Football: Insights from Jonathan Wilson’s book ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ on Argentina Football

Courtesy a 14inch black & white Sonodyne television and live coverage from Mexico, three decades ago, I got attracted to football thanks to one Diego Armando Maradona and his Argentinian team. They won the World Cup that year, 1986, and since then my love for the La Albiceleste has only increased with time. Recently I read a book on Argentinian Football by Jonathan Wilson. Here are my insights, highlights, little-known nuggets from that book queerly titled ‘Angels with dirty faces’.

*Maradona’s hand of God would never have been famous had it not knocked out England. The British press was quick to diminish his greatness and reduce him to a cheat. Goals assisted by hand aren’t uncommon – in 2010 World Cup there were at least five-goal mouth actions involved with the use of a hand. Do you remember any? Once Diego scored the opener he ran towards the corner flag and started yelling at his teammates ‘come fast and hug me, else referee isn’t going to allow it’. His blatant admission of ‘Hand of God’ drew excess criticism of Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser and the eventual 1986 World Cup winners. There were debates that referees from smaller footballing nations should not be given big clashes. What has conveniently been forgotten is that it took the English commentators almost two minutes (even after initial replays) to realise that their players were appealing for handball and not potential offside. The hand usage was by no means obvious till still photographs and familiarity made it later. Scott Murray in Guardian (2014) pointed out that defender Terry Fenwick had done four red card worthy brutal fouls on Diego Maradona. The Tunisian referee was more lenient to England than to Argentina.

* Carlos Bilardo is the inventor of the 3-5-2, optimally used in the World Cup 1986 and that graduated to 4-5-1 in the 1990 version. Often the 1990 version changed to 5-4-1 too. Simply put, Bilardo is the proven big match master tactician after his squad full of unknown players reached two successive World Cup finals. Diego Maradona’s unparalleled levels can be judged by the fact, barely half a dozen players, from those two squads combined had any contract ever with any decent European club – Oscar Ruggeri, Jorge Burruchaga, Claudio Caniggia and Jorge Valdano are the only names the world hazily remembers from those teams. Their peak performance came vs hot favourites and hosts Italy in the 1990 World Cup Semifinal. Bilardo spotted very early that Italy fullbacks (Donadoni and De Agostini) never went behind quickly to defend. He reckoned with his tactics that would be their easiest game. This, after the sky blue and whites, limped through the group stages and just about scraped past Brazil and Yugoslavia. In the semifinals of Italia 90, hosts got a lucky offside early goal and yet were knocked out at Naples with superior ball possession.

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Diego’s trick of using his Napoli cult status ensured the local crowd was divided in support. But once Italy were outplayed, the entire country jeered the Argentinians all the way till the end of the competition. Yet Argentina overachieved and kept giving the spicy stories. This time it was ‘water bottle of god’. During the 1990 knockout game against Brazil, a game which the Samba boys should have won 10-0, there were allegations that the Argentinian physio had bottles of drugged water which were passed on to the Brazilians during the break. Branco and Bebeto insisted years later that the physio in private did admit to the plan. Carlos Bilardo in 2005 teasingly mentioned ‘Am not saying it didn’t happen’.

* With Maradona exceptional, Napoli won the Scudetto for the first time in their history in the penultimate weekend of the 1986-87 season. The mafiosos organised mass celebration distributing food and champagne to the fans, in a village outside Napoli, which the press was allowed to attend but not report. The mafia Camorras and the Giulianos influence over Neapolitan glory was accelerating rapidly. It is said the following season they not only funded the purchase of Brazilian star striker Careca but also orchestrated the final points table outcome. Napoli were four points ahead of the pack with just five games to go. They had just beaten mighty Inter Milan 1-0 and yet shockingly couldn’t win any of the last five matches. There were allegations that fearing big losses for the bookmakers, the Camorra instructed the players to throw away the title. Arigo Sacchi’s AC Milan started their path to greatness with help of such unexpected largesse, as was speculated. Diego till that point was dominating which would be the toughest league ever in the history of club football.. Italy had own stalwarts in Baggio, Maldini, Baresi, Donadoni, Albertini, Mancini, Signori, Del Piero, Vialli.. and the foreigners plying their trade (that was an era where maximum of three were allowed to play for every team) were Marco van Basten, Jurgen Klinsmann, Ruud Gullit, Lothar Matthaus, Dejan Savicevic, Frank Rijkaard, Andreas Brehme, Careca, Caniggia, Sosa, Skuhravy, Völler, Berthold, Simeone, Lacatus, Hässler, Aldair, Branco, Taffarel, Martín Vázquez, Brolin, Francescoli, Alemao … It wasn’t just a league, It was six sigma quality. Maradona won trophies in that league with an ordinary team!

