The Argentina Conundrum
When we think of football, the first word that springs up in everybody’s mind is Brazil for their brand of flowing beautiful football. They probably even have the largest fan base in the world. This is utterly justifiable as the South Americans have won the coveted World Cup tourney on 5 different occasions, which is more than anybody else in the world, and is a team which has played in all the World Cups held so far right from 1930. I am not a member of that club and I am here to talk about another Latin American neighbor who has a similarly high standard, if not better, of football ingrained in them, yet for some inexplicable reason have won the FIFA World Cup only twice.
I was a six year old when Diego Maradona single-handedly carried Argentina into the path of glory in Mexico City, but I hardly was aware of that till May 1990 when I started getting my hands on these colorful magazines building up to the Italia 1990. Instantly I fell in love with the white and light blue of Argentina and began to idolize this master and ruffian called Maradona. Soon enough my room was getting plastered with these posters of the number 10’s moves and moods. I could feel the metamorphosis that was transpiring and I was a growing into a football fanatic with an irrepressible fervor for Argentina. But things have not been especially memorable and my journey from 1990 till the last world cup in 2010 has been anything but a joyride.
1990: Not an Italian Job
The opening match of the 1990 world cup was between the defending champions and this flamboyant African team from Cameroon. Maradona was never looking like the player I had read about, and was pushed and shoved whenever he got a touch on the ball. Then came the moment when Cameroon took the lead and my first ever game supporting the Albiceleste ended up in tears and tatters. But as the tournament progressed Argentina performed a little better and then came the all important dream match between the two Latin American giants. Brazil was definitely the favorite and I very well remember that I and my uncle were engrossed in every moment of the game in spite of the grains and the disturbances that kept appearing intermittently on our old Solidaire black & white television. The match was heading towards a draw with Brazil dominating possession, and then we were witness to this magical moment when Maradona made a sublime pass after being rushed in by 3 defenders and Clauddio Cannigia did the rest to see the ball at the back of the net. Even for a 10 year old I shouted so boisterously that it brought all my relatives from the terrace down to the drawing room.
They progressed further but the semifinal was a drab match which Argentina won on penalties and Maradona scored the only goal of the world cup. Most of the matches were telecast so late in the night in India and for some vague reason that I do not recollect, I retired to bed without watching the final which was a repeat of the 1986 final. The next morning I woke up to open the last page of the ‘The Hindu’ newspaper to find that Argentina was handed out a defeat by an Andres Brehme penalty and I had gone on to curse the referee for the next one month forward. The tragedy of that day had a huge bearing and I developed a particular mannerism which still is glued on to me like a leech looking for blood. Ever since that day somehow I always view the last page of any newspaper or magazine first. Time and Gabriela Sabatini were the healers after she avenged the world cup defeat by beating the German Steffi Graf at the US open final about a month later. Though Argentina made it to the final and lost by a meager margin, I still believe this was the worst ever Albiceleste team to book a place in Quadrennial tourney and they just didn’t deserve to win.
1994: The American Dream and the Argentine Drug
4 years passed on and I was now a 14 year old with a semblance of a moustache and the world cup fever was just beginning to heighten in intensity. This time it was the turn of the United States to host the world cup. Maradona was still in the squad, but the expectations were heaping around this brilliant striker called Gabriel Batistuta, who had a penchant for scoring goals at the highest stage. This time the world cup was telecast very early in the morning and in their match against Greece, Batistuta notched up a scintillating hat-trick. But the highlight of the match was that famous left foot of Maradona driving the ball past the goal line, and the impish genius howling and running directly towards the cameras. It was a sight I had been waiting to observe for many years.
Argentina qualified comfortably for the knock-out stage, and was all set to face the mighty Romanians in the second round. I woke up in the morning, wore my favorite jersey, and performed a few prayers and offerings to the almighty before switching on my BPL color television set. To my total befuddlement, Maradona was missing from the line-up and it was again ‘The Hindu’ newspaper that I turned to. This time it was another shocking headline which read ‘Fifa slaps ban on Maradona’ and it was because of a banned drug he had consumed, and all I remember from that match was that Romania defeated my team and Maradona was a mere spectator from the stands.
When the year 1998 arrived, I was going through the most crucial epoch of my life with my twelfth grade board exams and professional admission exams imminent. My parents would not be amused by what I am going to reveal, but the truth is that a greater part of my cerebral space was consumed in the expectations of the 1998 world cup to be staged in France than the examinations that were to be staged inside a gloomy and tense classroom. This time around it was the ‘el burrito’ that was at the tip of everybody’s tongue. So much of hype had been built around this diminutive midfielder; And Ariel Ortega was living truly to fulfill these expectations. The duel that still reverberates in my mind is the one between old foes of the ‘Falkland Isle war’. England was fielding a very strong team and it was this teenage wonder called Michael Owen who was making all the headlines during the curtain-raisers. This was one of those games which would have perfectly fit the description of a ‘roller-coaster’ ride. The game had everything, a couple of early penalties, a moment of individual brilliance from Owen, an inventive free-kick from the Argentines, and a sending off of David Beckham. It was quite late in the night now, and this was when I decided to turn down the volume and watch the television in darkness so that my family could get some rest. The moment arrived when Sol Campbell headed the ball into the net and the score was 3-2 in favor of England, and I was simmering in anger, and crying in pain staring at yet another exit from the world cup for my favorite team. Those were the days when telecasting was poor and the score was not displayed on the screen. As the regulation time ended, I realized that the goal by Campbell was disallowed. The emotional freak-show that followed scared the living daylights off my family and we all saw Argentina meander their way into the quarterfinals through penalties.
