When Golazo reader, Ashley Pearce emailed to say that he had written an article on his love of Argentine football and his experiences of following the national side and the domestic league from a far, I thought not only would it make for an interesting read but also one which a lot of other UK readers might relate to. Ashley looks back over his life following La Albiceleste from his home in Reading (Note: I find it amazing how a channel as bad as Channel 5 has been responsible for so many people paying attention to Argentine football)
An English Argentine
I don’t really know what it was that first attracted me to the Argentine national team. I recall that Diego Maradona’s wonderful biography by Jimmy Burns was the first book I read out of choice when I was 12 years old. I remember finishing school on Friday and racing home to ask my parents eagerly if they had purchased the book and then I read it all over that weekend. I also remember keeping an Argentina or Maradona scrapbook of pictures and newspaper clippings during the 1994 World cup as a ten year old and being gutted when he was expelled from the tournament (for what I still believe to be dubious reasons).
Diego Maradona has long been my footballing hero despite his many off the field failings. It was at a very young age that I first became aware of the British public’s vitriol towards Maradona but I didn’t really understand it. As a 2 year old during the 1986 World Cup, England’s exit didn’t really affect me. So my first awareness of Maradona came through clips and videos of this extraordinarily talented footballer. He did things with a football I had never seen before. So he hand balled a goal in. So what? Wouldn’t we all do the same in the same situation? I recall Paul Scholes hand balling two goals in one game against Poland in a qualifier in the late 90’s but there is not the same vitriol; for him. If cheating only matters depending on the occasion then football morals go out of the window. As for the off field imperfections, I am not defending these but this just adds to my admiration. Someone who is able to play the way he did in the mid 80’s whilst consuming that level of Cocaine I have a wonderful admiration for. A sort of stuff you to the world that does everything oh so correctly.
So my love affair with Argentina began back in the mid 90’s. I remember not being able to look as Gabriel Batistuta stepped up to take a penalty against Romania in at USA 94 and moping off to bed as a disappointed 10 year old when they succumbed to a brilliant Hagi-inspired Romanian team. My dad bringing home a video of a First round Copa América game with Argentina in that a friend of his from work had taped from Sky. The obsessive monthly wait for World Soccer to come out so I could turn straight to the Argentine section and league table. Pre-internet days made keeping up with football this far away quite a challenge. Getting up at 7 or 8am every Saturday to watch Transworld sport on channel 4 just to catch the 2 minutes they may spend in La Bombonera seeing a Diego Latorre goal. I started gathering more and more videos of past world cups and taping any Maradona documentary on TV so that I could watch over and over again.
The 1998 World Cup was the last time that my national team loyalty was in any doubt. I had cheered Argentina on through the First round hammerings of Jamaica and Japan but so had I England. Then in the Second Round the two faced each other. I was genuinely torn as who to support. It may well be the last time I was really neutral watching a match, I always have a reason for wanting one side or the other to win whatever game I’m watching from anywhere in the world. The game was the best of the 98 World Cup and went all the way to penalties. I’m sure you all recall David Batty and Paul Ince missing penalties to send Argentina through. But I didn’t really feel anything for England. The players were unglamorous, there was little flair (If Gazza and Le Tissier had been taken in 98 this may have been different) and I just didn’t feel a connection with a team that had Batty and Ince in it (nothing to do with the penalties just their overall style). Players that every week I disliked playing for teams I disliked in the Premier League I was now supposed to support just because they wore a white jersey. During the next 15 years my feelings towards England have barely changed. Players I dislike, managers and tactics I dislike an entire bandwagon and misinformed fan culture I dislike and players that especially during one period, seemed to be going out of their way to make themselves hateable.
