They say all men are created equal in the eyes of God. But Lionel Messi seriously makes you doubt that.
Football has touched the lives of millions across the world. It serves as a beacon of hope in communities that lack direction. Embodying abstract emotions of joy, pride, agony, and unity the beautiful game also acts as a way out of difficult and troubling circumstances.
And nowhere is it more evident than in the South American nation of Argentina, which has offered the world a steady line of world-class footballers who have gone on to etch their names in the long illustrious annals of the game.
The cultural practices of the South American nation mirror the continent’s ubiquitous belief in the existence of polar opposites and the concept of equivalent exchange. Elements associated with the country induce a sense of struggle between the divine and the demonic. A physical manifestation of the practical as well as the surreal.
Football made its way to the nation in the early 1800s with the movement of British immigrants who cited huge opportunities in the Latin region post-independence from their Spanish overlords, as they ran the banks, railway lines and agricultural regions of the country. The creation of early football institutions followed as Alexander Hutton’s endeavours ensured that the South American nation would fall irrevocably in love with the beautiful game.
While the Brits introduced Argentine to the sport, it was possibly the Italians who mastered it as they flocked to the Rio de la Plata region post the economic hardships they suffered back in their homeland during the 1870s.
The Italian diaspora integrated seamlessly into the landmass bordered by the Andes, possibly due to the similarities in their language, so much so that over half of the current Argentine population today has Italian ancestry.
The volatile nature of the country spans beyond the indescribable quality of football produced by the jugadores donning the famous blue and white. The historical tussle between rival ideologies that circumscribe the socio-economic and political climate of the region has been headlined by the fluctuations in the governance of various power wielders and the general cognition of the common crowd.
The game has been exploited by many regimes to bend the narrative to their benefit throughout history in countries that could be termed ‘eruptive’ for a lack of a better word, and Argentina was no exception.
Jorge Rafael Videla, the military man who came to power in the year 1976, two years before Argentina were scheduled to host their first World Cup on home soil, by overthrowing Isabel Martinez de Person, wife of former President Juan Peron, wanted to cleanse the image of his nation in the world’s eyes and was prepared to take any measures necessary.
Videla’s atrocities en route to his rise to power and during his reign at the helm caused widespread fear in the hearts of the residents, who lived under constant threat of reprimands inflicted upon anybody who dared to cross the military junta.
Humanitarian crimes on a level hitherto unwitnessed were carried out in broad daylight by Videla’s goons to consolidate their position and eradicate any opposition within the nation-caused commotion.
The totalitarian who escaped three assassination attempts within one year of occupying the highest office in the nation clamped down hard on any antagonism against him or his regime.
Resistance of any kind was dealt with severely as thousands were kidnapped, tortured, murdered and thrown into the Rio de la Plata from aircrafts- all this while the biggest sporting spectacle on earth was underway right around the corner.
1976: Videla’s Dirty World Cup
By the mid-1970s, football-mad Argentina had to endure their fiercest rivals, closest to home mind you, Uruguay and Brazil, boast multiple World Cup victories while Argentina had nothing to show for their previous appearances in the world’s grandest tournament.
Videla had witnessed the use of global sporting events as a propaganda vehicle by strongmen that came before him, such as the use of the 1930, 1934 World Cup by Italian fascist Mussolini and the blatant abuse of the sanctity of the Olympic games in the year 1936 by the Nazi regime.
The tournament was one mired in controversy and unrest right from the offing as the prisoners in the detention camps were conditioned into believing that the world went on without them.
One of Videla’s biggest detention camps was less than a mile away from the venue of the World Cup and it is said that the captives could hear the roar of the crowd from their reformatory.
Videla’s crimes did not restrict themselves to the grown-ups as the teams were battling it out on the pitch to get their hands on the coveted trophy, children on parallel streets were taken away from their families to be placed into foster homes of military households, the very same fate that was thrust upon infants that were born to pregnant mothers held captive in the detention centres.
The format of the tournament was not similar to the ones we know today as the first round had four groups of four, with the top two teams advancing to a second round-robin stage among two groups. The winner of each group went on to face each other in the finals, while the second-placed teams played out a third-place playoff.
Argentina were drawn into a group alongside the likes of Hungary, France and Italy.
