The Voice of a Nation
The commentator Victor Hugo Morales is controversial, but makes football matter
In the same way that a great footballer can be immortalised with a single flash of brilliance, so those who comment on the sport through the mediums of radio or television can be elevated by a few moments. The right words to mark an inspirational goal or a great victory become the soundtrack to history, linking player and commentator in posterity. Is it even possible now to think of Geoff Hurst’s goal in the 1966 World Cup final without Kenneth Wolstenholme’s voice in the background?
In Argentinian football, one man more than any other has earned the right to be described as the voice of the national game. Victor Hugo Morales has commentated on matches for almost five decades since beginning his career as a radio announcer in 1966. But it was one game in 1986 that cemented his place as a giant of the microphone.
Morales was covering Argentina’s bid for a second World Cup triumph in Mexico that year, the first time the nation had entered the competition since the end of military dictatorship and the return of democracy in 1983. Working for national station Radio Mitre, he was in the press cabin when Diego Maradona seized hold of the tournament. One goal would define the No. 10 — and Morales: “It’s coming to Diego, now Maradona has it, two mark him, Maradona steps on the ball, the genius of world football is moving for the right, he leaves them standing and he’ll pass on to Burruchaga… Still Maradona! Genius, genius, genius! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta… Goooooool… Goooooooool… I want to cry! Dear God, long live football! What a goal! Diegoooooo! Maradona! I’m so sorry, it brings tears to your eyes. Maradona, in an unforgettable run, in a move for all time… You barrel-chested cosmic phenomenon… What planet did you come from to leave so many Englishmen in your wake, to turn the country into a clenched fist screaming for Argentina? Argentina 2 England 0, Diego Armando Maradona, thank you God, for football, Maradona, for these tears and this Argentina 2 England 0.”
Argentina, of course, won that quarter-final 2-1 and went on to lift the trophy as Maradona dominated the latter stages of the tournament as no other individual ever has. Morales’s inspired, honest, emotionally raw but impeccably articulate monologue, meanwhile, has, in Argentina, become almost as famous as the goal itself.
Less well-documented, naturally, but equally powerful was the commentator’s reaction to Maradona’s first goal, the infamous ‘Hand of God’ incident. “For me there was a hand, the referee messed up, the linesman messed up… He put it in with the hand, but he celebrates with the soul,” ran Morales’s almost sheepish recognition of the other, dark side of his idol’s genius. The second goal was the crowning point of the then 35-year-old journalist’s career.
Yet the man who would become so closely associated with Argentina’s favourite sport is not even Argentinian. Morales was born in the tiny town of Cardona, across the Río de la Plata in Uruguay. At 19 he began work as a radio presenter in the nearby city of Colonia, before becoming sports director of Montevideo’s Radio Oriental in 1970, while still in his early 20s. It was a post he would fill until 1981, when he made the move to Argentina — a decision, he later revealed, that was motivated by the persecution he felt from the Uruguayan military dictatorship. He even spent 27 days in jail following what he described as “a fight which football produces in its hundreds in heated moments” during a charity match.
Shortly after crossing the Río de la Plata he made the switch to Radio Mitre, forming part of a sporting team that included some of Argentinian journalism’s most venerable names — the current head of the government-run Fútbol Para Todos, Marcelo Araujo, and the FoxSports lead commentator Fernando Niembro, to name two — before moving on to Continental in 1987 as sports director and commentator. His beautifully flowing, cerebral, at times esoteric, at times acerbic, approach to journalism both over the airwaves and in print mark him out as a standard-bearer for quality reporting in an age in which new media and the quest for brevity and dramatic quotes cheapen the profession.
Take, for example, this extract of an article from 2007 criticising the decision to name the local tournament after the communications giants Cablevision rather than a recently deceased colleague: “They have called the championship Cablevision. It could have been [Roberto] Fontanarrosa. But in the end, in a flash of honesty, they have given that name to this miserable creation spawned from the copulation of the devil with a drunken witch. Parents of a crippled, helpless creature, football television and the rest of the decision-makers rise like an army of hulks, who appear from behind the mountain and become ever stronger and more invincible.”
With such forthright views, as well as his ability to branch out from football and comment with equal clarity on current affairs in a way almost unimaginable in the UK, Morales has made more than a few enemies over his career. His current support for President Cristina Kirchner, at a time when commercial media have turned away from the head of state in their droves, actively encouraging opposition, has particularly marked him out as a target.
One of his most vehement critics is Jorge Lanata, the journalist responsible for founding the left-leaning newspaper Pagina/12 in the 1980s, a publication which more than any other promotes human rights and calls for transparency regarding events that happened under the last military dictatorship. The journalist is seen by many on the right as the figurehead of opposition to the Kirchner government, using his Sunday night television show to uncover the supposed failings and misdealings of those in charge. Included among the Cristina supporters, Morales has also found himself in the firing line.
In 2012, Lanata launched an astonishing attack. Brandishing a copy of a book written by the Uruguayan journalists Leonardo Haberkorn and Luciano Álvarez, he described how the book denounces Morales as a collaborator of the military dictatorship in Montevideo, an accusation that carries grave political weight both in Argentina and his home country. Lanata made clear the links between the regime in one nation and the other. “Here the names are not too familiar,” he said. “If you say ‘Florida Battalion’ [the regiment with which Morales is alleged to have been close], it does not ring a bell, but can you imagine Victor Hugo Morales having a kickaround in the Esma [the military academy in Buenos Aires that was used as a torture centre]? ... We are sick and tired of people who invent for themselves a past worthy of Che Guevara which they never had.”
