The dramatic tale of the soul of Argentina

“Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina” by Jonathan Wilson

This is a story about a society that have football running through its veins. It is the history of the founding of a country that was followed by the introduction of its footballing soul not long after. And it is about how the brutal politics, the constantly chaotic economy, and the cultural background of a nation have shaped their footballing style, and in return this style becomes a part of the national identity.

At a first glance, it’s almost impossible to see the glories and despairs of its football matches alongside the country’s hyperinflation rate and series of political turmoils. But this is what happened in Argentina, and Jonathan Wilson did one heck of a good job in illustrating the ups and downs of the national team in each era alongside the context of the country’s environment.

To really get the feel of the soul, Wilson went down to the grassroots by living in Argentina, doing what the locals do, attending the many different football matches, meeting many of the legends himself for a first-person vantage point interviews.

Along the way he discovered that football is also a lucrative dirty business for the so-called “barra bravas”, the violent gangs controlling football in the country. Inflation and neoliberalism also dictate the way business are approached and this in turn spillover to how football management are handled, which partly explains the many exports of players to elsewhere in search for a better future. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the darkness of the history of Argentina, even in football where violence, rape cases, drug abuse, even murder became part of its horrifying past.

It is within this chaos that multiple generations of talents emerge, from a population of just 25 million people. From Alfredo Di Stefano, to Daniel Passarella, Mario Kempes, Maradona, Lionel Messi, and to so much more within their respective generations.

This book tells it all. It is like the history of the Argentinian national team, River Plate, Boca Juniors, Newel Old Boys, Estudiante, Velez Sarsfield, etc, all combined into one big narration. It is also a biography of the legends such as Maradona and Messi, and the many great coaches such as Cesar Luis Menotti, Carlos Bilardo, and the ever eccentric and influential Marcello Bielsa. No wonder it takes a huge effort to write, resulting a big book of 600+ pages, longer than intended by Wilson.

The book also tells the tale of the folk hero Martin Palermo, the tactical problems of deploying both Messi and Tevez, the enigma of how to best use Riquelme, the role that Mascerano mastered, why Saviola never quite made it in Barcelona, and other technical stuffs. It tells the romantic story of a returning heroes like Veron to his old Argentinian club Estudiantes, or what happened with Carlos Roa after Dennis Bergkamp scores THAT goal against him in World Cup 1998.

There are also some quirks every now and then, such as the way Boca Juniors ended up wearing their iconic jersey colour due to losing a bet in a match and had to adopt the colour of the first ship they saw entering the harbour (which happened to be a Swedish vessel), or how River Plate got its name from the name of a container that the local guys supposed to move (but they played football instead).

But the biggest revelation from this book for me is how bizarre and chaotic Maradona was. He breaks rules wherever he went, started mayhems, abused drugs, but then blame his loss or shortcomings on the paranoia conspiracy he had in his mind that everyone is trying to take him down. He always picks a fight with the club he’s in, ends his career at each club with a catastrophic disagreement. Indeed, trainwreck always follows him wherever he goes, but yet he still get chance after chance into good footballing positions as a player and as a manager, and he’s so loved by many and elevated into a status of “God.”

But I guess Maradona is the physical embodiment of the soul of the nation, a character trait that the people can relate to. Yes he’s an utter mess at times but he’s magical and brilliant at other times, just like the politics. He has wild mood swings and paranoia just like the hyperinflation. He came to any new club as a hero and leave like a president who just got toppled by yet another military coup in the country. He’s somebody with a huge potential but often crash and burn at the worst possible timings.

And perhaps that’s Argentina in a nutshell, a wonderful mix of chaos, highs and lows, perfectly reflected in its football. And for a relatively struggling nation, Argentina has an almost incomparably rich history. As Wilson pointed out, as at the time of the writing in 2016, “They’ve won two World Cups and lost in three finals; they’ve won fourteen Copa Américas (six more than Brazil). Their clubs have lifted the Copa Libertadores twenty-four times (seven more than Brazil’s).”

You see, football breathe differently in this part of the world. It is not merely a sports entertainment, but a way of escape, both mentally and, for many, literally a physical ticket to come out of the slumps. Football is a 90 minute distraction from reality. Football is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak living condition. Football is the pride of their nation. Simply put, football is the life and soul of Argentina.