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Beast of Burden

Beast of Burden

Sam Kelly outlines the World Cup pedigree of the Albiceleste and historicises the weight of responsibility on Lionel Messi’s shoulders at this year’s tournament.

June 2018


Few countries have as strong a relationship with the World Cup as Argentina. In truth, few countries have as strong a relationship with international football of any kind. Considering the part football has played in Argentina’s history, and the part that Argentina has played in football’s history, it is little surprise that the World Cup paralyses the country like no other event.

When in 1901 a representative team for Argentina played Albion FC, representing Uruguay, football went truly international for the first time; the fixture was the first international match outside the British Isles. In truth, the story began earlier even than that: in 1891, Argentina held the first domestic championship outside the UK (the current Argentine league system, which started in 1893, is the oldest outside the British Isles apart from the Dutch league). Even further back, the first organised game of football in Argentina took place in 1867, just four years after the codification of the Cambridge University Football Rules. Considering the distances involved, football took root down here incredibly early.

We have already rewound far past the origins of the World Cup but have done so to underline Argentina’s importance to the competition: without those early Argentina v Uruguay match-ups, football would have been that bit less international. Argentina hosted the first Campeonato Sudamericano (today known as the Copa América) in 1916 — it is the oldest international football competition on the planet. And international football might not have hit the same heights so early either; Argentina’s rivalry with Uruguay saw the finals of both the 1928 Olympic Football tournament in Amsterdam and the first World Cup in 1930 contested between the two nations, with Uruguay getting the better of their more populous neighbours on both occasions.

Perhaps it is because of that runners-up spot in 1930 that Argentina has always felt an affinity with the planet’s biggest competition. On the other hand, perhaps continental hegemony also has something to do with it. Argentina have fourteen and Uruguay fifteen Copa América titles (Uruguay took the lead in Argentina in 2011); Brazil have just eight. In South America, the Río de la Plata region rules supreme, and that perhaps means that Brazil’s advantage in terms of world championships hurts all the more.

Forty-eight years would pass between Argentina’s first World Cup final and the day the nation finally got the monkey off its back with Mario Kempes’s scrambled goal against the Netherlands in a ticker tape-laden Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires.

“The impact of the oriundi has been long-lasting, as much for Italy as for Argentina.”

Unlike defending champions Uruguay, Argentina did travel to Italy for the 1934 World Cup. That tournament saw them exit in the first round after a 3-2 loss to Sweden. Perhaps the more lasting trauma, though, came from the nature of the hosts’ win. After Antonin Puč had opened the scoring for Czechoslovakia in the final, it was an Argentine — Raimundo Orsi — who equalised for Italy ten minutes later. Left winger Orsi was one of the first great players for Argentine giants Independiente and had won the 1927 Campeonato Sudamericano with Argentina before transferring to Juventus a year later and switching international allegiance to the land of his ancestors.

Italy would go on to win that final 2-1, and Orsi was far from alone; centre forward Enrique Guaita had also played for his homeland before representing Italy (unusually, he would later return to play for Argentina again, winning the Campeonato Sudamericano in 1937). Even more remarkable was central midfielder Luis Monti, who had turned out for Argentina in the 1930 final: the first player to play in two World Cup finals did so for two different national teams.

The impact of the oriundi (loosely, and from the Italian point of view, ‘foreign-born natives’) has been long-lasting, as much for Italy as for Argentina. Italy defended their title in 1938 without any Argentine-born players in the squad, but when they claimed their fourth World Cup in 2006, Mauro Camoranesi’s presence in the squad meant that another Argentine-born player became a world champion, for a national team which even Camoranesi himself admitted was not the one for which he truly felt very much.

While Monti only had to wait four years, and one tournament, for World Cup redemption after losing in the inaugural final, though, the nation of his birth had to endure a longer stay in purgatory. For three successive tournaments from 1938 to 1954, Argentina did not even deign to participate; politics (and, in 1950, a dispute with the Brazilian federation) led to absence from the tournaments in France, Brazil and Switzerland.

When Argentina did return to the main stage, in Sweden in 1958, their long self-imposed exile from the international stage seemed to have blunted their competitive edge. During the gap between World Cups due to the Second World War, football continued largely unaffected in South America, and Argentina dominated, winning the Campeonato Sudamericano in 1941, ’45, ’46 and ’47; Uruguay’s win in 1942 was the only result preventing them from claiming five titles in a row (something that has never been achieved).

By the time of the 1958 World Cup, Argentina had claimed two more recent titles on their home continent, but a lack of practice against other opponents clearly had not helped; young winger Oreste Omar Corbatta (a true legend of the Argentine game today, but just 22 at the time) was the only player to return from Sweden with any credit as the team finished bottom of Group 1, suffering their worst ever result in a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Czechoslovakia in the final group game. That scoreline would be matched by Bolivia at the altitude of La Paz during 2010 World Cup qualifying, and earlier this year by Spain in a friendly, but it has never been bettered. And — who knows? — it might have been avoided had three of Argentina’s main men from the 1957 Campeonato Sudamericano not moved to Italy and switched allegiance to their new country.

