The Moral Pendulum
Argentina’s eternal vacillation between the poles of fútbol and anti-fútbol
Back in the 80s, there were two big football magazines in Argentina. One of them was, of course, El Gráfico. It was a weekly and had great paper quality, amazing pictures, long articles, player ratings and clever headlines. Many people still claim to have learned to read thanks to El Gráfico.
The second one was Sólo Fútbol. The paper would leave your fingers as if you’d been trying to fix the engine of your car while blurry photos were a mere suggestion of people in action, but Sólo Fútbol had stunning stats, including home and away tables, first- and second-half standings, goalkeeping records, regional and non-league tournaments, reserves, academies... and moral results.
Yes, there was an actual table with the 20 teams of Primera, and the so-called “moral standings”, based on the journalist’s opinion in each match review. So, for example, if San Lorenzo and Ferro Carril Oeste had drawn 1-1, but San Lorenzo had squandered 10 goal chances, including a penalty, perhaps the moral result was 4-1.
Sólo Fútbol didn’t survive one of the many national crises and disappeared. Ironically, the moral table did. In the Argentinian mind, there’s always a moral result and a moral table. And most of the time, Argentina are on top.
But this idea is not based on stereotypes or sociology, it’s only based on football.
Those who grew up in the 80s learned by heart that Argentina had won the 1978 World Cup after suffering, for decades, the disadvantages of lack of organisation, poor training sessions and a superior attitude (the disaster of Sweden in 1958 and the embarrassment of 1974 proved it was so). César Menotti was the father of the new national team, reimagined after the 1974 shame, and, after winning the title at home, he built an even better side in 1982, but Argentina didn’t make it through the second group phase. The country had endured the war against England and it was very hard to stay focused; it was said that there were too many internal problems that conspired against the team’s success.
The obsessive Carlos Bilardo took over and started everything from scratch. He changed tactics, players, style and philosophy. He also changed the captaincy, offering the armband to Diego Maradona, who had been heavily criticised after being sent off in 1982. Nothing was easy. Argentina qualified for Mexico 1986 thanks to a late goal against Peru at home. Bilardo still remembers that his daughter had to change her surname to avoid being bullied at school, and that the front of his house was attacked “at least four times”. He had installed a permanent “for sale” sign on his garage. Before crucial games, that sign was replaced with one reading “sold” — a precaution to avoid further attacks if things didn’t go well.
But they did. Argentina won their second (and most brilliant) title in 1986, thanks to an unforgettable Maradona and a squad built to make him shine.
The remains of that squad, plus some interesting additions (Goycochea, Simón, Caniggia, Troglio) and many not so good (Lorenzo, Monzon, Dezotti, Fabbri, Sensini, Serrizuela) almost did it again in 1990. They lost the opening game against Cameroon, but somehow they recovered, won against the USSR (Maradona’s second Hand of God saved a shot on the line), sent Brazil home in the round of 16 and advanced to the final after two penalty shootouts — against Yugoslavia and the hosts Italy. Germany defeated them 1-0 after a controversial penalty. The Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal was seen as the agent of a large-scale conspiracy. “The day before,” Maradona said, “we were having a shower and [the president of the Argentinian football federation Julio] Grondona appeared in the dressing-room. ‘Tomorrow we’ll have it uphill, Diego,’ he told me. ‘What do you mean we’ll have it uphill?’ I replied. He already knew something.”
Argentina lost the final but they were welcomed home as champions anyway. They had played scrappy football and had a poor disciplinary record (later, they would be accused of offering drugged water to Branco during the game against Brazil) but they’d had an unforgettable mystical power. Thousands of people escorted them to the presidential house, the Casa Rosada. From the main balcony, Bilardo, Maradona and the squad — and the president Carlos Menem — saluted the multitude that was packing Plaza de Mayo. Moral champions.
If Sólo Fútbol had still been appearing regularly in the newsstands, Argentina would by now have more World Cup trophies than Brazil. Moral World Cup trophies, that is.
Italia 90 was the first moral victory. Argentina haven’t reached a semi-final in the last 20 years, but nobody will readily admit that they are underachievers.
After Bilardo resigned, Alfio Basile took over and prompted a massive rethink, which included the best players from the domestic league (Batistuta, Simeone, Latorre, Mohamed, Leo Rodríguez) and an exciting football that had nothing to do with his predecessor’s pragmatism. That’s Argentinian football, a specialist in 180-degree turns. Maradona had been suspended for doping, so the need to start from zero was even more obvious for Basile. In 1991, Argentina won the Copa América in Chile playing brilliant football. Unbeaten for almost three years, they were South American champions again (but not so brilliantly) in 1993. But everything changed in the World Cup qualifiers. They were hammered 5-0 at home by Colombia, the worst home defeat in their history, and Maradona, who was in the stands, had to be convinced to return for a play-off against Australia that conveniently wouldn’t have drugs testing. The embarrassment was left behind in 1993. At USA 1994, with Maradona, Balbo, Caniggia and Batistuta, plus Redondo and Simeone in midfield, Argentina had a terrific team that inspired fear. Batistuta scored with his first two touches as Argentina beat Greece 4-0 and Maradona roared into a camera.
