Even though the Argentina national team has reached the final of its last two international tournaments, defeat in both has left the impression that despite being one of the best Argentina sides of all time, Lionel Messi and company are doomed to go down in history as a bunch of nearly men. On the domestic front, the Argentine Primera has long since stopped being one of the world’s favourite leagues. A range of issues are on the agenda right now, from the style of play favoured by the national team to the questionable attitudes and culture in the stands.
I decided to find out exactly what the state of Argentine football is and asked the three people I’d trust most to give me good answers to my questions. They are:
Ilan Rubin, a Buenos Aires local, Racing fan and part of the team behind the successful radio show/podcast ‘Esa Locura Llamada Racing’.
Carla Trovarelli, a Porteña, San Lorenzo diehard and authority on everything from Argentine football, to feminism, to Harry Potter.
Sam Kelly, an English journalist and Hand of Pod host living in Buenos Aires who has been ESPNFC’s South America correspondent since 2008.
I would like to thank them for taking the time to help create this article.
It seems to me that there are two faces of Argentine football: the national side and the domestic game. If one looks at the national side, football in Argentina is in great shape: the current squad isn’t the best ever to don the albiceleste, but they’re an enormously talented set of players – most managers would sell their mothers to have such a unit at their disposal. On the other hand, the domestic game appears to be in terminal decline: economic factors mean that top talent leaves before reaching adulthood, while barra brava power means violence in and around stadia is an endemic problem. The sporting standard seems to get lower every year, while disgraceful incidents such as the Boca-River Libertadores debacle are increasingly unsurprising. Which of these two sides gives a more accurate impression of the current state of Argentine football?
Ilan: They’re two faces of the same coin. The domestic game in Argentina has been in decline for the last decade or two, although I don’t think it is at its all-time low. Looking back at most of the squads Argentine teams had about five years ago, I must say most have improved a lot. Despite not having the economic potential of Brazil, Argentine teams were able to bring back (due to a mixture of money and a preference for a certain club) Fernando Gago, Daniel Osvaldo, Carlos Tevez, Lucho González, Nicolas Lodeiro, Maxi Rodríguez, Gabriel Heinze, Juan Sebastián Verón, Diego Milito, Gabriel Milito and many others, most of whom returned in great shape. Some of them made a difference big enough to win more than one title.
Regarding barras and structural problems, there doesn’t seem to be a solution on the horizon that could put the Argentine league where it belongs, in relation to the quality of the players it has. But then again, the difficulties that a lower class Argentine has to surpass to become a footballer are what makes him succeed when sold to more competitive leagues. With inherent technical quality and great scouts (which there are here), once they’re sold, the players can forget about huge fan pressure, lousy pitches, lousy tactical schemes, not getting paid and so on to focus on actually playing the game, which they do very well. Despite the level in Argentina being much worse than in the European leagues, in many aspects it’s harder for a player to give his best here.
Carla: I think we can’t separate those two aspects – they’re two sides of the same coin. Our domestic teams are in huge economic distress because we have corrupt or useless management, but it’s also very hard to sustain a high standard of football when your players leave as soon as they can because you can’t compete (economically speaking) with most foreign leagues. Our national side gives a perfect impression of what we can produce, of what is born and grown in our clubs, and it also shows how we can’t enjoy them in our own clubs, only in the NT.
The barra brava aspect? What can I say… Maybe it pushes players to leave, but so many of them meet the barras and hang out with them. I don’t think (all of the) players suffer because of them as we spectators do.
Sam: Bloody hell, these are long questions. Anyway; the local side is Argentine football. The national side has much less to do with it – most of the players play abroad, have at least finished off their games and in some cases done most of their development abroad. As my friend and Argentine football history teacher Esteban Bekerman says, Lionel Messi doesn’t mean anything in the history of Argentine football, not because he’s crap or has never done anything for the national team or anything similar, but because he’s never played in the Primera or any of the lower leagues for that matter. It’s not an insult, it’s a way of saying that in most senses of the term ‘Argentine football’, Messi simply isn’t relevant. He is relevant, of course, to the history of Spanish football.
