Tainted love: a history of the most football-obsessed nation on Earth

Angels With Dirty Faces: the Footballing History of Argentina takes us behind the psychodrama.

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Every country – Henry Kissinger is said to have observed – needs an army, a bank and a football team. The former US secretary of state makes a cameo appearance in Jonathan Wilson’s enthralling and often disturbing history of Argentinian football, paying a surprise visit to the opposition dressing room just before the home country’s 1978 World Cup match in Rosario against Peru. Accompanying the military dictator Jorge Videla, who was two years in to his dirty war against “subversion”, Kissinger looks on benignly as his friend explains to the Peruvians just how much the contest means to his fellow Argentinians.

Unless you know the wider context of the game – to make it to the final, Argentina needed to beat Peru by at least four goals – this incident might seem innocent enough. Wilson, one of the best of a new generation of football writers eager to emphasis the bigger picture, untangles the social, economic and political narratives behind the two men’s unusual visit.

The Peruvians, a fine side in the late 1970s, lost 6-0. The Argentinians, managed by the louche former communist César Luis Menotti, went on to win the 1978 World Cup, a propaganda coup for a regime that killed 30,000 of its own people in the Dirty War (29 men and women disappeared during the tournament). After one victory, the torturer Jorge Acosta took several victims out in a car to witness the atmosphere on the streets. “One prisoner asked him to wind down the roof so she could see better,” Wilson writes. She considered calling out for help but decided against it, because the euphoric fans would have assumed that she was just “somebody celebrating crazily”.

There will always be the temptation for English readers (and writers) to refract the rich and turbulent history of what is possibly the most football-obsessed nation on Earth through an Anglocentric prism: “their” appropriation of “our” game at the turn of the 20th century; Antonio Rattín’s petulance after being sent off for “violence of the tongue” while playing against England in the 1966 World Cup (he refused to leave the pitch); Alf Ramsey’s subsequent rant about “animals”; the careers of Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, whose period at Tottenham Hotspur coincided with the Falklands War; Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. Yet the bigger picture, to adapt Kissinger’s axiom, is one of frequent military coups (and counter-coups), economic chaos and a football team embodying the tension between Argentina’s idealism and pragmatism – its sporting romanticism and sporting cynicism; the elaborate, free-flowing attacking style of la nuestra and the anti-fútbol of Rattín, Victorio Spinetto and the unsavoury Estudiantes side of the late 1960s.

Wilson evokes a pre-1960s golden age that “chugged along merrily on a diet of attacking play, chicken casserole and red wine”. He offers a nuanced examination of the extraordinary talents of Maradona and Lionel Messi, “the all-time great who never played at home”. He deconstructs the ­Anglocentric interpretations of both 1966 (it is still unclear, half a century later, what exactly Rattín did wrong: the referee was a German who didn’t speak Spanish) and 1986: Maradona’s second goal against England in the 1986 Mexico World Cup quarter final is one of the greatest scored, and the England defender Terry Fenwick “arguably committed four red card offences in the game, yet got away with only a booking”.

Wilson’s vignettes of former legends are well observed. On encountering José Sanfilippo, he notices el Nene’s “obviously dyed hair” and a signet ring on which his initials are marked out in diamonds – both of which give him “the air of an ageing don from a Scorsese film”.

I was particularly tickled by revelations that the heart-throb Silvio Marzolini not only swapped shirts with Bobby Charlton,in defiance of Ramsey’s ban, but wore the England shirt for many years as a pyjama top, and that the reviled Rattín repeatedly listened to a recording of his wife and children in order to overcome homesickness.

The author is at his best when he is dissecting Argentinian football’s idealised, aesthetically pleasing past, the psychodrama of its modern game, and its chequered football history.

Saddest of all was the tainted triumph of 1978. It is hard to shake off the image of a smiling Kissinger, a huge fan of the beautiful game, wishing the Peruvians the best of luck. Or that of the political prisoners shouting in their cells, “We won, we won!” after the World Cup final.

Menotti, an opponent of the Kissinger-backed regime, managed to convince himself that the team’s success was a victory for the left. Before the final, the man who restored the exuberant, attacking spirit to Argentina told his charges that they were playing for freedom, not the junta: “We come from the victimised classes and we represent the only thing that is legitimate in this country – football. We are not playing for the expensive seats full of military officers.”

And yet the Menotti-led team became, however reluctantly, an agent of the murderous dictatorship. “The moment of his greatest . . . triumph,” Wilson writes of the philosopher prince of the old romanticism, “was also the moment at which he came closest to betraying his political ideals.”

Anthony Clavane’s “A Yorkshire Tragedy: the Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse” is newly published by Riverrun

Angels with Dirty Faces: the Footballing History of Argentina by Jonathan Wilson is published by Orion (576pp, £20)

This article appears in the 01 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war