Excerpted from Angels with Dirty Faces: How Argentinian Soccer Defined a Nation and Changed the Game Forever by Jonathan Wilson. Copyright © 2016. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
The smoke from the chori stalls mingled with a low mist to cover the approach to Santa Fe’s Estadio Brigadier General Estanislao Lopez in a fine haze. The round bulbs on the lamps that line the broad promenade through the park glowed indistinctly. By the wrought-iron railings, hawkers sold knockoff Argentina shirts, some with “Messi 10” on the back, but at least as many with “Tevez 11”: the interaction between the two had been the main point of discussion after Argentina had drawn their first game in the Copa America 1–1 against Bolivia. Could they play together? (Or, perhaps more accurately, given they’d played so effectively together in the 2007 Copa America, why could they do so no longer?) Did they keep trying to occupy the other’s space? And if one of them had to be dropped, who should it be? In retrospect, or even from the vantage point of Europe, it seemed weird that there should even be a question, but the Argentinian view of soccer is almost invariably bound up with ideological issues.
There was an odd sense at that point that the 2011 Copa America was yet to begin. Argentina was still in shock—in mourning, even—following the relegation of River Plate, and the scratchily insipid display against Bolivia had provoked only grumbling rather than the rage that might have been expected. This, after all, was Argentina’s tournament, their chance to end a run without a trophy stretching back eighteen years. They were the hosts, they had a fine array of attacking talent, and there were huge doubts about a Brazil side that seemed to have been selected with half an eye on blooding young players such as Neymar and Ganso for the 2014 World Cup.
But how could anyone think of the Copa America at a time like this, after River had gone down for the first time in their history? Another of the great certainties of life had been demolished, and that fact overshadowed all else, the parochialism Alabarces had noted after the 2002 World Cup eclipsing the possibilities of national glory. Fifteen years to the day after they’d beaten America de Cali to win the Copa Libertadores for the second time, River faced Belgrano in a relegation playoff. They’d already lost the first leg 2–0 in Cordoba, a game in which masked barras ran onto the field to berate their own players. Matters didn’t improve in the second leg. With moments to go and the score at 1–1, plastic seats began to rain down from the stands. Players took refuge in the center circle, surrounded by police. Riots spilled into the streets around the ground, smashing windows, cars, and other property. As shots were fired, police helicopters swept in. It was all very sad and very predictable.
There were those who blamed coach J. J. Lopez, who had been left impotent in the face of the gathering panic, his team selections inconsistent and probably needlessly cautious. The irony was River actually finished that clausura season ninth, having been fourth in the apertura. Had the Argentinian league operated as it once did with just one championship per year and everybody playing everybody else twice, River would have been fifth. They ended up being undone by the very system that was designed to spare the grandes the shame of relegation, the promedio. After winning the clausura under Diego Simeone in 2007–2008, River finished last in the apertura in 2008–2009. They woke up to their plight only two seasons later, and, when they did, paralysis gripped the club and they won none of their final seven matches.
Santa Fe is about a hundred miles south of Rosario; the game was in Messi’s home province and the closest the tournament came to his hometown. Yet even there, the public sympathy seemed to be with Tevez. The field-side announcer read out the teams before the game, announcing “in the 10, the best in the word, Lionel Messi.” There was polite applause. “And in the 11, the player of the people, Carlos Tevez.” There was a mighty roar.
To say Messi was ever unpopular in Argentina would be an exaggeration, but there was a skepticism about him: he had not played at home; he had not served his time at River or Boca; was he half a Catalan? It was understandable—he had, after all, left Argentina eleven years earlier—but it was also unfair: Messi has never been anything other than Argentinian. It’s true he has a tendency to mumble the anthem, but so do a lot of players, particularly those as shy as he is.
