Watching Argentina play against Croatia on Thursday, I had this strange feeling of déjà vu.
My dear adopted homeland,
First of all, I’m very sorry about the result on Thursday. It was not a good performance, you’re right. And you have every reason to be angry. No, I don’t think Messi is to blame. It’s more complicated than that. Caballero, you say? Well, it’s a bit harsh to blame one person when there were 22 on the pitch... but it was a major fuck up, I’ll give you that.
Anyway, it’s time to calm down now. Take a deep breath. There’s something I want to share with you, if you have the time. But I warn you, you might not like hearing it.
Here’s the thing. I’m English. I’m married to an Argentine. We live here. And I like it here. I love Argentines. My daughter is even half-Argentine. Basically, I care about you all deeply (regardless of that ‘complicated’ history between our two nations, if I can put it that way, that people sometimes like to bring up).
But anyway, it’s time we talked. This is an intervention. You see, watching Argentina play against Croatia on Thursday, I had this strange feeling of déjà vu.
A stodgy performance, lacking inspiration, lacking guile, lacking a tactical plan... the players performing with the weight of a nation’s hopes, a nation’s history, on their backs... it all felt so familiar. I came to a realisation: change those light-blue-and-white stripes for an all-white top and it was just like watching my own nation play in any of the previous three or four World Cups.
Yes, that’s right. The Albiceleste are turning into England.
Bear with me. I know your first instinct will be to rebel but when you look at it more closely, it makes sense.
A star player, hailed as one of the best in the world. Ready to make history yet struggling to have an impact on the game. Built up as a national hero, within three minutes of the final whistle his character is being ripped apart, questioned and criticised.
Tick. For Lionel Messi, read Wayne Rooney.
A completely disorganised defence, prone to mistakes, made up of players that don’t know where to position themselves.
Tick. Swap Otamendi and co. for Smalling and Jones.
A goalkeeper making ridiculous, ludicrous, technicolour mistakes on the biggest stage in the world. Tick. For Willy Caballero, read Joe Hart or Rob Green.
A non-existent centre midfield, made up of players who don’t suit each other, playing passes that are too obvious with a complete and utter lack of urgency.
Tick. Replace Mascherano, Biglia, Banega and the like with Gerrard and Lampard.
A coach that doesn’t seem to have a clue, shoehorning players into roles for which they aren’t suited.
Tick. Swap Jorge Sampaoli for Sven-Göran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson. Take your pick.
It’s creepy, right?
Well, there’s more. Into the mix, we should add all that optimism, all that hope that builds as the tournament nears. You know your team is a bit rubbish and the friendly performances were uninspiring but either way, you can’t help it... that feeling starts to grow as the tournament nears... hang on a minute, we could really do it, right? We could really win this thing!
It’s a sickness.
I even think that now. England have been awful for years in tournaments, we have one of the youngest, most inexperienced squads in Russia and we laboured to a victory in our last game, scoring only in the final minutes of the match. Yes. Ridiculously, inexplicably, I still think we have a chance of winning it. How deranged am I? What the hell is wrong with me?
Here’s the maybe harsh truth. We are two glorious footballing nations, both in love with and unhealthily obsessed by the game. But we are living off old memories, ramping up our hopes and dreams and setting ourselves up for a big fall.
Meanwhile, our players are already condemned before even a ball of the tournament is kicked. And here’s the worst bit: they will never even be able to live up to those memories of the past, even if they win a few games in Russia. Those memories, those moments frozen in time are impossible to top. They have the benefit of being wrapped in nostalgia, in sepia print, with all the awkward bits, the pain along the way smoothed over our own forgetful, selective memories.
The fact that both Argentina and England have won the World Cup means we really think we have a chance, every time the tournament comes around, no matter how shit our squad is, or how disorganised we seem to be.
I’m sad to say it, my dear Argentina, that I think our two nation’s football teams might have more than common than you think.
I know this might be painful to recognise. And I know we’ve had our differences in the past. My country and yours, we have some history, right? But it’s time to embrace the only conclusion available: the Albiceleste have turned into England.
A few years ago, I wrote a column for the Buenos Aires Herald, in which I attempted to resolve a dilemma. Could I, as an Englishman, support Argentina at the 2014 World Cup, when my own team (inevitably) got knocked out of the tournament, considering the somewhat tasty footballing history between our two nations?
My conclusion was not so much a conclusion as a realisation that yes, I probably could and should, considering what this country has given me. Frankly, it was the least I could do. And the rest of that tournament in Brazil made up my mind for me.
A sucker for punishment, I was screaming at the TV every match with my friends and colleagues, desperate for the Albiceleste to win the trophy and for Messi to shove the criticism up the arse of every doubting nobody out there. When I wrote the match report for the newspaper of the final match, it was a soul-destroying process.
This time around, I’m there again, routing for the Albiceleste. And why not? I know England won’t win it, and now it looks like Argentina won’t win it either, but only my own nation winning the thing would be better than your team taking the title.
I’ll have my fingers crossed for the Nigeria match. I know it doesn’t look good, but with Messi on the pitch, anything could happen, right? The Ecuador match is proof that the worst nightmares can turn into glorious dreams. If Argentina can scrape a win, you never know what might happen, right?
Damn it. You know what? I’ve fallen for it again.