The joy of triumph lasted just a few more days as the Flying Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp ended Argentina’s march with the one of the most skillful goals I have ever seen. The tears kept rolling down my cheek and I hope my future wife can read this and understand that at times even real men cry.
2002: Lost in Transmission
The new millennium was here, and Asia was hosting the football world cup for the first time. I was an engineer now, and I wish I could reverse-engineer the entire period from June-July 2002. This was the world-cup I have least memory of, thanks to the entry of a sports channel who earned all the rights of telecast and none of the cable operators but one in Chennai were showing this particular channel. After cajoling my father, I could some how get to him to drive me to a friend’s house an hour away for the England-Argentina encounter.
This time David Beckham took the perfect revenge by scoring from the spot and then he celebrated at the corner flag by pulling down his jersey with a grimace on his face that said it all. At about the same time but on a different time zone, I pulled down my jersey too in utter disgust. The second half was marked by near perfect possession by Pablo Aimar and Co. and the Albiceleste were extremely unlucky not to score. To quote Forrest Gump “That is all I have to say about that” as I did not get to see even a second more of that world cup and Argentina failed to qualify for the knock-out stage.
2006: The Bad Germans
I had shifted base to the US where I completed my graduation in electrical engineering from North Carolina. These two years were very rough as America provides almost no avenues to witness and cherish ‘the Beautiful game’. There used be an ESPN 2 which telecast European club football, but as students we didn’t know many people around who could access these channels. Nevertheless the zeal for the game never abated. I returned to India and after a few rough months in the electrical engineering field, decided to move to the ‘Maximum City’ Mumbai. The 2006 FIFA World Cup now was being played in Deutschland and a few of my friends had planned for a weekend trip to some resort in Alibaug. The first question that sprang up in my mind was, ‘Would there cable TV down at the resort?’ but as they always say, when in doubt, avoid. I girded up my loins with the usual pizza and cola and was all set to watch Argentina play against the Serbia & Montenegro side. The South Americans pulverized and dismantled the weaker side and probably the ignominy of the defeat was also behind the disintegration of the country into two parts later on. Juan Roman Riquelme was passing balls like he was being defended by matchstick men and he played with a swagger of a Roman Emperor. The boyish looking Messi who came in as a substitute managed to score and displayed some scintillating skills against the Netherlands.
As the knockout stage arrived I made up my mind to watch the riveting action with my folks back in Chennai. The Round of 16 against the Central Americans was hotly contested and with just a little time left and Mexico still level, Maxi Rodriguez belted a screaming left-footer (which very much resembled a Joe Cole goal earlier in the tournament) and took Argentina into the Quarterfinal stage. A few days later we were out of the world cup again. Now I’ll tell you why we all hate the Germans, because they just hit back hard at you without a semblance of quitting. Miroslav Klose closed out the doors of hope for me and I could feel the gut-wrenching pain that spoke into my ears saying ‘4 years’ like that creepy voice telling ‘7 days’ in ‘The Ring’.
2010: TIA – This is Africa and This Irritates Again
I turned 30 and this is supposed to be an age when people do a reality check and look back at their accomplishments. I was making my own list of hits and misses and regrets, and one definite item on that roster was not being able to see Argentina lift the world cup. But I was very hopeful that this world cup in the Rainbow Nation in Africa was going to be ours simply because we had the greatest footballer of our generation, Lionel Messi. Many armchair analysts could come up with their analysis of how he was a flop as he did not appear on the score sheet, but the true football enthusiast understands that if there was one guy who looked like scoring the most goals, it was ‘La Pulga’. All said and done things were progressing according to plan with the two greatest players the world has ever seen both on Argentina’s think tank.
I personally believe Messi would have done way better had he played in one of those free-floating positions but the journey once again ended sadly at the quarter-final stage. I only realized one thing after the loss – I had grown up and there certainly was no salty discharge along the side of my eyes. It was definitely painful as it was déjà vu for me since we beat the Mexicans and lost to the Germans just like 4 years ago and it also all happened when I was watching these games from Chennai. Mom, Dad and my favorite sister forgive me, but I am definitely not coming home during the 2014 June.
All these years I have waited and prayed and the wishes have all gone unanswered. I have matured and grown over the last 2 decades but the desire has only multiplied like a cancerous cell. My time will come in 2014 and I am not ready to pay a requiem for this dream yet. Vamos Argentina!!! Vamos Messi!!