But the fascination, really, was less the suspicion surrounding Messi—one experienced by a large number of Argentinians who have made their name abroad, from Che Guevara to Borges—than the overwhelming popularity of Tevez. When Borocoto described the pibe, he gave a startlingly accurate portrait of Diego Maradona. But Tevez, with his shock of black hair, the neck scarred by an early accident with a pan of boiling water, the squat physique, and the impoverished background, fits the template just as well: he too is an archetypal pibe, and it is that, almost more than anything else, that really seems to stir the Argentinian soccer public. Messi, by contrast, with his more comfortable background and his sensible haircut, despite his lack of height and the slightness of his build, is somehow something else; he doesn’t quite fulfill the pibe stereotype, which feeds into suspicions of a player whose teenage development took place abroad. Tevez was on the squad only because of his popularity: Coach Sergio Batista had dropped him after he’d withdrawn from a friendly against Brazil with “muscular problems” only to play for Manchester City soon after, but had recalled him under what he later described as “political pressure” after Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires, had called for his selection.
Colombia rarely looked threatened in a 0–0 draw. A few days later, I visited a vineyard in Mendoza and ended up discussing the Messi-Tevez issue with the manager. We agreed they replicated each other’s runs and that they couldn’t play together. I asked which she would drop. “For games against weak sides,” she said, “play Messi. He is more skillful, more creative. But against good sides, against Brazil or Uruguay . . . ,” she rapped her knuckles over her heart, “Tevez has garra. He has spirit. He will fight.” I had wondered whether the issue was particularly class based: was Tevez the hero of “the people” in the sense of the great mass of the poor? But the feeling was pervasive. Tevez was preferred not because his background was more impoverished but because he seemed more authentically Argentinian.
Tevez was dropped for the final-group game, against an understrength Costa Rica, and, with Messi, Aguero, and Di Maria arrayed behind Gonzalo Higuain in a 4-2-3-1, Argentina had far better balance, winning 3–0. They finished second in the group as Colombia won 2–0 against Bolivia, meaning that, rather than playing one of the two best third-place teams in the quarter-finals, they faced Uruguay.
Batista selected the same side, but after five minutes Diego Perez forced the ball over the line after Alvaro Pereira had headed down a Diego Forlan free kick. Things came back on track as Higuain headed in a scooped cross from the right from Messi twelve minutes later, and the game seemed to take a decisive shift Argentina’s way seven minutes before halftime when Perez, already booked for an early lunge on Javier Mascherano, picked up a second caution for a block on Fernando Gago. Uruguay’s manager, Oscar Washington Tabarez, shifted Alvaro Pereira infield, playing a 4-3-2 with nobody on the left side of midfield. It was a counterintuitive move, leaving Messi free, but Tabarez had recognized that, so inflexible was the Argentinian system, he always cut inside. Messi kept doing so and kept running into traffic. Argentina struggled to create chances, while Uruguay twice hit the bar. Tevez came on for Aguero after eighty-three minutes, but cut a disaffected, petulant figure. The hosts became increasingly frustrated, culminating in a second yellow card for Mascherano with four minutes remaining.
The game went to penalties, Tevez’s effort was saved by Fernando Muslera, and Uruguay won. Argentina were out, and the people had begun to turn on Tevez. It wasn’t a simple case of blaming him for missing the penalty; rather, it was that the miss came as a symptom of something wider, a sense that Tevez, having been left out, didn’t return desperate to regain his place, but sulked. That wasn’t part of the pibe appeal; that wasn’t the tenacity the kid from the potreros was supposed to demonstrate. Four years later, Tevez admitted he should never have been selected. “I wasn’t prepared in 2011,” he said, “and should have been left out of the Copa, but they called me at the last second and I joined the team.”
That autumn, during a Champions League game at Bayern Munich, Tevez refused to warm up when asked to do so by Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini. He was dropped and suspended by the club and returned to Argentina, where he played a lot of golf and even caddied for Andres Romero during the final round of the Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. That gave Alejandro Sabella, who succeeded Batista after the Copa America, an excuse not to pick him. By the time Tevez was playing again, Argentina had a system that worked and had taken them to top of the World Cup qualifying group. It wasn’t until 2015 that he was selected for the national side again, by which time Gerardo Martino had replaced Sabella.