Playing below potential

Though Argentina has fared better than Brazil at the continental level, the nation’s yield from the World Cup has not been all that remarkable when compared to its fierce rival, which has won five trophies.

“We always had this feeling that we were the best in the world, a typical Argentinean notion. God is Argentinean, the rest of the people are so envious of us because we are so talented,” Osvaldo Ardiles, the star central midfielder of the 1978 World Cup-winning squad, said once.

Indeed, the greater footballing world is envious of the two prodigious talents Argentina has unleashed so far. While Lionel Messi will have another chance to win the World Cup in Brazil soon, Diego Armando Maradona is firmly established at the pinnacle of the pantheon of football greats. The wizard single-handedly won the 1986 Mundial in Mexico for Argentina and came close to scoring a double in Italia 90, braving all the niggles (gifts from rough-tackling adversaries throughout his career).

Maradona, who started his professional journey with Argentinos Juniors, till date remains the best advertisement for la nuestra (the Argentine style of play) with his quick thinking, fancy dribbling, and a penchant for the dramatic — like the moods and swings in a tango, the favourite dance form of his nation.

However, despite the presence of such geniuses and a plethora of brilliant stars, Argentina’s yield from the World Cup has not been remarkable. The nation has won the cup only twice — in 1978 and 1986.

A major irritant for the football crazy population of Argentina — who have often been taken for a ride by the country’s ruling power, using football as a political tool — is the fact that the geographically close but fiercely hated Brazil dominates the winners’ chart with five trophies.

Argentina, however, has tasted better success at the continental level, winning 14 Copa America titles to Brazil’s eight.

Football made its entry into Argentina through the British settlers, who arrived in the Rio de la Plata basin in the 1860s to work in the various British-owned railroad companies. The Buenos Aires Football Club was founded in 1867 — a decade after the formation of the Sheffield FC in England, the oldest standing football club today.

An amateur League Championship was also up and running by early 1890s, but the game was largely confined to the European settlers. The country’s first international game, on May 16, 1901, saw no natives taking part. Argentina, captained by J. O. Anderson, defeated neighbour Uruguay 3-2 in Montevideo.

But football, which needed only a bola casera (homemade orb) and a potrero (paddock) in the barrio (poor end of the town), soon caught the imagination of the new-arriving urban population — the creole labourers. Argentino de Quilmes was formed in 1899 only to cater to the ethnic population and Racing Club of Buenos Aires’ success in winning the Championship without a player of European origin in its ranks in 1913 ended the incomers’ domination of football.

Most of the major Argentine football clubs of today were formed around this time, and a few of them have benefited from a vast fan base, fostering years of fierce competitions. River Plate, the most successful team in the country with 35 League titles, shares an intense rivalry with fellow Buenos Aires giant Boca Juniors.

Like many more viciously contested derbies, social inequalities are as much a reagent as the proximity here. From humble beginnings in the La Boca neighbourhood, River Plate moved to the highborn suburbs of Nunez, earning the moniker ‘Los Millonarios.’ Boca Juniors, meanwhile, remained in the deprived dock area of the capital city, representing the working class. The tension is palpable during an El Superclasico and street corners across the nation wear a deserted look as fans are firmly entrenched in front of television sets.

The infuriating and charged up atmosphere makes it the grandest of any sporting spectacles and hence, the English newspaper, The Observer, has rightly ranked it No. 1 in the list of “50 sporting events to attend before you die.”


* * * 'Half angel, half devil'

Forward Mario Kempes was instrumental in delivering Argentina its ?rst World Cup in 1978. Playing at home, under the stern and watchful eyes of the ruling military junta, Kempes was the top scorer of the tournament with six goals. Also the Golden Ball (Best Player) winner in the tournament, Kempes had his moment of notoriety when he saved a goal with his hand during a second round group match against Poland that Argentina won 2-0.

Mercifully, he was not sent off and Kempes played in the next game against Brazil. He scored twice in Argentina's 6-0 mauling of Peru.

Kempes' heroics, however, was overshadowed by the brilliance of Diego Maradona (in pic) in 1986. At the World Cup in Mexico, the Argentine playmaker captained his side to an unlikely triumph, notching up ?ve goals and equal number of assists. Described by the French newspaper, L'Equipe, as "half angel, half devil", Maradona masterminded his team's 2-1 victory against England in the quarter?nals, scoring two contrasting goals.

In the ?rst instance, the playmaker used his hand to direct an aerial ball into the goal, which he later called the "Hand of God." His second, subsequently voted the "Goal of the Century", saw him dribble past six English opponents, including goalkeeper Peter Shilton before scoring.

El Diego rated his countryman Gabriel Omar Batistuta highly and said: "For me, he's the best striker I've ever seen." The lanky striker, till date, remains Argentina's all-time top goal-scorer with 56 strikes from 78 games. Winner of two Copa America titles (1991 and 1993), Batigol, as he is fondly called, like Maradona, made his name in Italy, playing for Fiorentina and later AS Roma for many years.