That’s an extreme example but it’s one I’m using to back up the statement that right now, the national team of Argentina and what I (and I think most people with some knowledge of it) think of when I say ‘Argentine football’ are two different, largely separate things. One feeds into the other, obviously, but by and large they don’t overlap all that much, except politically.
Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín and bad luck seemed to take the blame for defeat in the World Cup final, while Messi, Higuaín and Tata Martino were blamed for the loss to Chile. After both games, individuals were blamed for a perceived lack of courage or killer instinct. This despite the fact that in both finals Argentina played as a disparate band of famous names with no shared idea of how to win, while Germany and Chile played like modern teams using coherent systems based on attacking football and teamwork. Lots of the post-Copa América final analysis seemed preoccupied with and confused by the fact that Argentina had lost to a side “with only two world-class players”. Would you agree that the national obsession with individuals has fostered a view of the sport which is increasingly at odds with how to win in this day and age?
Ilan: First of all, I think the two finals were very different. Argentina played better in the World Cup final than in the Copa América final. We had the chances: if Higuaín, Messi or Palacio had scored I have no doubt Argentina would have been champions of the world. I didn’t see Germany as the better side at all. Argentina might have played defensively, but they played like a team. The last final was different: Martino gave up on his style of play and showed fear. We gave a lousy performance, relying on individual efforts which didn’t come, and we deserved the loss we brought home.
Carla: I think the obsession with individuals only comes from having some of the best players in the world. When you have the best player in the world and a few others that could be in the top ten, you do expect something from individuals – you expect them to make a difference. I think people are more likely to talk about teamwork when you have players perceived as good but not extraordinary. I also think it depends who you talk to: journalists are a mess and the NT has way too many “fans” that don’t know anything – they don’t care or watch enough football. I think we lost because we played terribly – most of the players didn’t seem to really be there. But when you play like that, sometimes that “different” player can save you.
Sam: Did Messi take the blame? Not from anyone I talked to. But to the broader question, yes I do think many Argentines have a somewhat outdated way of looking at football, and yes I do think that’s at odds with modern approaches that tend to be successful. But then so do most English people, and Germans, and anyone else from any nationality I’ve spoken to who isn’t an absolutely colossal football nerd. It’s important to remember this, I think. Talking about how ‘most fans’ see things, one can easily forget that ‘most fans’, wherever they’re from, don’t obsess over this stuff anywhere near as much as you and me.
As well as an obsession with individuals, there seems to be an Argentine fixation with ‘huevos’. Is this the case? For some reason, it seems like “leaving everything on the pitch” is considerably more important than actually having talent or making a decisive contribution with the ball. Obviously fans want to believe that the players wearing their colours care as much as they do, but why is running around like a madman, tackling everything that moves and bleeding all over your shirt (Javier Mascherano) that much more desirable than being calmly and supremely magnificent (Lionel Messi)?
Ilan: Both are needed in the same team. I wouldn’t want eleven Mascheranos or eleven Messis (at least not the one that played the Copa América Final) on my team. The thing which pisses off many Argentines, myself included, is that sometimes it’s impossible to play the beautiful game. In that moment when things aren’t working out, because of individual faults or the rival’s merits, that’s when, for me, huevos are compulsory. Hopefully it won’t end up like that but it does more often than not. ‘Cuando se puede jugar se juega y cuando no se puede jugar se METE!’ – for me, that sums it up. (Rough translation: When you can play, play – when you can’t, get stuck in!)
Carla: We’ve talked about this – I don’t consider “huevos” as just running and tackling players, but I know you see it as that! To me, “huevos” means playing your best, not chickening out, not choking. When you talk about Masche or Kannemann, yes, that will probably mean tackling and bleeding, but that’s not what we expect when we ask for huevos from more talented players. When we’re talking about Ángel Correa, “huevos” means that he’s magnificent in a home match against Olimpo, but he also dares to be magnificent in, I don’t know, an away game, a clásico, or a difficult Copa match.