Off the pitch the situation was, to say the least, quirky. Players advertised individual sponsors (for instance the caps they were wearing had different brands) and insisted on speaking exclusively to different TV channels. There were two antagonistic groups (that’s classic Argentinian, too) with the squad divided between the Maradonians and the non-Maradonians. And everything fell to pieces after Diego tested positive after the match against Nigeria. The explanation was that his personal trainer didn’t know enough English and had confused “Ripped Fast” and “Ripped Fuel”. Truth is that even if it was the case, nobody was controlling what Maradona —or anyone else — was eating — or anything else.
The elimination against Romania left two certainties: Argentina didn’t have a reliable right-back (something that 20 years later still hasn’t been resolved) and the squad needed a zero-tolerance policy. Which brings us to Daniel Passarella. The River Plate manager had the perfect profile. He performed unannounced dope tests on his players, he worked well with youngsters, demanded they cut their hair as in military school and banned earrings and excessive jewellery. On the pitch he successfully implemented a high-pressing style that was very ‘European’, as it was explained. While Basile was confident in players de buen pie (‘with good feet’) and didn’t pay much attention to tactics or off-the-pitch discipline, Passarella was the exact opposite. Basile had been the exact opposite of Bilardo, who at the same time had been the exact opposite of Menotti. The chain is never-ending.
The battle between a ‘European approach’ and ‘la nuestra’ (‘our style’) is a battle that has as many chapters as there have been national team managers and World Cups. The tension between how Argentinians play and how they should play are eternal. And after a failure in a World Cup, the measures taken are always extreme and populist.
In 1998, Passarella was accused of acting as though he was more important than the players and his authoritarian ways were questioned by the majority of the people. His treatment of Gabriel Batistuta, making little secret of his dislike of him and barely speaking to him, was difficult for fans to understand. His only strategy of command was submission or banishment. Fernando Redondo had already decided not to be part of such a team. In France in 1998, Argentina’s base in L’Étrat became a bunker. The whole training ground was surrounded by green canvas to protect the squad from prying lenses, the press was banished and the players, furious at rumours that Juan Sebastián Verón had failed a drugs test, refused to speak to reporters. Despite having good players and winning an epic victory against England on penalties, this was the least-loved Argentinian side of the past few decades. The arrogant attitude and anarchy off the pitch cost them on the pitch. Ariel Ortega’s lack of discipline, first diving and then headbutting Edwin Van der Sar, marked the end of the Passarella era, a minute before Dennis Bergkamp’s decisive goal for the Netherlands in the quarter-final.
But there was an exact opposite of Passarella at hand: José Pekerman. He’d captivated Argentina fans with his Under-20 World Cup titles (1995, 1997), his polite manners, his long explanation about his decisions and, most importantly, the style of play he preached. It was a non-European, modern ‘la nuestra’ style, with less pressing, more passing and short and skilful players in attack.
Pekerman not only knew how to win, he also smiled and was never motivated by thoughts of revenge. He was the obvious appointment. Grondona wanted him, but he surprised everybody by saying he didn’t feel ready. He agreed to become sporting director and recommended that Marcelo Bielsa should take over. Grondona didn’t have much choice, but he knew that somebody like Bielsa, unlike Pekerman, wouldn’t be pliable.
The structure was complicated. Pekerman was Bielsa’s superior but he ended up managing the Under-20 national team that won the World Cup (again) in 2001. But the results in the senior World Cup qualifiers were good enough to forget about roles and relationships: Bielsa’s side became a machine, playing his trademark 3-4-3 that couldn’t accommodate the best players in the domestic championship: Hugo Ibarra, Juan Román Riquelme and Javier Saviola. None of them played in roles that fitted Bielsa’s fixed tactical scheme and so they were discarded.
Pressing and running was the main feature of Bielsa’s Argentina, a team based on intensity. And since the 3-4-3 only had space for one centre-forward: for Bielsea, Hernán Crespo and Batistuta couldn’t coexist. That ultimately created a new breach between young and old players: Verón, Crespo and Claudio López on one side, Sensini and Batistuta on the other.
But it was the lack of thought (or an overdose of football theory) that really made Argentina collapse in Korea-Japan. The players were worn out after a long European season, but all of them were forced to train more intensively than in the qualifiers. Bielsa wanted robots, but he could only call up humans. Roberto Ayala famously tore a muscle in a warm-up. Several players couldn’t raise their legs. The strange choice of Pablo Cavallero in goal was another mistake. A failure to qualify for the second round was a tremendous blow for a team that had been hailed as the best in the world going into the tournament.
