Monday, June 7

Crazy for the Copa

Alternate title: Loco por los goles

If I were still in the US, I am sure I would be paying attention to the World Cup. In a week or so. At least some of the games. But as I happen to be living outside of North America, my new neighbors are doing their best to infect me with their fever. Obviously, one of the perks of moving to Argentina was being able to live in a futbol-crazed land during the World Cup. We're still a week away, and the hype is living up to, well, the hype.

The event taken over the entire city. The best analogy I can think of is if the Super Bowl were to go on for a month and if two thirds of the league was invited to compete. But only if we had waited four years since the last one. Two months ago my male coworkers started drawing up scenarios on whiteboards, and getting excited over potential matchups like North Korea vs South Korea, and "colonial combat" like USA/England, Brazil/Portugal, and Chile/Spain. About ten days ago, the women became infected, too. This commercial is alarmingly accurate:

Argentina just celebrated its Bicentennial a couple of weeks ago. The entire city was decked out in flags and ribbons. Argentina being Argentina, many buildings didn't get their act together very quickly and hastily draped the Celeste y Blanco just a day or two before the event. Lucky for them, there is reason to leave the decorations up. This isn't like keeping your Christmas lights blinking until Easter. If anything, the purpose is far more immediate now. Recent studies have shown that the country's populous is in a better mood and has more optimism about the nation's future during the tournament.

Though opinions abound, nobody really has any idea how the Argentine team is going to do. Members of the international press have universally labeled them the "most intriguing" team in the tournament. They're right.

Let's review the backstory in brief. Argentina has some of the best players in the world, including the reigning Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi. Couple that with a long history of success, and anything less than reaching the semifinals is an automatic letdown. But Team Argentina had been seriously struggling with disappointing performances in World Cup qualifiers and friendlies alike. This led the AFA to take the desperate decision of putting the squad in the hands of God, aka Diego Maradona. Maradona, as you may know, is one of the most famous footballers in history, and a national treasure. He's also had trouble with drugs and never proven himself to be a successful coach. Nevertheless, to most Argentines, he is surely a deity, and in the city of Rosario, there is even a religion dedicated to him. The decision was risky, but nearly all Argentines were supportive at the time. He is, after all, the man who did this:

But Argentina didn't fare much better under Maradona's watch, and only barely qualified for the tournament. This isn't quite like Duke nearly missing the field of 64, but it's close. After locking up a spot on the last day of play, Maradona made some pointed comments to the media at his press conference. "For those who doubted me," he declared, "you can blow me." This led to a two-month suspension enforced by FIFA, and further doubt in his abilities to lead the team.

Locals, however, have been eager to put the blame for the teams failures on the players, most pointedly at Lionel Messi. Too many times to count, I have heard people claim that he tries for Barcelona, but for Argentina, "no hace nada." Even though I'm just a layman, it is clear that when Messi has the ball, the rest of his teammates simply stand around watching. Think Kobe Bryant in 2007. I may not be the ultimate expert in futbol yet, but even the best players can't take on the other 11 by themselves.

It's obvious to me that the team is disorganized and unstructured. Plus, it's not like we don't have data. Messi scored 34 goals in roughly as many games for Barcelona in the last season. If he suddenly can't get the ball into the net, is it that he has lost his will to compete or that he is being misused? There is a simple answer to this question. But, admitting as much would mean believing in a fallible God. Nobody is ready to do that, no matter how outrageous the press conference.
Will this all end in hugs and smiles? Time will tell.
At this point, no one knows what will happen, save for one simple idea. If Argentina does well, Maradona will say and do something interesting. If they fail spectacularly, he will say and do something interesting. He has already promised to run through the streets of Buenos Aires naked if they win the whole thing, an entirely idle threat unless he finds a way to make the team to play better. At this point I can say that I have become infected with the same fever as the rest of the people living in this fine city. And at this moment my lack of knowledge doesn't even matter. I don't know what's going to happen, either. But I am counting down the days until it does.

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