So many things are wrong with Argentina we do not know what is wrong; so much is happening no one knows what is happening. You could start an article on the news pages with that same line but they fit on the sports pages too because these are turbulent times for our football. It was not always like this. For many years, football made up for our long political, social and economic decline.
There is no identifiable moment when it all started, nor one place where it began, and there is no dominant theory. What is true is that bit by bit we got further away from the ball, the one thing we loved more than the game itself. We got further from a style that used to draw us to the stadium, where we longed to shout “olé!” every time we saw someone dribble, trick an opponent, tease them; every time we saw a lightning one-two or some expression of cunning, that astuteness – that was our life. There was talent of the highest quality and in the greatest quantity and we allowed ourselves an act of genius once in a while.
Football matters to us; it allows us to feel like we are among the best in the world at something with huge popular significance. Its relevance is such that, to give but one example, through football we thought we had recovered the Malvinas in 1986 thanks to Diego Maradona, a national hero ever since. So the disaster of the national team leaves us with a feeling of neglect and emptiness that is hard to explain. How are we supposed to know what to do with football if we do not even know what to do with Lionel Messi?
Let’s go back to the start. The street was always our school, which had the great virtue of teaching us the trade, giving football a cultural weight and developing and celebrating players who were different. But the street as a formative stage has gone and no one has known how to replace it with an educational model like those in countries such as Germany or Spain. We always had too little money, organisational ability and vision – and, in our arrogance, too much confidence in our status as a predestined footballing power.
On top of that, an imperious, almost delirious need to win overcame the enjoyment of playing. The desire to win at all costs sweeps away your values. Dividing the world into winners and losers is an illness that infected football at a formative stage.
At the same time a passion for football was overcome by a passion for a team, as if a society that has become ever more individualistic needed something to reconnect it with tribal feeling. Turning clubs into mini-nations constructs an identity, a community that must be defended as a matter of life and death. In the stands violence took over; on the pitch, we said goodbye to the olés and welcomed in a world where huevos – balls – are more important than talent.
We saw that against Croatia. People were shouting at the players to show more huevos and sitting in the stands Diego expressed that by grabbing his testicles. Yes, Diego: the man who represented better than anyone else the best of what we had, our former style. That desire to fight turns every game in the Argentinian league into an indecipherable swarm like an ants' nest, where someone kicks it and everyone runs more than they think, and where in the middle of it all it can be hard to work out who the good player is.
There are other variables in the equation: economic crisis, institutional chaos, televised football as a political weapon, corruption at all levels among those who run the game. The world did not help either: globalisation made us an export economy in which any player, however mediocre, is three goals away from being sold abroad. This premature escape, our footballing diaspora, saw us lose one of the great teachers: emulation. Maradona is a purely Argentinian product; Messi is a mix of his origins in Argentina and his development and completion in Barcelona.
Nor do I want to overlook something of great importance: the mediocrity of the debate, where a base crassness more suited to bad actors than good journalists bastardises the play and denigrates players. This infernal racket conditions everything, a deafening noise that surrounds everything and made the Argentinian people believe that if Messi does not win a World Cup he will never be Maradona; that made Messi himself believe it.
Thirty-three titles later, Messi has taken that message to heart and when the World Cup starts he becomes a tortured soul who carries the fierce demands of 45 million people on his shoulders. And yet it’s not true: Messi has defended Argentina’s footballing pride like no one else for 15 years now and he has done so with an astonishing, scandalous consistency. But that perception became received wisdom and Messi is treated as if he was any old player by journalists who demand an excellence from him they cannot even dream of.
In Russia, it has all come together. The crisis of talent. (Did we really only find out on the day Croatia put three past us that we do not have anyone comparable to Luka Modric or Ivan Rakitic?). The lack of leadership. (Is there really no one around the national team who can shake them out of it with words worthy of the impending crisis?) The vulgarity and paucity of the debate. (Have we really forgotten what it was that made us great?) We have to evolve and after the tournament we must begin a revolution in education that can return our lost prestige. We have the genetics that can help us, a history that can propel us, a pride that will give us energy and strength. But education requires time, not haste, and in Argentina we have all lost patience and calm. How can we come up with an urgent solution with problems of such magnitude?
As we wait to play Nigeria, the team appears lost, the rumours about internal conflicts spreading, and no one knows what is going on inside the head of Messi – one of the best-known men in the world but whose silences no one can interpret. If Argentina think their problems will be resolved by appealing to courage and fight, their emotional and footballing collapse will follow and with it their discipline. We will finish the third game with someone sent off, a red card to add to the disaster.
The decline begins with culture, and we have to recognise the lads gave all the huevos the fans demanded. But huevos are not enough. To wear down a team like Iceland, to overcome a great team like Croatia and to confront Nigeria’s sense of adventure, we will need all the qualities and the values that Argentinian football has lost along the way. Skill, quality, fantasy, cunning, precision; we need to bring that together in a style that can create a collective conviction, an identity, capable of turning this disperse group into a team. Not even a genius can make up for so many failings. Still less, a genius who is dispirited.
Jorge Valdano scored for Argentina in the 3-2 win over West Germany in the 1986 World Cup final and managed Real Madrid 1994-96