Sam: I think you’ve probably answered your own question there. But also, it’s frustration talking. Anyone who’s ever been emotionally invested in a game has shouted at the telly after a mistake by even a player they normally recognise (rightly or wrongly) can do no wrong, I’m sure of it. I’m pretty sure I even once swore ‘at’ Paul Scholes for a misplaced pass once. And I guess Mascherano does stuff we’d all like to at least think we can do. We couldn’t, obviously, but it seems like he’s just putting in loads of effort and helping the team that way. Whereas everyone knows they will never in a million years be half as good at what they do as Lionel Messi is at what he does. So maybe there’s some envy or even jealousy involved too. But by and large I think you’re just following the wrong Argentines on Twitter and talking to the wrong ones in other walks of life. I unfollow the ones who annoy me; you should too. It’s good for the blood pressure.
As previously mentioned, ‘huevos, garra y corazón’ appear to be of much greater value in Argentina than players’ talent or managers’ attacking intent. In both the World Cup and the Copa América, Argentina have mostly played cagey, defensive football and looked to avoid defeat, consequently using Messi as a trump card on the counter-attack. Anyone can see that a more attacking setup with similarly minded players around him is what suits Messi best, so why do Argentina managers keep shitting their pants and playing not to lose, stifling their best player in the process?
Ilan: I don’t have the answer to why Martino did such a thing in the Copa América final. I know for a fact that [counterattacking] was the idea Sabella had and he almost succeeded with it. Still, I don’t think Argentina have the players in midfield that can do the job done by Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Rakitić to free Messi in that attacking position. For Argentina, Messi has to generate the plays, start everything from behind. For Barcelona, he starts in the final third. It’s not easy at all to reproduce what’s done by his club team with the national team.
Carla: But wasn’t Tata supposedly featuring a more attacking setup? Wasn’t that Pastore’s role in the Copa América: the famous “densela a Messi“? Why didn’t that work in the final? I would never say that the whole Copa América was a bunch of individuals going around trying to do something – they did look like a team with a clear purpose – but that seemed to disappear in the final. And I can’t help but feel that it goes beyond the coach and the style they choose to play.
Sam: Because attacking football is harder to play than defensive or counter-attacking football, and they’ve only got the players together for a very short space of time. It makes sense to try and plug the weaknesses in the squad, and in Argentina’s case that’s the defence. It’s all right playing a more attacking style when you’ve got the kind of continuity Chile have had, or when a lot of your most important players play at one or two clubs together like Germany, but Argentina’s are scattered all over the place and there’s no real idea at the AFA about trying to bring continuity through from one manager to the next, so the gameplans become reactive.
It was also the right thing for Sabella to do fairly self-evidently: it worked a treat during qualifying and there was little reason to think it wouldn’t at the World Cup. But of course once they got there, teams sat back and gave Argentina all the possession in the world, which they weren’t set up for. Add the fact that Higuaín and Agüero weren’t fit at pretty much any point of the tournament to the lack of dynamism from midfield, and you have the reason for them huffing and puffing so much (through what was by almost any reasonable measure a successful campaign, all the same). Of which, more below.
Following on from the above, would you agree that playing Mascherano in midfield is a clear and fatal error? It seems glaringly obvious that if you want to get the best out of Messi, you can’t play a holding midfielder whose skillset is so heavily weighted towards defensive aspects of the game. If Mascherano ran for the Argentine Presidency he’d win in a landslide, but he’s at his best in games in which the opposition dominates possession and all he has to do is defend. Messi’s style of football could barely be more different. At Barcelona, Mascherano was moved to a position that suits his purely defensive instincts, while a more creative and technical anchorman – Sergio Busquets – took over at the base of midfield, to Messi’s obvious benefit. Some have said that Argentina don’t have a Busquets to call on, but surely Messi would be infinitely happier with Lucas Biglia or Éver Banega playing the first pass of each move to his feet than with the tunnel-visioned Mascherano playing safe passes to the full-backs (or, as we saw in the Copa América final, repeatedly booting the ball over everyone’s heads and out of play). Thoughts?
