Two reasons to support Maradona's men
My father has never been particularly interested in New Zealand politics, and he was not about to take an interest in the complicated internal affairs of Argentina, even after he learned that his wealthy, rugby-loving host had been a Defence Minister during the Galtieri era. My father enjoyed the lavish meals he was provided, nodded uncomprehendingly when his host complained about 'persecution' at the hands of Argentina's new, semi-democratic government, and wondered how long he would have to play during the oldies' Buenos Aires game before he was substituted and allowed to head for the clubhouse bar.
My father's strange experience in Buenos Aires a quarter century ago illustrates the social base of rugby in that country. Rugby may be the football code of the masses in New Zealand, but in Argentina enthusiasm for the sport is as sure a sign of privilege and power as a mansion in Barrio Norte or access to a private, congestion-free motorway. The class divide which runs so deeply through Argentinian society is reflected in a sporting divide. Rugby is the sport of the ruling class, and football is the sport of the rest.
In many nations, the lines that separated different football codes have been crossed in recent decades. In Britain, for instance, football has traditionally been a working class sport, but in the 1960s it began to transcend class boundaries, as players like George Best bought mansions in the home counties and hung out with socialites and jaded minor aristocrats, and the Royal Family and the Conservative Party jumped aboard the bandwagon that was the 1966 World Cup. Today players like David Beckham can pronounce themselves Tories without fearing any opprobrium from their fans. In Argentina, though, old dividing lines remain intact, and football remains politicised.
The 1978 World Cup was held in an Argentina darkened by the 'dirty war' against left-wing dissidents being waged by the military junta which had taken power two years earlier. While football was being played in stadiums surrounded by barbed wire, the junta's death squads were prowling the universities and working class neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires and other major cities. At a banquet hosted by the junta's then-leader Jorge Videla, who wanted to congratulate 'his' team for winning the Cup, the Argentine player Alberto Tarantino confronted the generals about the fate of three residents of his neighbourhood who had been 'disappeared' by security forces. Videla and his cronies were not impressed, but Tarantino's gesture became widely-known, and was an inspiration to the movement working to overthrow the dictatorship.
Now Argentinian footballers have taken another political stand. Before their game against South Korea last week, the Argentinian manager Diego Maradona and his star player Lionel Messi met with Estela de Carlotto, a leader of an organisation called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The Mothers of the Plaza was formed after the downfall of the Videla-Galtieri dictatorship, by mothers whose sons and daughters disappeared during the dirty war. For the last quarter century, they have campaigned for the release of information about the fates of their loved ones, and for the prosecution of those responsible for the thousands of casualties of the dirty war. The Mothers of the Plaza have become involved in other causes, like the movement against the US invasion of Iraq, and the revolt against bankrupt neo-liberal economics that saw three Argentine governments toppled in a week at the end of 2001.
Thanks partly to the efforts of the Mothers, the remains of many dissidents executed by the junta have been recovered, and a number of executioners have been sent to prison. After meeting with de Carlotto, Maradona said that the Argentine football team supports calls for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to the Mothers of the Plaza.
The Argentinian team's decision to show its support for the Mothers of the Plaza ought to have been a major international news story, at a time when the media is focusing enormous attention on even the most trivial events at the World Cup. But the Argentinians' statement has been ignored by the mass media.
Some supporters of the Mothers of the Plaza have advanced a rather sinister explanation for the suppression of news of the Argentine team's support for their cause. During the 'dirty war', large numbers of babies and very small children were orphaned, as the security forces executed their mothers and fathers. The Argentinian government seized many of these children, and made them available to wealthy childless couples.
The 'stolen children', as they are known today in Argentina, were raised without being told who their real parents were. Thanks to the campaigning of the Mothers of the Plaza, the Argentinian parliament has passed a law requiring couples suspected of having adopted stolen kids to submit their DNA for analysis and comparison with that of their 'children'.
The Argentinian tycoon Ernestina Herrera de Noble, who controls most of the country's media, is reputed to have received two of the children stolen during the dirty war, and to therefore be less than keen on the work of the Mothers of the Plaza. The Mothers of the Plaza and other opponents of De Noble suspect that he has been using his influence to try to downplay reports of the stand taken by the Argentinian team.
There is another, much less political, reason for being sympathetic to the Argentine football team. The World Cup has so far been a paradoxical affair. The tournament has seen a series of exciting upsets - Switzerland has toppled the much-vaunted Spain, Serbia has bested Germany, and our very own All Whites have embarrassed first Slovakia and then mighty Italy by holding them to draws. Even as we admire the courage of the successful underdogs, we must acknowledge that they have played determinedly defensive football, using conservative formations and spoiling tactics to negate the flair of their opponents. In a footballing era when meticulous game plans based on computer-assisted analyses and relentless team conditioning seem to count for as much as individual talent, Argentina are showing that it is possible to play the beautiful game beautifully without going down to defeat. The Argentine victories over Nigeria and South Korea featured spectacular dribbling runs, audacious passing, and dozens of shots on goal.
Diego Maradona's chaotic style of management - his players reportedly train at a different time every day, depending on when he manages to crawl out of bed - seemed before the tournament like it might doom his team, but it has perhaps ended up giving them a winning edge. Because Argentina lacks coherent game plans, and because players like Messi and Veron are allowed to express themselves and compose their own ad hoc tactics on the field, the team cannot be reliably countered by any predetermined strategy or formation. With their style of football and with their endorsement of the Mothers of the Plaza, Argentina are making important statements at this World Cup.