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*Marcelo Bielsa’s three Argentinian league titles and one Olympics medal isn’t enough for history to judge him as a great coach. But no South American coach has made as much impact to world Football as ‘El Loco’ – often labelled eccentric for his intensity, drive, intellect and obsession. There was a time his Friday training sessions would involve 120 different attacking formations and 120 different defensive formations. This included absorbing patterns of opposition using a rotating system of man marking. If opposition centre-backs liked passing the ball to the right back then Bielsa would attack the centre back and the line of the pass to right back. Bielsa is the man who has taught the world the art of pressing. He is an attacking tactician who never saw himself as a defensive or negative style of manager. Bielsa extracted his style from a fusion of learnings from Argentina coaches Cesar Menotti and Carlos Bilardo.

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*Marcelo Bielsa took an extremely talented Argentinean team to World Cup 2002. Yet the belief amongst fans was low as four years ago an equally talented Albiceleste team had dazzled and then self destructed. In 1998, they topped the group handsomely, and after playing out a thrilling 2-2 vs England, they advanced on penalty kicks. In the quarter-final, they were up against Guus Hiddink’s Netherlands. In first quarter of the game, Two sumptuous goals were scored, one each by both teams. Dennis Bergkamp’s subtle header in the path of Patrick Kluivert cancelled out by a Juan Sebastian Veron defense-splitting pass to Claudio Lopez who nutmegged goalkeeper Edwin Van De Sar. With fourteen minutes remaining Argentina had a man advantage and looked comfortable despite the 1-1 score. Yet Ariel Ortega theatrically fell on a foul from Jaap Stam in the Dutch penalty area – where, had he kept running the chances of getting a penalty were higher – and when the referee asked him to get up, he headbutted Edwin Van Der Sar only to be sent off. Two minutes later a Frank De Boer long ball to Bergkamp was beautifully plucked out of thin air (first touch several feet off the ground), controlled and turned around to take out Roberto Ayala and third touch was a finish past the goalkeeper. It was sheer technical ability that ensured maximum output from minimum effort. Argentina had self destructed from a position of advantage and were out of the World Cup in matter of minutes.

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* In 2002, Bielsa’s team had worse fate despite coming into the tournament undefeated for two years. They beat Nigeria 1-0 but a second Michael Owen dive in four years resulted in second penalty goal for England vs Argentina in four years. Owen dived this time on a minimal contact from Mauricio Pocchetino. The now Tottenham manager, then missed an open chance to restore parity when he headed the ball to keeper David Seaman. The loss meant Argentina needed victory over Sweden in the final group game. But they missed chance after chance till Sweden scored first up and held on to a draw. Argentina had more shots and more corners than any other side (till then) at the World Cup, but barely had two goals (one of them was a rebound of a missed penalty vs Sweden) to show. They were out.

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* Argentina’s last set of trophies were a pair of Copa America triumphs in 1991 and 1993, led by two long-haired strikers, Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia. The pair of impressive runs was done without Diego Maradona. By this time, Napoli police had cracked down on the Camorra who now had little intent to protect Maradona or his infuriating errant ways. He was frequently getting selected for ‘random’ drug tests, specially after Italia 90. He was facing bans after bans and despite being guilty, he was a victim too. The mafia lords made big money during Napoli’s years of glory. Maradona had broken two world record transfer fees within a couple of years. He put Napoli in the football, and indeed in the world, map. But the ecosystem pampered and destroyed him in equal measure too. With two Scudettos and one UEFA Cup winners cup, Napoli slowly started walking away from the football map till its revival began again this decade. They are yet to win a trophy since 1990, though. Argentina are yet to win one since 1993.

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