Why Argentina chose ‘ganas’ and ‘pibes’ over winning

Image of Simon Kuper

Everyone laughs at Argentina, but the point is to understand how they got themselves into this mess. Their football team, coached by Diego Maradona, a peculiar former cocaine addict with no previous successful coaching experiences, might fail to qualify for the World Cup. To get there, the Selección must beat Peru at home on Saturday and probably at least draw in Uruguay on Wednesday.

The key is that there are two views of what a national football team is for. The first is the professional view: the team exists to win matches. To do that, it needs to follow best international practice. However, Argentina chose Maradona because it had embraced the second – nationalist – view: the team must be the nation made flesh. Silly as Argentina now looks, many countries periodically fall into the same trap.

Almost every country has its own nationalist view of how its national team should play. The Argentine view was explained to me one morning in Buenos Aires in 2002 by the late, great Argentine football cartoonist and novelist Roberto Fontanarrosa. Sitting in a smoky café, in a city that was then pretty much ruined, drinking coffee at US$0.40 a cup, Fontanarrosa said that the only bit of Argentina that had consistently been first-world was its football team. It had won prizes, and played with a certain style that was somehow inherently Argentine. “Maradona could never have come from Belgium,” said Fontanarrosa.

Other things had gone wrong in Argentina – “it’s the only undeveloping country on earth,” says Jorge Valdano, Maradona’s old Argentine teammate turned writer – but the Selección almost always stood proud. Those 11 young millionaires in blue and white shirts embodied the nation, more tangible than the flag, not ridiculous like the president.

Argentines wanted the Argentine team to play Argentine football: an attacking game featuring the undersized pibes, or boys, who epitomise the national style. The pibes would play with ganas, desire, and not be mere professionals. They would love Argentina.

The ultimate pibe was Maradona, now a sort of Argentine folk saint. But Argentina mass-produced pibes, and the ideal was a whole team too little to reach the top buttons in the elevator.

So last year the national hero was made coach and was encouraged to reproduce the popular idea of true Argentine football: attack, with lots of pibes who ooze ganas. Maradona often selects men who play for humble Argentine clubs, rather than mercenaries earning millions in Europe, because the home boys supposedly love their country more.

The result, of course, has been disaster. Maradona’s team may incarnate Argentina, but it isn’t very professional. Despite featuring the world’s best player, the pibe Lionel Messi, it even contrived to lose 6-1 to Bolivia.

Poor Maradona is now talking of waddling off into the sunset. When he goes, the country will probably ditch the nationalist view and revert to the professional view.

That happens all the time. Countries are always tempted to try a nationalist view. Many English people believe England should play a manly game echoing the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean war, under an English coach steeped in British warrior lore. When England do this, they generally lose. They then revert to the professional view: hiring a bespectacled continental European coach who knows best international practice.

Any country’s nationalist view sounds absurd to outsiders. The Dutch for a long time believed it was truly Dutch to play with wingers glued to the touchline, even if nobody else did any more. In 2007, after an agonising national debate reminiscent of the inter-Calvinist feuds of the 17th-century, they ditched wingers and got much better. The sad truth is that, to win, you have to play the international style. National styles do not work.

Meanwhile it is unfair to berate Maradona. Winning matches is not what he was hired for.


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