My passion for Argentina continued unabated however. The 2002 World Cup saw them enter the tournament as favourites having stormed through the gruelling South American qualifying group well above a lacklustre Brazil. With Marcelo Bielsa in charge and a team containing Batistuta, Zanetti, Verón and Crespo, this would surely be their time. Alas no. The high pressing game and a bunch of players that seemed knackered from the outset led to a first round exit from an admittedly tough group. The First round also threw up another England V Argentina clash. The media hype and lust for “revenge” again swept England. This time it was revenge for the wronged David Beckham, as according to the UK media, kicking someone when the game has stopped is not a red card offence. Or more it was Diego Simeone “cheating” by making more of it than he should. This peculiar English hate I have never understood. Diving or feigning injury is annoying and it is cheating, don’t get me wrong. But a good old fashioned leg breaking challenge from Nobby Stiles, Norman Hunter or David Batty is just part of the game. What a load of rubbish. To further the diving debate, England’s 98 hero, Michael Owen managed to cheat his way to a penalty in this game by diving under Pochettino’s challenge. This fact often over looked by England fans. So Beckham scored the penalty to defeat Argentina and redeem himself so the media had their full circle hero story.
But I recall this game for it being on my 18th birthday and the first time I had openly supported Argentina against England. As the tournament was in Japan the game kicked off very early and I was to watch it in a local pub with my brother and some friends. I wore a retro Boca Juniors top, not quite brave or stupid enough to wear an Argentina shirt but wanting to show my support. Now admittedly as a teenager I won’t say I was an angel or sometimes particularly likeable. But since that day I have often when wearing an Argentina shirt in England (not when England have been playing them I hasten to add) received many comments, stares and sometimes outright abuse. Why? People have the right to support whoever they wish. If it’s to do with the Falklands war then you would be hard pressed to find a country in the world Britain has not had a war with. I’m not going into the rights and wrongs of the Falklands but a common denominator in many of the world wars in the past few hundred years has been Britain, not Argentina. The “You’re not from Argentina” jibe is also utter nonsense. Do I have to support everything British? The Iraq war? The Conservative party? Must I like Cottage pie? Then there is the fact a huge number of fans in this country and those all across the world support teams that from places they are not from. My response was always to ask these people-“Who do you support?”, “England!”, “No club side”, “erm, Liverpool”. “Funny Scouse accent that”. You would then get some excuse about a family cat once being in Merseyside or something. Now I don’t care who anyone supports. There is no right or wrong. It depends on an emotional connection with a team that can come from anywhere and many can’t explain. One of my problems with England is the bandwagon, the hype, the ill-informed fans. I’m sure this happens elsewhere, it’s just I’m unaware of that!
Also around this time came one of the great gifts of television to my life. Channel 5 started showing Argentine Primera división games on a Thursday night in the small hours. I had been waiting for this for years! I was finally able to see all of these teams I had previously read so much about and viewed old videos of. These were broadcast on Thursday evening after 2 other games from Holland and the USA. This opened up a world of players, stadia and teams I had always wanted to watch. It also lead to a few Fridays off school or late, as I stayed up to watch them. Some of the teams from back then I still consider the best I have seen. Some of the players I first saw then went on to introduce themselves to the football world on a much grander scale later on. The River Plate team that had a front 4 of Ariel Ortega, Javier Saviola, Juan Pablo Ángel and Pablo Aimar is one of the most exciting teams I have seen. The Boca team of the time that hammered the Santos of Robinho and Diego 5-1 included the future world star Carlos Tevez as well as Juan Ramón Riquelme around the same time. I recall seeing with great excitement Diego Forlán score a hat trick on his debut for Independiente. There were also those players that would go on to appear in the Premier league such as Ernesto Farías and Horacio Carbonari. Part of the appeal of Argentine football was watching those future stars, seeing them first. The football also felt much more raw and real compared to England. The passion and colour of the stadiums, the player mistakes, it wasn’t perfect but that was part of the charm.
