The story of football in Argentina has finally been told. “Angels with Dirty Faces” by Jonathan Wilson is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the mercurial genius, often intertwined with the violence, of the Argentinian game.
I remember my one trip to Buenos Aires in late 2000. From the freeway, the city’s suburbs struck me as rigid, seemingly infinite juts of concrete, like a Georges Braque piece dressed in orange neon. Out of this sea of concrete rose the distinctive bowl of La Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors.
Alas, the Xeneizes were not playing at home in the short time I was there, but everyone wanted to talk football with me. I even met an Aston Villa fan or, as he said in his thick porteño accent, “A’to Bee-jah”. There was no literature into the relationship between Argentinian football and the national psyche. Sixteen years on, this story is perfectly captured in Angels with Dirty Faces by Jonathan Wilson.
Buenos Aires has the look and feel of a southern European capital about it, like Madrid or Nice. British engineers brought the game to the ‘Land of Silver’ in the late nineteenth century leaving their mark in the team names: Newell’s Old Boys, Banfield, River Plate, All Boys.
Wilson explains how the wider Argentinian population absorbed the game and the British influence faded within decades. Argentina was already competing on the global stage by the 1910s, thwarted by neighbours Uruguay in early Copa America and World Cup finals before beginning to fill their own trophy cabinet. He scores some very high profile interviews with past players, which adds real authority to the tome. [Continues…]
Argentina’s politics and football
At the turn of the twentieth century, Argentina was on course to become one of the wealthiest countries on earth. Its failure as a state as the century went on owes much to poor leadership and corruption. Coup after coup, financial collapse after financial collapse.
Argentina is a volatile country and football violence has been part of the game, from the very earliest days up the emergence of the barras bravas. Its game has followed the fortunes of the nation; when the country struggles, its best go abroad.
Wilson looks at the different styles of Argentina’s modern professors: César Luis Menotti, Carlos Bilardo and Marcelo Bielsa. He also covers the ‘Pibe’ identity, the scrappy street kid who makes it good on the pitch, encapsulated perfectly by Diego Armando Maradona.
Maradona’s shadow is long in the last 40 years of Argentinian football, and he carries way more love at home than his closest comparison, Lionel Messi, who left Argentina aged 13.
Messi’s move abroad is nothing out of the ordinary. Argentina’s domestic league cannot compete with Europe’s elite financially. Maradona played for Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors before his own move to FC Barcelona, and returned at the end of his career.
Angels with Dirty Faces is wonderfully segmented into bite-sized chapters, meaning it’s both snackable and an irresistible page-turner. The history geek with a love of South America, Wilson provides a wonderful narrative as to how the game took off and why – in a country so used to division – football is often the unifying force.
For more on Argentinian football. Check out our podcast with Buenos Aires-based football blogger Matt McGinn.