Convinced that it was only Bielsa who had misinterpreted Argentina’s glorious reality, the fans wanted the man who was making history at club level: Carlos Bianchi. Bianchi was the complete opposite of Bielsa. He was simpler in approach and knew how to motivate the players. He didn’t lock them up for hours to watch video footage, knew how to be part of a conversation, he made jokes and was capable of transforming mediocre players into good ones. And, more importantly, he felt like the footballing father of Riquelme, the kind of player Argentina had missed in Korea-Japan. But for Grondona, Bianchi was even more difficult to handle than Bielsa. He had already left a Boca president speaking on his own in a press conference. Bianchi was dangerous, Grondona concluded. So he came up with the unlikely decision of offering four more years to Bielsa. After winning Olympic gold in 2004 and losing the final of the Copa América on penalties after Brazil had equalised in stoppage time, Bielsa appeared to have changed: his tactics were not so strict, he made room for a classic 8 and a classic 10. But he ran out of energy, as he explained after resigning two years before the 2006 World Cup.
Since Bianchi refused to take over — although Grondona didn’t even make the offer himself, sending an assistant instead — Pekerman was the obvious choice to finish the job he’d started in 1995. Most of the top players available were part of the Pekerman era, having played for his youth sides.
Esteban Cambiasso, Riquelme and Saviola, exactly the type of player Bielsa didn’t want, became the main actors of the new Pekerman team: he was not such a fan of speedy attacks and was more interested in retaining possession with a more cautious approach. A stunning display against Brazil at home was the best way to prove that this was the classic Argentinian way of playing. But a subsequent heavy defeat against Brazil, in the more important environment of the Confederations Cup, left everybody worried. And two factions were born again. The dressing-room was divided. Pekerman was not strict enough. He was too paternalistic.
In Germany in 2006, while there were rumours of players not even wanting to have a sip of maté together, Argentina advanced comfortably with an encouraging 6-0 against Serbia and Montenegro, but lost on penalties against Germany, a game that Pekerman’s side were winning and dominating. With the Germans going forward trying to level, the manager took off Riquelme for Cambiasso, and then left Lionel Messi on the bench, sending on Julio Cruz when he took off Crespo. Something had been broken and nothing would be the same again. The fight after the Germans’ victory, with the unused substitute Leandro Cufre throwing punches and kicks at Per Mertesacker, was further proof that the era of Pekerman, who was irreproachable when it came to discipline, was coming to an end.
Pekerman didn’t even talk to his assistants about it. He resigned in the dressing-room.
The problem was having too many stars and being unable to deal with them, everyone concluded. Pekerman had learned to cope with star players when they were young, but when they grew up, the dressing-room became a venue for their squabbling. Only one man, it was said, could handle so many egos: Alfio Basile.
A rejuvenated Basile had won 5 trophies with Boca Juniors. His personality was too big to put up with youngsters behaving as stars. As a player, Basile had once taken a cab after a game to visit the house of an opposition player who had said something out of place during the game. He believed in resolving matters as directly as possible. Nobody would dare to show a bad attitude in front of Basile. Better still, by choosing Basile the AFA still managed to avoid the uncomfortable appointment of Bianchi.
The Copa América in 2007 reawakened the idea that Argentina had (once again) recovered its football. The team played lovely football, Riquelme and Messi were superb and scored stunning goals. It was like a resurrection of the 1991 Copa América team. Except that they lost 3-0 against Brazil in the final. A day before the game, Basile had been by the pool drinking maté with Maradona’s former agent Guillermo Coppola, while Dunga had been holed up watching videos. That piece of information wouldn’t have mattered if the result was different, but considering the 3-0 result, it was decisive. Rumours that young players didn’t understand Basile’s words and his respect for codes of behavior they saw as being from the previous century, prompted Basile’s resignation after a surprising defeat in Santiago.
Two years before the World Cup, with Argentina in danger of failing to qualify, what was really lacking was a leader in the dressing-room. That was what Maradona had suggested in an interview with El Gráfico. (Basile’s assistant, Jorge Ribolzi, later accused Maradona of convincing players to lose against Chile so he could take over). Grondona decided to gamble on Maradona, with Bilardo as sporting director. Or something like that. Tensions between Maradona and Bilardo didn’t take long to surface. They couldn’t agree on their assistants and they ended up appointing a hybrid, some responding to Maradona and some to Bilardo. For a couple of days, the managers were Bilardo-Maradona, then Maradona-Batista-Brown, then Maradona-Mancuso, with other players from the 1986 team relegated to secondary roles by Maradona.
