation. There arose the “gambeta criollo” — a term coined by Borocotó, the editor of El Gráfico — the dribble that allowed a kid to have the most time possible on the ball to show his ability. It was that that made Argentinian football appealing, that led to the mass export of players to Europe, and so led to the talented kid, in poor families, being the one on whom the hopes of social progression rested.

In his notion of the pibe, Borocotó not only pointed to his youth, but also to his freshness, spontaneity and liberty — values associated with childhood that often get lost in maturity with the assumption of responsibility. Moreover, in 1928, Borocotó proposed raising a statue to the inventor of dribbling, saying it should depict “a pibe with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating ‘yesterday’s bread’. His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use. A strip of material tied to his waist and crossing over his chest like a sash serves as braces. His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate; barefoot or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball. That is important: the ball cannot be any other. A rag ball and preferably bound by an old sock. If this monument is raised one day, there will be many of us who will take off our hat to it, as we do in church.”

It’s not just any child, but a child who has grown up in poverty, with an impudence and an imagination. Borocotó also maintains he must have learned to play in the potreros, exclusively masculine areas where there is absolute liberty: no rules, no institutions, an empty space for those of rebellious spirit to create.

Another great El Gráfico writer of the age, Chantecler, said in 1931 of Fernando “El Marqués” Paternoster, a Racing Club defender who played at the World Cup in 1930, “There is something of the English in his impeccable positioning but the elasticity of his tackles is South American… it is enough to say that he is Argentinian to prove that he did not study theory, or learn through the blackboard… He was from the potrero; his lack of weight indicated his need to settle matters with skill, and an efficient skill that is not separate from but demonstrates the intelligence… he has the cleanness of the conjurer, a quickness comprised of acceleration and instantaneous thought.”

For a variety of reasons, Argentina has lost some of these concepts of the potrero and creativity. Urban change means there is less space to play, while there is a far greater variety of leisure options than there were in the forties and the humiliation of the 1958 World Cup, when Argentina lost 6-1 to Czechoslovakia, led to fa more disciplined and physical style being imported from Europe.

And yet for all that, the pibe has remained not only an icon but also a constant potential saviour for Argentinian fans. There are always those who advocate for the pibe, who argue when others say a creator should take more responsibility that, “He’s only a pibe; leave him alone and let him remain a pibe.” The implication is that he has many years ahead of him, that at some point he will grow up and become an adult but, for now, he should be allowed to enjoy the age of creativity. The romantic urge has only grown stronger as the number of pibes has diminished as more and more kids join football schools run by neighbourhood coaches or former players and so become institutionalised. It has become one of the clichés of Argentinian football for players to say after a game, “I did what the coach asked. I wasn’t brilliant but I did as I was told.”

Archetti maintains that, as a pibe, Diego Maradona is “a kid who will never stop being a kid. When you leave aside the negative aspects, he represents a state of perfection and liberty. To be a pibe is to feel the pressure that comes with family, school and society. It is to be imperfect, those imperfections, in their interpretation, relating to what is expected from a grown-up person. Maradona, a great pibe, is not perfect as a man but is perfect as a player. This perfection is obtained and maintained because he is a pibe.”

Maradona looked like a pibe for many years. It could be said that he really seemed to be a “lucky pibe” when he lifted the World Cup in México in 1986. That image is perhaps the greatest symbol of his triumphs and his world fame. He seemed an innocent kid and so he had not lost his freshness. This paradox, a young man, adult, at the peak of his career still defined as a pibe is significant: an important virtue of the best Argentinian players is to preserve, in the best possible ways, the fresh style of a pibe. Through this image the idea that the football is only a game may be reproduced and maintained only if the liberty is preserved. Football is in that way conceived as a perfect game for children.”

In terms of the style of the pibe, Maradona may be compared with Enrique Omar Sívori, that star of Juventus and Napoli in the fifties and sixties who was a brilliant dribbler but a more disciplined player. There is a less obvious connection with Alfredo Di Stéfano, a more dynamic player, although with an original style of dribbling from his formative years in Argentina, whose physique and fair hair made him look very different to Maradona. At the beginning of Maradona’s career, he was always compared to René Houseman, a gangling, bony right-winger who was a world champion with Argentina in 1978. The potrero is open to all — you don’t need a special physique to play there — but there is a template that keeps repeating: shortness and a body that is not too developed. The key is the ability that overcomes all difficulties.

Archetti stresses that the pibe represents a liminal state. It is transitory, not something that can be achieved through effort or determination. It is a promise, someone who must still grow up, who has not arrived at what he could be; it is potential and a hint at some kind of universal model, as underlined by the tendency to relate pibes to those of the past.

César Luis Menotti, for instance, would always emphasise that there could not be a Maradona if there had not been a Mario Kempes, a Sívori or a René Pontoni (the idol of Pope Francis) because there is a genetic memory in the development of the technique and the transmission of the culture that today, thanks to various social changes, has been transformed by resistance.

Maradona himself always said his idol was Ricardo Bochini, the great Independiente player of the seventies and eighties. It’s said he was behind the decision to select Bochini, then 32, for the 1986 World Cup. When Bochini was brought on late in the semi-final against Belgium for his only ever appearance in a World Cup, Maradona greeted him with the words, “Maestro, we’ve been waiting for you.” The great Colombian Carlos Valderrama, nicknamed El Pibe, always insisted he had modelled himself on Bochini.

The image of the team that won the 1986 World Cup as one that was essentially Maradona plus Carlos Bilardo’s solid 10-man platform encapsulates the friction between the game seen as a diversion and the discipline of the unit. Stories of Juan Román Riquelme, Sergio Agüero or Carlos Tévez playing with friends in their spare time, in potreros or in the poorest area of Buenos Aires, highlights that they continue to be pibes even when professionally mature.

Is Lionel Messi a pibe? He is, and for all the doubts as to whether he really fits the template, he has probably never stopped being one. It’s characteristic of the pibe that he does not need to take instruction and that he imposes his style even in silence, that he so clearly enjoys what he is doing and that from being a small child to a fully-fledged professional, he has never needed any additional motivation to play — even though his football career has been institutional from a very young age. It’s as though no external factor could stifle his creativity.

El pibe
                With the shirt of Barça
                Number 10
                Not Nike nor anything
                20 pesos to a Paraguayan,
                He bought it in Constitución.
                El pibe,
                With the one that says Messi
                carries the ball,
                crosses the square
                of Villa Lugano.
                He lifts his head and shoots at goal,
                Always at the goal”.

(“More Than a Crack”, a tango by Pablo Marchetti with music by Marcelo Mercadante, Barcelona, 2009).

In spite of the institutionalisation of young talent and the loss of so much of what characterised Argentina in the first fifty years of the twentieth century, the imagination lives on. In the stadium, every time there appears a group of new children, with the ability and potential to create a different football to the mediocrity that has abounded in Argentina for years, there will come a shout of support for the pibes, the wish that they will do what they want, not what the coach tells them, that they will enjoy themselves. There is always time for obedience.