Football: The Passion and Poison


M G Radhakrishnan


COLUMN

View From My Window


Lionel Messi celebrates after defeating Croatia in the Qatar 2022 World Cup football semi-final match | AFP

My niece Ammu, who arrived from Delhi last week, exclaimed she realised the FIFA World Cup was underway only after she reached Kerala. The state’s every nook and cranny, and the media is overflowing with World Cup fever. Never before has Kerala felt so close to the championship because its venue, Qatar, like the rest of the Middle East, has been Malayali's second home for sometime now. The Malayali euphoria over the beautiful game has further soared, with Argentina cruising into the final powered by the great Messi, Kerala’s most loved footballer, according to a recent survey. (Marquez was our favourite writer). Whether the La albiceleste in blue and white wins or loses on Sunday, Messi, the messiah for whom it would be the swansong, has ensured his numero uno slot in world football history. The list of records the 35-year-old, diminutive oriundo has notched up in his career that began at 13 is beyond this column’s allotted space.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges | AP

Like most other neighbours in Latin America, “futbol” is the passion and survival kit for Argentinians to negotiate their lives pockmarked by dictatorships, wars, poverty and exploitation. As Jonathan Wilson says in his excellent book “Angels with Dirty Faces: The footballing history of Argentina” (2017), in a land of thwarted hopes, football is the only sphere in which Argentina fulfilled its early promise. “Angels with dirty faces” (from a 1938 Hollywood crime flick in that name) was what the Argentina captain Federico Vairo proudly called his five compatriots when they became the South American champions to win the Campeonato Sudamericano (as Copa America was known then) in 1957. The famous five - Omar Corbetta, Humberto Maschio, Antonio Angelillo, Omar Sivon, and Osvaldo Cruz- since came to be nicknamed the carasucias (Dirty Angels).

Nothing grips the country more like football, launched by British businessmen in the 19th century but practiced to perfection by its “criollos,” descendants of Spanish and Italian immigrants like Maradona and Messi. The criollos dominated Argentina’s “big five” soccer clubs led by Boca Juniors and River Plate. The latter club, also called “la Máquina '' (The Machine), is named after the estuary, Río de la Plata, that divides Argentina and Uruguay, whose mutual soccer rivalry dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Notwithstanding the rivalry, the two nations share the same football style and legacy-“Rio Platense futbol.” For people of mixed races and nationalities, football provided a unifying identity.

Latin American football revels in individual skills, flamboyance, fluidity, rhythm, and the restless spirit as distinct from the monochromatic, methodical, and calculated continental style. The “Sudamericano” (South American) dribbling style -Gambetta- Messi wonderfully demonstrated most recently in his magical assist for Julian Alvares to score the third goal in the semi-final against Croatia at Lusail is said to remind the running motions of an ostrich. Wilson quotes Eduardo Galeano, the illustrious Uruguayan writer and football specialist who said that Latin American players “love to retain and possess the ball than kick it as if their feet were hands braiding the leather. The ball is strummed as if it was a guitar, the source of magic”.

Their football draws its legacy from the “gaucho,” the skilled, nomadic, and unruly horsemen of the Argentine pampas (grasslands), and also the rhythms of Tango which also originated along the Rio de la Plata as narrated by the famed Argentine sports magazine El Grafico’s editor Borocoto. According to Wilson, Argentine football had been part of the working class radicalism, which the conservatives had moved to suppress and the push for professionalism was another part of labour reforms.

It is fascinating to know how like the rest of Latin Americans, their hardships and inadequacies made Argentinians the world’s best footballers. Most of them grew up in and around the urban working-class slums of suburban Buenos Aires. They are called the “pibe” of the “potrero”-the kids from the rough terrain marked for its narrow alleys and potholes. These kids excelled in dribbling by playing on the pothole-filled potreros! It sounds similar to Kerala’s women athletes from the Christian settler families of the high ranges who picked up speed and grit by running through the rough and hilly terrain and were fuelled by their aspirations to escape their miserable lives. Messi is an even more riveting survival story as his short stature and a crippling growth hormone deficiency during childhood -which his father could ill-afford to treat- were overcome by the boy’s intense passion and incredible talent.

Messi gestures during the Qatar 2022 World Cup football semi-final match | AFP

According to Wilson, football is not just about success or passion for Argentina. “No country so intellectualizes its football and loves its theories and myths. Football in Argentina is overtly cultural and overtly political. Presidents know its power and seek to harness it; the unscrupulous mobilise hooligan groups, the barras bravas, in their support”.

However, football has its share of critics, even in Argentina. Most prominent among them is the country’s celebrated author, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). He once famously said, “Soccer is popular because stupidity is popular ''! Football which is the “beautiful game” to people like Pele, was “aesthetically ugly” to Borges. He called football one of “England’s biggest crimes” and once scheduled his lecture so that it would intentionally conflict with Argentina's first game in the 1978 World Cup, says literary critic Shaj Mathew in The New Republic. But more than the game, Borges’s enmity was towards the mass frenzy it triggers, akin to the blind popular support that propped up dictators. Mathew wrote that Borges saw in his lifetime elements of fascism, Peronism, and even anti-semitism emerge in Argentina, which made him intensely suspect of mass culture, the apogee of which was soccer.

He feared that the frenzy and fan culture surrounding sports generates ideal material like religion for toxic jingoism the dictators drum up to hide their underbelly and create a false sense of identity and nationalism. Even the great Pele, was misused by Brazil’s repressive regime to justify itself. Mathew quotes Dave Zirin (Dance with the Devil); “Even as his government rounded up political dissidents, it also produced a giant poster of Pele straining to head the ball through the goal, accompanied by the slogan - Nothing Can Stop this Country Now”. India too is familiar with cricket’s links with jingoism. Exercises in “sportswashing” by Italy’s fascist ruler Mussolini (World Cup 1934), Germany’s Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (Berlin Olympics, 1936), or Argentina’s military junta leader Jorge Videla (World Cup 1978) are legion.

In his 1967 short story, Borges narrates something that has become so symbolic of present day football, which has become a more lucrative media spectacle than a sport. The story, Essay Est Percipi (Latin for to be is to be perceived), says that the soccer matches about which fans go crazy existed only within a tv studio anchored by a hyperactive sportscaster, never on the ground. A club official says in the story that the last match in Buenos Aires Estadio Monumental stadium was on 24 June 1937! “Soccer inspires a fanaticism so deep that supporters will follow nonexistent games on TV without questioning’ writes Shaj Mathew. A classic instance of the age of mass entertainment when image wins over the real, fiction over fact, or the simulacra -the “copy” of a nonexistent “original”- that reigns, as Baudrillard said.

Well, let that interesting debate go on. But for now, let me get an advance nap to stay through tomorrow’s midnight to watch the alceleste in action and to shout my last hurrah to the Messiah!

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