But nobody seemed to care. The important thing was that only Maradona could instil respect and commitment in players with seven zeros in their bank accounts.
As could have been expected, the two years with Maradona produced conflict after conflict. Loyal to Basile, Riquelme resigned from the national team and refused to say Maradona’s name, calling him instead “the manager”. Maradona forced the team to play home matches away from El Monumental, and made different demands of players based locally and those based in Europe. His decisions were highly controversial and they prompted a lack of confidence from players used to dealing with managers like Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho or Alex Ferguson. His assistant coach, Alejandro Mancuso, had been the person in charge of promoting showbol tournaments at which Maradona and other former players performed in 5-a-side games in different parts of the world.
The knockout punch in the quarter-final of the World Cup in 2010, 4-0 against Germany, was too much to take. When Grondona realised that Maradona wouldn’t resign, he offered to let him continue, but changed the conditions: it was Grondona who would pick his assistants, one by one. Maradona, of course, refused and produced a classic Maradonian reaction: from meeting with the president Néstor Kirchner to crying in public to ranting in a press conference.
The National Team Commission was created to divert attention. A group of club board members would be in charge of analysing proposals from different managers and appointing one. But Sergio Batista, the one who was finally selected, would later admit that he didn’t present any particular ideas. He was chosen for two main reasons: his low profile made him the complete opposite of Maradona and he had made all the stars play good football at the Beijing Olympics, where he oversaw an Argentina side that won gold with a team including Ángel Di Maria, Messi, Sergio Aguero and Riquelme.
Batista was a pacifier. Maradona was a warrior. That was enough to get him the job. More importantly, Riquelme returned to the national team and everything appeared to be perfect. With Batista, the Ezeiza training ground became a sort of lab trying to imitate Barcelona. In press conferences, the Catalan club, winning everything with Guardiola, was mentioned more times than Argentina. The flag of what we want is waving in Spain, Batista insisted. Runners, a symbol of Maradona’s team, were abandoned: there was no room for the likes of Jonás Gutiérrez or Maxi Rodríguez. What Argentina needed was midfielders. Plenty of them. Because Barcelona had Xavi and Iniesta and Busquets. And Guardiola even managed to win using a 3-7-0 tactic. The players who supported Maradona, like Javier Pastore and Carlos Tévez, were excluded.
So long as Messi was happy, in an artificial recreation of Barça, the rest of the assistants were not important. So Humberto Grondona (Grondona’s son) and the rest of the 1986 generation managed to survive with Batista.
But not everything is theory, and Argentinians (and Messi in particular) found out that Barcelona couldn’t be copied. After agreeing to bring back Tevez for the 2011 Copa América at the suggestion of Grondona, Batista was sacked. It was the first sacking since 1974. Grondona, by then 82, admitted that he didn’t like the decision, but he couldn’t face listening to younger people who thought qualification for Brazil in 2014 was at risk.
Maradonostalgia was already stirring: in the end, Maradona wasn’t that bad, Zanetti and Cambiasso didn’t actually deserve a World Cup, all we want is Diego back, ran the thought process. The decision, facing a popular revolt for not picking Bianchi or Maradona, was to appoint Alejandro Sabella.
Sabella was the best possible option to solve Argentina’s problems. He had won with Estudiantes, he had World Cup experience from being Passarella’s second assistant in France in 1998, he had earned the high respect of Verón and almost won the World Club Cup against Guardiola’s Barcelona, who equalised in stoppage time and beat them in extra-time. Sabella was the complete opposite of Batista: he knew about tactics more than anything, but his first idea was that Argentina shouldn’t copy any team, that they had to develop their own style. Players publicly praised Sabella for being open to suggestions and encouraging dialogue. Messi was named captain and he learned to be the Messi Argentinians watched on television: paradoxically, now that Argentina play more like Mourinho’s Real Madrid than Guardiola’s Barcelona, Messi has begun to look the player in a national shirt he is at club level. But Messi is happy, because Sabella accepted his suggestion to play with two more forwards (Higuain and Aguero) plus Di Maria: almost a 4-2-4 that leaves Argentina vulnerable at the back.
Concerned that calling up new names would endanger the harmony of the dressing-room, Sabella decided to bet on the players he knew, including two goalkeepers who have never convinced in Europe and defenders who don’t inspire confidence. Tévez won’t be picked for the sake of the dressing-room’s integrity, apparently. The gamble relies on the four stars in attack. Just like in 1994, including the world’s best player, Argentina has a quartet that no-one else can match: Di Maria, Messi, Aguero and Higuaín. Will it be enough to win the World Cup or at least reach the first semi-finals in 24 years? If not, then Argentina will be quickly looking for Sabella’s exact opposite to keep winning moral trophies.