1962 in Chile brought more disappointment for Argentina, who were again eliminated in the group stage thanks largely to a 3-1 defeat to England in Rancagua. There was also a reminder of the oriundi, with two Argentines and two Brazilians in the Italian squad (and one of each – Humberto Maschio and José Altafini – on the pitch) for their adopted nation’s 2-0 defeat to hosts Chile in an astonishingly bad-tempered match that almost instantly became known as the Battle of Santiago, the most violent match in World Cup history.

1966 saw Antonio Rattín’s infamous red card against England during a quarter-final exit, before the team suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify for Mexico 1970 — the only one of Argentina’s World Cup absences that was not through choice. After the frustration of a poor showing in the second group stage in West Germany in 1974, Argentina’s World Cup disquiet mounted.

In forty-four years since reaching the first final only to lose to their neighbours and great rivals, Argentina had watched as Uruguay added a second title, Italy got their own account going with Orsi’s, Guaita’s and Monti’s help, and to add insult to injury, Brazil — the same Brazil who could barely hold a candle to Argentina at South American level — went from the national tragedy of the Maracanazo in 1950 to retaining the Jules Rimet trophy in perpetuity with some of the most stylish football yet seen.

“In 1986 the player the country’s hopes were pinned on, already the world’s best, would put in the sort of performances that could lead one to believe destiny really existed.”

Then in 1978, Argentina would host for the first time.

The country could not bear another frustration, and the military dictatorship which came to power through a coup d’état two years before the tournament wanted to bask in the reflected glow of glory. César Luis Menotti took charge of the team after the 1974 tournament and tore up Vladislao Cap’s squad: only three players — goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol, midfielder René Houseman (who played under Menotti at Huracán) and striker Mario Kempes — survived from the 1974 squad to feature in 1978.

Once again, the spectre of losing players to foreign countries reared its head; by now, Spain too was naturalising Latin American players, and the dictatorship banned players from moving abroad to avoid poaching. Kempes, already playing for Valencia but also already tied to Argentina through previous appearances (FIFA’s rules having tightened somewhat by this point), was the only member of the squad not playing for an Argentine club.

That year’s competition is stained by the dictatorship’s actions, and while it is unclear whether the crucial 6-0  trouncing of Peru in the second group stage really was influenced by underhand dealings (aside from evidence being scanty, Peru hit the woodwork twice with the score at 0-0; hardly the action of a team determined to tank), it is beyond question that the dictatorship tried to influence the competition, and it seems likely that match officials were soft on the hosts, most obviously when giving too much credence to complaints before the final about a plaster cast worn by René van de Kerkhof.

In terms of Argentine attitudes towards the World Cup, what ultimately matters is not so much whether or not the 1978 title really was bought (or taken by brute force), but the perception that it was. Combine that with unease at fascist Italy hosting and winning in 1934, and anger at the perceived injustice of Rattín’s red card in 1966, and you do not have to talk to many Argentines before you meet one who is suspicious of any World Cup won by the host nation.

Idolatry in Buenos Aires

Idolatry in Buenos Aires

It is for this reason that Mexico ‘86 holds the sway over the Argentine footballing consciousness that it does. 1982 did not work out, but by 1986 democracy had returned (for good, as it turned out) to Argentina, and the player the country’s hopes were pinned on, already the world’s best, would put in the sort of performances that could lead one to believe destiny really existed.

That Diego Maradona also decorated the competition with those two goals against bitter enemies England in the quarter-final – both equally memorable, for very different reasons – ended up being just the icing on the cake. And such was his brilliance in that game that even had the opening goal been disallowed as it should have been, it is not hard to argue that Maradona would probably have helped his team into the semi-finals nonetheless.

“As Maradona’s appointed heir, as the first ‘New Maradona’ to cast off the nickname not by proving inadequate for it but by being, if anything, too good for it, Messi is still the focus of a nation’s hope.”

Next came disappointment in the final in Rome four years later, against the same opponents Argentina had beaten in Mexico (West Germany, themselves celebrating positive political developments by this point), and then a steady decline until the first glimpse at a World Cup, in Germany in 2006, of a worthy heir to Maradona.

With Maradona’s triumph had come the second stage of Argentina’s obsession with the World Cup: reclaiming it. And in Argentine football, as in Argentine life, the “great man” model of history is clung to with fervour. This is the struggle Lionel Messi now faces at age 31, for all his talent. Should his career really be judged on a handful of matches every four years, with teammates who sometimes do not seem to be playing the same sport, never mind on the same level?

Surely not. But as Maradona’s appointed heir, as the first “New Maradona” to cast off the nickname not by proving inadequate for it but by being, if anything, too good for it, he is still the focus of a nation’s hope, seen as the only reason Argentina have any right to dream of going one better than the runners-up place they claimed in Brazil four years ago.


Words: Sam Kelly ǀ Imagery: Offside / EiF

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