The 2006 World cup was to be the one. A team that had flopped so miserably 4 years ago in Japan was surely going to put it right this time. Riquelme was at his imperious best, Crespo and Saviola were there to get goals and even the defence seemed solid with Ayala and Heinze around. There was also a 17 year old Barcelona star called Lionel Messi. He looked alright. In the first round Argentina played Serbia in the group stage and put on one of the world cup’s best ever football performances. I had fallen ill from work all of a sudden as the game kicked off during the day. It culminated in a 24 pass move that included almost the entire team before Cambiasso finished the move off. The goal showed Argentina at their passing and sweeping best. Surely no one could stop them this time? After a nervy second round game in which a goal of the tournament contender from Maxi Rodríguez finished off México in extra time, they were to face Germany in the quarter finals. The hosts were looking good under Jurgen Klinsmann but were passed off the pitch and Argentina were leading 1-0 when Coach José Pekerman hauled off the imperious Juan Ramón Riquelme. It seemed absurd! Everything was going through him; they were controlling the game, keeping the ball. But as soon as Riquelme went off the tide turned. Germany were at Argentina and equalised with minutes to spare from Klose. The inevitable Germany penalty win and heartache followed. I remember going to a gig in London that night in no mood to watch them. In the end I missed the band as I was in the bar, my friend (and lots of alcohol) consoling me. By this stage England’s performance really was of no concern to me. They went out the day after Argentina but I don’t recall even watching the game.
A couple of years later I fulfilled one of my life’s ambitions and travelled over to Buenos Aires for 2 weeks in July. I went at this time as the flights were cheaper (although still around £700), I was about to start my teaching career and I didn’t want to miss any Reading FC games whilst away. Now one day I will go back but this I do regret. In hindsight I really should have just missed some games and gone during the season so I could have attended some Primera games. But as it was, I just spent most of my two weeks travelling around to empty football stadiums. I absolutely loved it. With the internet now in existence I was able to plan transport and routes using Google maps and my lunch breaks at work. So I vaguely knew were some of these places and stadiums were. I had also taught myself some rudimentary Spanish so thought I could get by. That was until I arrived in Buenos Aires in the middle of the night and got a taxi to my hostel. The accented Spanish was so thick I may as well have not bothered learning any Spanish! In total I visited 17 stadiums in and around Buenos Aires. The big one’s as you’d expect were great. I had always wanted to go to El Monumental and La Bombonera so these places didn’t disappoint. But travelling to some of the others were more rewarding. Accidentally walking in on an Argentinos Juniors press conference for a new signing, the fact Gimnasia De La Plata kept their trophies on a stereo in the bar and the grumpy security guard that let me into Racing, secretly beaming with pride I had an interest in his club were to me all great. I also managed to rope in someone from the hostel I was staying at to come along to a couple, getting absolutely soaking wet whilst travelling to three empty grounds in a day (Estudiantes, Gimnasia and Arsenal if you’re interested) may not be most people’s idea of fun but is mine. The one ground of “the big five” I didn’t get to go to was San Lorenzo. Every local and Argentine I asked about it in bars, the hostel and at other ground just said no. the area is too dangerous. So I do hope their new ground gets going and one day I can go back to complete the big six grounds. There were also “bonus grounds” as I liked to call them. I was on a train one day to Lanús and saw a stadium I had not spotted on Google earth so hoped a train stop would appear soon and sure enough within a couple of minutes I had added Ferro Carril to my ground hopping list.
It was around this time that I was also able to watch Argentina live for the first time, against Brazil at the Emirates stadium. They lost 3-0 but to see La Albiceleste in the flesh for the first time was fantastic (and losing to Brazil was something I was getting used too). The 2007 Copa América squad looked frightening. Messi was now the star of the show alongside Tevez, Verón and Mascherano. The onset of Sky and now living out of home meant that I could watch all of the games in the tournament as Argentina scored 16 goals on their way to the final. This was one of the best teams I had ever seen. This was surely to be the first tournament I would see Argentina win? Bogey side, Brazil stopped this. The Brazil your dad probably grew up with and all of the videos we have seen were undoubtedly great. But I grew up with a different Brazil. The one I grew up with was the sterile, defensive minded teams containing sometimes 3 of my pet hates, the defensive midfielder. Moments of magic and players of brilliance still, but the teams I have seen have been dull and boring. This side under Dunga was no different. In the final against Argentina they made an almost incalculable number of fouls to disrupt play and the Riquelme-inspired rhythm. Tactical nativity from Argentina sure, but beauty was most definitely defeated by the beast in this tournament. I have since seen Argentina live pretty much anytime they play in Europe and I can get there from work. I have seen them in Ireland and Germany (beating them 3-1 with Messi missing a penalty) and recently against Portugal up at Old Trafford. I may have missed the first half but will always be extremely grateful for my girlfriend recognising my passion for Argentina and offering to drive to Manchester on a Wednesday night (I don’t drive) and getting back at 2.30am before being up for work at 6.30am. Unlike most England fans, at least I try to watch my team!