Famously, after the narrow opening day victory over Hungary, the team’s striker Leopoldo Luque received a message of threat from the dictator himself, along the line of the possibility of the pool becoming a group of death as far as the forward was concerned.
Years, later, there were reports from a French player at the tournament that the home side was hoofed up on amphetamines during their encounter and had to cool down for a couple of hours after the game.
At the end of round two, Argentina’s qualification to the finals hinged on La Albiceleste getting the better of Peru by at least 4 goals.
Minutes before kick-off, Videla, accompanied by former American senator Henry Kissinger, and flanked by an elite military guard, made his only foray into the dressing room of a team during the tournament as he walked into the Peruvian locker room and spoke of cooperation between the Latin nations before reading out a letter from the then Peruvian head of state.
The result of the game? Argentina ran out winners 6-0 and advanced to the finals.
It later came to light that a deal between the Argentine military and the Peruvian government had agreed on a deal to transfer 13 prisoners from the latter to the former, with the aim of being tortured and coerced into false confession, on the condition that the Peru side let the home team win by a huge margin.
The home team, playing in front of a charged crowd got the better of The Netherlands in the final as they ran out 3-1 winners in overtime thanks to a brace from top scorer Mario Kempes and a Daniel Bertoni strike, overshadowing the solitary Dutch goal by Dick Nanniinga.
Videla had succeeded in his task of bringing Argentine their first world cup, in front of the onlooking Argentine public nevertheless, as the euphoria around the win extended the term of the military dictatorship in the country.
Suspiciously, the face of the Dutch team, Johann Cruyff had not travelled with the Oranje to South America as he decided to sit the tournament out after being subject to multiple death threats, with one instance even going as far as the perpetrators tying up the Dutch maestro and his wife in front of their kids in their apartment in Catalunya as a sign of warning.
1986: Miracle Man’s World Cup
Argentines believe that there are two kinds of players. The creator and the survivor. The creator personifies the uncontainable natural flair and individual brilliance that Latin American football is synonymous with. While the survivor embodies the sheer spirit of a mere mortal to never give up despite catastrophic circumstances. The miraculous confluence of the two traits in an individual results in the Maradona phenomenon.
A social environment that inculcates the principles of an ideological tug-of-war between opposing forces, which is essential to keep the world and the never-ending karmic cycle in motion. And one that professes, any disturbance in the balance between the antithetical elements can result in highly contradictory extremist outcomes.
Perhaps, this is what makes Diego Maradona the greatest exponent of Argentine football.
With the memories of the Falklands still fresh in the minds of the passionate populace of the Latin nation, the unforgettable display by the little genius in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final game against the English, encompasses the crux of South American football and its way of life. The game that would satiate the appetite for vengeance or retribution for the indignations of the 1982 war in the South Atlantic.
The most villainous and the most heroic moments in the long tale of football folklore are separated by mere minutes. ‘La Nuestra’ and ‘Picadilla’. The former representing physical manifestations of the irreproachable romance between a man and a football, and displays of exquisite moments of individual brilliance. While the latter retorts to a sacrifice of the moral high ground to obtain a favourable ultimate result.
“A bit with the head of Maradona and a bit with the hand of God!"
The most notorious goal in the long illustrious history of the game has to be credited to the Argentine. As he broke the one cardinal rule in the game for an outfield player to put the ball into the net using his clenched fist, beyond an unfortunate Peter Shilton. But, that is only part of a historic tale.
What makes Maradona truly great, was the near-immediate second goal that he scored after outclassing over half a dozen English players. A magnificent run in which he left every human hurdle en route to the goal flatfooted. Running riot in the defensive half, burning a hapless English squad for pace, and leaving the unfortunate defenders for dead before guiding the ball beyond the goal line, sending Argentina and the Azteca into a state of delirium.
The miracle man from Lanus scored twice over in the semi-final against Belgium to set up a date with destiny as they went head-to-head against the West German side in the ultimate game of the year.
In Maradona’s own words, Argentina ‘touched the sky’ with their 3-2 victory over the European finalists as the Azteca stood up to celebrate the highest level a player had ever reached on the football field as the master lifted the most prized possession in world football and earned AFA the right to embroider a second star over their insignia.
