|the Argentine back four and 'keeper hit the town|
Picture Latin American fútbol and there’s doubtless a series of fairly well-thumbed images that will be conjured forth, images that are perhaps stereotypes, it’s true, but stereotypes generally have some sort of foothold in fact (and, at any rate, they are clichés of which Latin America’s football culture seems fairly reluctant to disabuse us).
So it is that some or all of the following images could come to mind: big hair, massive hair, hair beneath which faces are lost (from Kempes to Coloccini via Higuita and Valderrama), the kind of hair otherwise spotted only at festivals called Poodle Rock III featuring Van Halen, Whitesnake and Poison; hair-pulling, naturally; higher tackles than a ladyboy in twelve-inch stilettos; gesticulating urchin players and pompous, pencil-‘tached refs locked in a mutually antagonistic spiral until either a multiple sending-off or 19-man brawl occurs; chain-smoking managers, brass bands, and players rolling histrionically about the place like an avant-garde dance troupe performing a piece called Pigs in Shit.
Oh, and one thinks of Argentina versus Brazil in the final of the Copa América.
Not this year. The teams that have contested the last two finals (2007 and 2004) have both been eliminated on penalties at the quarter-final stage. For the first time since 2001 (when Argentina withdrew from the tournament, as it happens), the inventors of o jogo bonito and their heavyweight southern neighbours will be watching on TV, while their conquerors, the two ’Guays, Para- and Uru-, fight it out in the final.
This is a great pity. Not only have these two countries produced many of the game’s greatest ever players – Pelé, Didi, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho; Maradona, Messi, Monti, Sivori, Di Stéfano – they also perhaps share, with due respect to Holland-Germany and one or two others, international football’s fiercest rivalry, one stoked not only by their tussles in the Copa, but also by the format of the South American World Cup qualification program, which chucks all the South American nations together in a big spicy olla of a round-robin.
The measure of their rivalry is not to be found in the lists of trophies – for the record, in the Copa América, Brazil have eight tournament wins (including four of the last five) compared to Argentina’s record-equalling (with Uruguay) fourteen, while in the World Cup it is five plays two, although the two giants of South America have never before met each other in a World Cup final. Rather, it is in the bilious passions they arouse, in a thousand and one mordant anecdotes of demented enmity, in that quintessentially irrational loathing that grips them.
All of which put me in mind of a poster campaign that an Argentine condom company, Tulipán, ran in 2001, prior to a big World Cup qualifier. The poster, in the famous albiceleste colours, carried the cocksure boast: “Ya estamos pensando en la revancha” (“We are already thinking about revenge”), with the initial letters of the two countries’ names tracing, with oh-so-clever typography, a penis and bum, the latter of indeterminate gender…
The game was played, and, in accordance with the ancient Greeks’ laws of hubris, Argentina duly lost for having tempted the Fates, Brazil seeing off their Southern neighbours 3 – 1.
In the aftermath, when the samba parties were beginning to empty out (5 or 6 days later), the Brazilian Minister for Culture (that’s right, the State) commissioned a poster by way of riposte (rebuttal?) in which the previously capitalized, tumescent ‘A’ of Argentina had become a drooping, flaccid, lower-case sad-case: an ‘a’ with erectile dysfunction.
Its strapline reads – in Spanish rather than Portuguese, lest any Argentines could claim not to have understood – “No fue la primera vez, tampoco la última” (“It wasn’t the first time, nor the last”).