The onset of the internet has made things much easier. If qualifying games are not on Sky you can now just stream them. Keeping up to date is also now easy with great English language websites like Golazo and the Hand of Pod podcast. But it is not just the football I love about Argentina. I have fallen in love with the passion of their people, the language, history and food of the country. The food especially. Argentines consume more meat per head of the population than any other and every steak consumed in Buenos Aires was fantastic, that is my kind of diet. My love for Argentina has also been a God send for friends and family members. I don’t think I’m particularly difficult to buy presents for anyway but my love of Argentina has seen me receive tons of Argentina shirts, t-shirts and souvenirs. All very much appreciated.
The 2010 World Cup almost never happened for Argentina. The qualifying campaign was rocky, including a 6-1 defeat at Bolivia and it looked like they may not qualify. Veteran coach Alfio Basile was replaced, somewhat extraordinarily by Diego Maradona. Now as I’ve said previously here, I love Maradona but this was always going to be a disaster. He did get them there. A late Saturday night spent in with a few bottles of Quilmes (difficult but not impossible to find in reading) lead to some late cheering when Martín Palermo scored a late winner against Peru to give Argentina a chance. They needed to remain undefeated against Uruguay in Montevideo. Another late one on a school night on the Wednesday saw Mario Bolatti score a late winner and Argentina were there. Again a team bursting with talent and now including the world’s best player Lionel Messi in top form was among the favourites. But you always got the impression it would go wrong. It was more about Maradona, the mad cap training, the touch side bear hugs, the suave suits than it was the team. They hammered Korea in the first round (a game I managed to watch on my laptop whilst teaching) and again swiped away México in the Second round with an impressive performance and happy Sunday night pub viewing for me. Then it was Germany again. But this time I was more confident. The team looked good. The game was on a Saturday afternoon so was able to watch the game in the pub with friends and a few drinks. It all went wrong as soon as the team was announced though. Instead of tactics Maradona seemed to think he could just play all his attackers and outscore Germany. The tactics were all wrong. The midfield was flooded and Germany played on the break, destroying Argentina 4-0. Out again for another four years.
Another Copa América under Sergio Batista followed. More late nights and early mornings to watch (sometimes I watched them live at 2am but other times it had to be the record and early morning view, Sky boxes now existed after all). The performance in this tournament was flat. The players were still hugely talented but the tactics (and really entire tournament) were very dull as hosts Uruguay beat Tata Martino’s, ultra-defensive and actually winless, Paraguay to the title. Being a glory hunter is not really something that could have been levelled at someone that chose Argentina to support in 1994. Their last Copa America win was in 1993 and they had not been past the Quarter finals of the World cup in 20 years. Startling players, great to watch but as unsuccessful as England during the time (even they won Le Tournoi!)
So it was to the 2014 World Cup. By this stage I was in my late twenties but I can’t say I cared any less. I had still watched all the qualifiers I could online (even had to set up a Bet365 account for a fiver just to get a stream). Again the team going into the tournament was packed with talent. Getting Messi, Higuaín, Di María and Messi into the same front line seemed the biggest challenge. The defence was a worry beforehand but unlike 4 years ago at least the manager seemed sane and sort of grandfatherly in Alejandro Sabella. He had moulded a team that had a style, tactics, good play centred around Messi and a club like atmosphere. There was no place for Carlos Tevez who was seen as a disruptive influence. No great surprises in the squad and an easy group on paper. This time!
