Angels with Dirty Faces (by Jonathan Wilson)

If really want to gain greater understanding of the complexities that is Argentine football, then you have to read Angels with Dirty Faces by Jonathan Wilson. Bearing the name of the 1938 classic gangster movie gives this book an interesting title to describe the complicated path that football has taken over the years in Argentina. British sailors brought the game to Argentina and Wilson has lovely researched the history and philosophy of the Argentinian game by delving into the psyche of a nation obsessed by a game that does not always portray them in a positive light.

Argentina should have been an economic powerhouse, but political corruption and military coups have hampered the progress of a country that lacks any real economic vision. The short-sightedness of various governments has frequently left the country in a financial mess with hardship not only been felt not among the masses on the street, but, also by the drain of nations best players to the rich fertile pastures of European soccer.

In my opinion Argentinians have always seen themselves as being superior footballers to anyone in the world, never mind South America. This arrogance may be well justified as it has seen them win more Copa America’s than anyone else in the southern hemisphere, added to this they are also the most successful country in the Copa Libertadores (South America’s version of the European Cup). But the problem is that no matter how well they play or do, nobody loves them in the way everyone loves Brazil and it is literally killing them.

Wilson rightly points out that nearly every generation of Argentine football tends to throw up a genius of a player, someone like Adolfo Pedernera, Alfredo di Stefano, Omar Sivori, Ricardo Bochini, Diego Maradona, Juan Riquelme and of course Lionel Messi, players who fans see as the epitome of pibe  (the Argentine fantasy of the kid or street urchin who uses his creative skill and ability to claw his way to the top) but for all of the imagination and creativity that these players brought to the game  there is a much darker side to their game.

The book brilliantly analyses the violent system of anti-fubol, which was fashioned and used in the late 1960’s possibly first by Racing Club of Buenos Aires in their notorious victory over Celtic in the world club championship and then honed and exploited more ruthlessly by the infamous Estudiantes De La Plata. Argentine football would enter its darkest period, a chapter in their history that they have never really shaken off, under the guidance of Osvaldo Zubeldia, Estudiantes adopted a win at all costs approach, devising the most cynical style the game has probably ever seen. The players bought into the outlook and carefully manipulated on the park by Zubeldia,s number 1 assassin, the mocking and derisive Carlos Bilardo, they set about their task to conquer the world. No opportunity was too low for Bilardo to stoop to which, would see him and his team-mates produce some of the outrageous antics football has ever seen, producing a cynicism that would see them do anything in their power to expose a flaw in the opposition.

The Murderous Bilardo

I could argue that the game in Argentina may have recovered if it were not for the arrival of Menotti, the charismatic left wing activist known as El Flaco (the slim one). Menotti who had spent time in Brazil befriending Pele, would return the Argentine game to flair and imagination based on an attacking philosophy. Endlessly seen standing on the touchline smoking cigarette after cigarette, Menotti would deliver the 1978 World Cup an achievement that cannot be underestimated given the political backdrop in which was played.

The Great Menotti (with the inevitable cigarette)

The events that have taken place since that epic victory are just as fascinating; you have the arrival of Maradona and Messi the return of Bilardo, plus the coaching methods of Bielsa.

Add to this more political corruption and the never ending rounds of spiralling inflation that has held back economic growth back, you would think the average Argentine would be in a state of despair given their plight, they are not because they have the one thing that binds them together and that is their love of football. Jonathan Wilson’s book is pure theatre, read it and open your mind.




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