Ilan: I don’t actually see that happening here, despite being once discussed. Mascherano playing as a central midfield is in total control of the team, he’s the engine, the absolute leader, and is standing within reach of the attackers and the defensive line, rather than being out of play each time the team is attacking. Mascherano is not that important a leader at Barça, or may be, but it’s nothing compared to his role in the national team. I do see Masche playing next to a more talented midfielder. There is no Busquets in Argentina: Biglia and Banega are very good, but that’s about it. Gago proved to be a great partner for Messi, but you’re always praying he doesn’t get injured.
Carla: I do think Biglia plays an important role in the NT and I feel like everyone noticed it during the World Cup, but playing only Biglia? I’m fine with him and Masche, I like that balance. And I do think that we can’t expect NT players to produce similar results to players who play together every day, all year long. There’s a reason we don’t consider NT coaches the same as club coaches.
Sam: I thought that you were being harsh on Mascherano before, and to an extent I still do – I think Fernando Gago and Éver Banega are far more of the problem than he is, because playing on defensive midfielder is fine but why play three of the fucking things? (This is where I pick up from the Sabella part of the previous answer to say I expected Martino to provide more of an evolution than he so far has done in Argentina’s game.)
However after the most recent two friendlies, I’ve got to admit I’d move Mascherano to centre-back. Argentina are short of competition there anyway – albeit not without promise coming through, both in Europe and the domestic league – and he’s now played there enough for Barcelona to be familiar with the positioning needed at least. Plus, in the last 15 minutes against Mexico he made more forward passes (and even drove forward from centre back) than I’ve ever seen him make for the national team before. I wouldn’t even bother with Banega, to be honest – I’d have Kranevitter as the No. 5, starting from Argentina’s next match, whenever and wherever he’s fit.
To me, no game sums up Argentine football values better than the 2014 World Cup semi-final against the Netherlands. Most Argentine observers seemed to view their team’s performance as a courageous and inspirational effort, bordering on the superhuman, justly rewarded by shootout victory. I saw it as the most cowardly performance by any non-English national team in recent memory – a direct result of fear, panic and a complete lack of faith in their own ability. Even with injuries to key players, Argentina had the talent to play a much more expansive game and punish a distinctly average Dutch team. Instead, they set out simply to avoid defeat and hope that Lady Luck got them through the shootout. Going all-out defence seems to be the default approach in all big games in Argentina – not just for the national team, but for pretty much every club side too. Why?
Ilan: I can’t agree with that view of the semi-final. I know Sabella played the matches defensively, but at least the eleven men on the pitch went into the game with an idea and a role to play. Sometimes that’s a lot to ask. The team might not have played beautiful football, but they played intelligently and with enormous sacrifice. I think it’s impossible to analyse every case at once – each one is particular. But it’s said that teams are made from back to front, and the best attack is a good defence. If you don’t concede, you have a much greater chance of winning.
Carla: “a direct result of fear, panic and a complete lack of faith in their own ability”. Do you think that comes as a result of what the coach chooses to do or do you think it has to do with the players? After the Chile match I’m more and more convinced that the players’ heads are messing with the game, and once that happens it’s all downhill (unless you have Caruso of course!).
It reminded me of the 2014 Copa Libertadores final: San Lorenzo-Nacional in the Nuevo Gasómetro. [San Lorenzo manager] Patón said they didn’t even train the day before it: the players were so nervous he just made them play around, and it didn’t work – the first 30 minutes of that match where the worst I’d seen from San Lorenzo in the whole tournament. Do you think the Argentina-Netherlands match or the Final vs Germany or the one vs Chile could have been different with a less “defensive” coach? I don’t know.