I have not enjoyed a tournament more than the 2014 World cup. The football was excellent but it was also the stage of my life. No more teenage angst or England hating, supporting Argentina now seemed acceptable as many others had joined and the perennial bore of England had de-hardened many. I was determined to enjoy this one. The first game against Bosnia saw a back 5 which seemed odd but a lucky goal put them ahead and a tactical half time switch saw a much better second half performance and a mazy Messi dribble and goal. There’s your World cup goal stupid English media I thought. The next game I watched in an Argentine restaurant in Camden with my girlfriend Karen. It was excellent. Great steak, Quilmes flowing and a Messi wonder strike to win (to great relief all round) a tight game. Nigeria were dispatched with more Messi goals in the last game so Argentina topped the group. The team were looking good. Not as expected but good. Messi had been scoring but the attack hadn’t quite been clicking. It was the defence and a midfield screen of especially Mascherano that were looking impenetrable. With the defence seemingly sorted, when the attack clicked there would surely be no stopping Argentina? The second round brought the first part of any Argentine game I had missed in the tournament. I had a work meeting and so had to watch the first half in the pub suited and booted before ignoring what was happening in the meeting and looking at my phone. It went to extra time at 0-0. No panic yet but concern. It was getting later and later. Not knowing is worse than watching I think. But then I got a message just saying “YEEESSSSS” from my girlfriend. I accidently forgot where I was and banged the table in celebration, a tear coming to my eye. Then, any football fans first thought. I bet they’ll equalise. Luckily they didn’t and it was on to Belgium in the Quarters. A Saturday game enabled an Argentina day to happen so steak; Chorizo, Empanadas and Quilmes were in abundance as an early goal from Higuaín meant not too much panic this time. I had finally seen Argentina get past the quarters! On to the next one! I was getting more nervous on the day of games now. I had more free time now many of my students had departed for study leave so was spending lots of time reading. Injuries to Agüero and niggles to Di María were a worry but Holland awaited in the semi’s.
This was on a Wednesday night (a school night) so a steak and just a couple of Quilmes’ to consume. This one was nervy. Very nervy. I sweated my way through this nervy encounter. The “tactical genius” Louis Van Gaal had clearly just told his team to sit deep and they did. Argentina probed a little but there were very few chances throughout. In the last few minutes of extra time Robben raced through one on one with Romero. It was one of those times as a fan that you resign yourself to a goal. In an instant you say “well it’s been fun and we’ve done ok” like admitting it that split second before it happens will make it any less painful. But luckily from nowhere the colossus Javier Mascherano was there, managing to get a toe on Robben’s shot and diverting it wide. The relief is like nothing you can explain. Your guts fall, you exhale and are just relieved. Still in it. The game when to the nerve crippling penalties. More resignation to defeat. We don’t win penalties you say to yourself (even though Argentina’s record is actually quite good). The first penalties scored you just sort of fist pump. Holland miss a couple and for each the cheers get louder. Then its Maxi Rodríguez to take one and it’s this to win it. Get it and I will finally see Argentina in the World Cup final. The sheer delight and relief when the penalty squirmed past Cillesen (no substitutes left to change the keeper this time for Van Gaal) was magnificent. I was exhausted. Emotionally and a bit physically.
The final was not the same. I was proud of the team. Of course I wanted them to win but it was Germany and we always lose to them. Of course this was the case again. But I had enjoyed every moment of it and I had seen Argentina in the final. I felt I had come a long way with Argentina. It now seemed ok to support them and I think people finally believed I didn’t just support them to be awkward I genuinely cared. At the end of the day that is all I think football fans should do. Care. No matter why you support a team or how you got to them just care. The level of despair in 2006 (silly now I look back on it) and heights of joy of the 2014 semi will never be experienced by most fans. Not because their teams won’t make it but because they have not made that emotional commitment to a team. There may be pain on the way but it is worth it for those moments of highs. In fact those lows are needed to get to them. The Copa America is in Chile next year. Surely this time?
*Ashley is a teacher, local Councillor and Reading FC as well as long time, long distance Argentina fan from, unsurprisingly Reading. Twitter address: @ashleypearce84