The response of Morales and those who chose to support him was swift and vitriolic. The Uruguayan admitted that he had played football at the Florida Battalion camp and that he had formed a relationship with high-ranking officials such as Juan Carlos Grosso, but flatly denied ever being a supporter of the dictators. Such friendships —forged through countless media football matches — did not stop him from spending almost a month in jail and Morales received the support of human rights organisations such as the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. Another body that spoke out in his favour was the Frente Amplio government headed by the Uruguayan president José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, a former guerrilla who spent 13 years in prison because of his battles with the military. Meanwhile, Morales pointed out the hypocrisy of his new adversary in speaking out against him while working for Hector Magnetto, head of the massive Clarín media group and a man widely suspected of having worked alongside the dictators in exchange for help making his corporation the strongest newspaper, radio and television force in the whole of Argentina.
“It is a mystery,” Morales said in a recent television interview when asked why he was the subject of Lanata’s attack, his voice steeped in irony. “It is still hard for me to confront him because we were pretty pally on the air. Never friends, but acquaintances. I find it hard to think why he has been so tough on me, I think he is projecting. Jorge cannot be earning less than US$300,000 a month and I think it’s too little because what he’s done for Magnetto is worth a million per day.”
Morales emerged bruised but not beaten, having lost a few followers thanks to his stance in favour of the government but with his reputation still firmly intact. In a sense, the fact that a journalist primarily known for his work in sport can inspire such strong feeling speaks volumes for the conscientiousness and integrity of what he does, two qualities that are less than universal in the often shabby world of football writing. The Uruguayan represents a dying breed in the profession: those who are journalists first and foremost and football fans second. How many of the current generation of football writers could comment with as much authority on the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis, say, as they could on Messi’s position inside the current Argentina national team?
Alongside Morales, there is another figure in Latin America who personifies this fusion between the literary, journalistic and sporting worlds, another Uruguayan. Eduardo Galeano, a contemporary of Morales and another who was exiled because of his differences with the military government, leaving in 1973. The crusading author is best known for his book The Open Veins of Latin America, in which he lays bare the effect that centuries of colonialism, foreign intervention and exploitation have had on the South American continent. Galeano is also a rabid football fan and his homage to the game, Football in Sun and Shadow, combines a deference to and respect for the sport with a ready willingness to criticise it, expressed in a style that is both accessible and challenging to the reader: “The history of football is a sad voyage from pleasure to duty. At the same time that the sport became an industry, it began to banish the simple joy that is born from just playing for the sake of it,” Galeano laments in the opening line of the book, which goes on to chart the story of the game from its beginnings in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, through the first World Cups and on to the present day. It is an intellectual critique of how football has lost its way and lost its soul over the decades, imparted with the belief that a new innocence and golden age can still be discovered.
Without a synthesis of these skills —a journalistic background and an ease with language that is not confined to dressing room cliché and jargon — we are left with a coverage that is a shadow of the reflective analysis the likes of Galeano and Morales give us. The paucity of quality writing, the tribalism, transfer rumours and idle chatter are easy fodder for the kind of intellectual that pours scorn on the game, but these figures also leave themselves most open to ridicule. Galeano makes no effort to hide his contempt for whom he dubs “the conservative intellectuals”, who believe that in football “animal instinct imposes itself on human reason, ignorance crushes culture and the vulgar masses get exactly what they want.” It is intellectuals such as Morales and Galeano, who write about the game they love with a passion that transcends the stands and with the awareness to look at the current system and see a rotten core, who hold the key to understanding football’s place in our hearts, more capable of doing so than the legion of weary transfer commenters and cynical detractors combined.
So what does the future hold for Morales who, at 65, shows no sign of reducing his hectic workload? As well as his exhausting duties for Radio Continental, the Uruguayan hosts an investigative television show in which he explores the world of politics and current affairs, most notably hitting the headlines with a recent episode that examined Hugo Chávez’s presidency. He continues to court the contempt of much of Argentina’s commercial media thanks to his reserved support of Cristina Kirchner, from whom in December he received an award saluting his work in human rights. Of the president, Morales has rarely hidden his admiration. “She is on the way to being recognised in history as an important stateswoman,” he commented recently following Kirchner’s meeting with Pope Francis, a figure who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, fiercely criticised initiatives such as gay marriage and proposed changes in the abortion laws. “What she has done with the Pope speaks of a person who rises above the masses. She has reached her highest level ever in this relation constructed so that he is now Francisco and not [Jorge] Bergoglio, who was a player in local politics and now plays on a much higher stage.”
Many may loathe him, but there are few from whom he does not command respect for years of exemplary work in sports journalism. The truth is that, in a profession changing almost day to day thanks to the influence of the internet, the prevalence of social media and the slow death of traditional print publications, every day there is less space for a man who will dispense with the ease of a 140-character tweet and liken the naming of a championship to the bastard child of the devil and a drunken witch. But all is not doom and gloom; all indications suggest that the veteran will continue to bring us the beautiful game for many years to come. And let us not speak too harshly of the internet — thanks to its inexhaustible memory, moments such as Morales’s wonderfully-charged eulogy on Diego are not only preserved for the ages, but can be accessed at the click of a button from Buenos Aires to Bangalore.