Sam: For the national team – see answer above about why many national managers set up to counter. For the domestic league – sorry, I’m not having that. A lot of the teams aren’t very good, but they don’t by any means all set up to play all-out defence. And the plurality of ideas is getting better as a promising generation of managers come through.
Returning to an earlier theme: if you agree that the obsession with ‘huevos’ is real, where do you think it comes from? To my mind it’s rooted in the sexism – conscious or otherwise – that permeates almost every aspect of Argentine culture. For whatever reason, having balls is inherently manly and positive, while lacking balls is inherently feminine and negative. Would you agree? Is the country’s prevalent machismo partly responsible for its footballing problems, on and off the pitch?
Ilan: I don’t agree. No-one takes the word ‘huevos’ in the literal sense and much less would say it in demeaning way. There is machismo in Argentine football, of course, but I just don’t think it goes this far. Women in the stadiums sing the songs insulting people’s mothers and asking for huevo. Here is a video of Las Leonas, the women’s hockey team (the second most important national team in the country), with Luciana Aymar in the middle, singing a song they probably invented themselves, asking for HUEVOS from themselves.
Carla: Well, like [respected Argentine sociologist] Pablo Alabarces said, Argentine football is so misogynistic that the “negative” part isn’t even female, it’s just “not being a male”. It’s male vs non-male, macho vs puto, active vs passive (because let’s not forget that the male football fan sings about fucking other men, and it’s okay as long as he’s on top). I’d never thought about huevos as being related to misogyny, but I do think that you can never separate different social aspects so maybe the whole aguante thing feeds itself from machismo. That said, I also think it feeds itself from so many other things (marginalization, drug trafficking and just all kinds of organized crime).
Football is such a fundamental part of Argentine society that it carries in itself everything that doesn’t work in our society. I don’t think there is one issue in Argentine society that isn’t in some way represented or related to football. If barra brava were just violent football fans, it wouldn’t be as hard to get rid of them as it is.
Sam: No. It happens in England as well (not that the UK can’t be a very sexist place as well). I’m sure you can find fans absolutely everywhere who’d express similar sentiments. That being said, it does happen in Argentina, and you should read some of Roberto Fontanarrossa’s short stories.
We’ll finish with a couple of nice, broad questions: if you could change one thing about Argentine football culture, what would it be? And which aspect of Argentine football culture would you choose to preserve at all costs?
Ilan: This is quite easy. I think violence has to be eradicated from Argentine football as soon as possible. But, at all costs, we have to preserve el folklore of Argentine football: that feeling of belonging into a huge family, sharing its values – values that may be different (not better or worse) from those of your rivals. That’s what makes Argentine football so special and what drives everyone back to the stadium every weekend. And, of course, we need away fans in the stadia again.
Carla: Firstly, I’d like us to be able to keep our players for a few more years. Ideally, I’d like them to never leave, but I know that can’t happen. I want away fans back, and the barras out, definitely. And, obviously, I want H*racán [San Lorenzo’s rivals] to disappear.
Secondly, I’d like to preserve our involvement with the clubs. The fact that it’s not something we watch on TV, but something that’s an integral part of our lives. As the Pope said – I can’t believe I’m quoting the Pope! – San Lorenzo is a part of his cultural identity – it’s not “just football”. As corny as it sounds, I want to always know that the fans will have the power to choose and defend the clubs they love.
Sam: I’d get rid of the barra bravas, of course. But that feels stupid to even type, because it’s not a footballing phenomenon and would be entirely impossible to extricate from Argentina history and society. I’m not really sure what the second question means exactly, but the league is by and large pretty unpredictable and the title is normally fought between a healthy number of clubs rather than just two or if we’re lucky three as happens in Europe. So let’s keep that, if I can.