Much like the wider economy of Latin America, the football ecosystem is also an export-driven one. Around forty per cent of the Latin American economy can be attributed to the export of its talent. The ever-growing demand for quality players in Europe has fed on the abundance of talent available in this region. The European big boys buy the best players in Latin America, thereby essentially reducing the status of the local game which has been further dampened by the incompetence of the local economic and political masters.
Fan violence in Argentina is not something that has cropped up in recent times. It has always been part of the game. But, it went beyond any point of reasoning when the finals of Copa Libertadores, the Latin equivalent of The Champion League, the tournament meant to commemorate the liberation of South America from Spanish authority, was ironically moved to Madrid as a result of the literal chaos and mayhem during the Super Clasico game between the continent’s two most successful clubs.
The ban on away fans, one that kills the ideological dialogue between the rival fans which is the essence of the game, has been imposed in multiple places across the continent, out of necessity. Riots and their aftermath described by damage to cars, shops, houses and blood smeared on the streets. Such instances speak as much about the community in general as much as they speak about the game.
This hostile atmosphere considered ‘Not family friendly’ has to be attributed to the actions of the Barras Bravas in part if not full.
A segment that brings an amazing atmosphere, making the stadium literally shake and beat to the movement of the pack, the Barras Bravas are more than just mere fans. They have become a business empire that is not hesitant about getting its robes dirty by dipping into multiple revenue streams, even when some of them have been illegal. With the members and leaders of these groups being involved in major criminal activities, the overlap between football and organized crime has reached acute levels.
The phenomenon of the Barras Bravas is a truly tantalizing paradox. They have kept the domestic South American game afloat through their passion for local football. Saving the continent from the dangers of complete globalization and commercialization by the enduring strong spectacle they manage to create in the stadiums. But, on the contrary, they have also contributed to the decline of the game in this football-mad region.
By tilting the balance of power in their favour inside the stadiums and their auxiliary facilities such as parking spaces they have made gentrification an impossible task. Apart from flooding the market with counterfeit goods they also, demand a cut of the transfer fee their clubs receive for the transfer of players. But, the prosecution of these vandals and troublemakers has not been possible due to the links and connections they have with the authorities who are more interested in the cutbacks they receive than the refinement and cleansing of the negative factors in the game.
The county that created a whole sub-religion to honour their favourite son, Iglesia Maradoniana, the church of Maradona, in a tribute to the little master who moved even grown men to tears as he stood arms folded, with a tremble in his voice apologising for his human flaws and absolving the ball of any stains, couldn’t completely get behind his heir and compatriot, the magical Lionel Messi, as they felt the Argentine shirt weighed very heavily on the once in a lifetime talent lead the fabled FC Barcelona of Pep Guardiola to accolade after accolade at his prime in the Spanish capital.
To an extent, that thesis did hold true until very recently as Messi failed time and again to lead his nation to international success despite piling on his club trophy collection year after year in the Blaugrana colours, not to mention the personal honours that followed.
Messi holds such a high standing in Catalunya for the marvels he performed wearing the famous red and blue of Barcelona. For all the times the Camp Nou faithful prayed for wonder and Messi answered. But, for a multitude of reasons, it did not translate to the same effect while representing his homeland for an extended period of time.
Even when reality seemed better than the most surreal stories as Messi lined up for La Albiceleste under the auspice and tutelage of Maradona himself, who was the head coach of the national team during the 2010 World Cup. However, things did not go according to plan that year as Argentina crashed out in the quarter-finals against the mighty Germans.
Messi had to endure yet another heartbreak in the Argentine colours in the year 2014, yet again against the well-oiled Joachim Lowe’s Germany, even more agonisingly this time in the final, as Messi watched the grandest trophy in world football pass him by.
But, fortunately for the special player from Rosario, his fate took a turn for the good as he captained La Seleccion to Copa America glory in enemy territory in the year 2021, against the Brazilians.
With Messi in frightening form and the Argentine team and nation rallying around La Pulga in an attempt to script an epilogue befitting the astronomical career of the seven-time Ballon D’Or winner.
While many argue that Messi has already surpassed his predecessor, most Argentine faithful feel that the Messiah needs to bring home the trophy they have been yearning for nearly the past four decades to be considered on par with the flawed genius who took the football crazy souls of this beautiful country to the highest point in their lives and history.
Argentina is my country, my family, and my way of expressing myself. I would trade all of my records for the World Cup trophy.
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