Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Teetering on the Brink

    Is everyone ready then? The biggest game of the World Cup so far is going to take place tomorrow; finally it is time for England against Argentina.

    It is a classic encounter: Europe versus South America, Strength against Flair. It is not quite a derby game - the World Cup's equivalent of Rangers/Celtic, Liverpool/Everton or Boca/River Plate - but it is not far off. In fact it has taken over from the traditional geographical rivalries like England/Scotland and Argentina/Uruguay, and has gained a whole new meaning in the past 40 years.

    Still, whether English fans would rather beat Argentina or Germany, and whether their Argentinian counterparts would rather beat the Brazilians or the English is another question. Local rivalry still matters; being top dog on your continent is still more important than beating a team from the other side of the world that you might only play once every four or five years.

    But here is the problem for England and Argentina. At the moment both countries perceive their traditional continental rivals to be comfortably beneath them. Argentina have been the best side in South America for the past four years and would not be worried about meeting (or beating) Brazil. The situation is even more clear-cut for England. The 5:1 defeat of Germany has exorcised that ghost - England might lose next time they play the Germans, but that victory is going to count for a long time to come.

    However, as the game approaches, you get the idea that this game is more important to Argentina this time around. Four years ago it was England who were obsessed with the game. It was a grudge match, a chance for revenge for 1986 and Maradona. Today it is Argentina that is fixated with victory, and it is a need that even surpasses the English.

    Don't get me wrong, this game is still important for England, and all English fans want to win, but the feeling coming out of Buenos Aries, Cordoba and Mendoza is one of desperation and extreme anxiety. If England beat Bielsa's team then a mood of despair will sweep through the nation, all the way from the tropical forests in the north, through the Andean peaks, detour in and out the cosmopolitan cities, before taking a long arc through the pampas to finish up shivering among the glaciers of Patagonia. Worse, if the unthinkable was to happen, and England were to win, something nasty, something dangerous, could happen in Argentina.

    Argentina is a country in crisis, and it has nothing to do with football. Since last summer, when the peso collapsed, Argentina has been bankrupt. Once the richest country in Latin America, Argentina now suffers from endemic social and political problems. In under a year, Shanty Towns have grown up again where once they had been left abandoned as desolate poverty was almost eradicated. Truques - bartering centres - can be found up and down the country and inside them once prosperous professionals try to exchange their expensively educated skills for bread, toiletries or haircuts. Tuberculosis is back in a country that once wiped it out for more than twenty years. Children die undernourished in the shadow of huge, empty department stores and financial houses.

    No one could have expected this to happen on such a scale, so quickly. Argentina had always had poverty and desolation - Maradona himself had been brought up in a sprawling Shanty Town, and lived among the filth, crime and despair for much of his early life - but since the early 1980s things had been getting better. Inflation was controlled, jobs were created. Multinational corporations opened component factories and assembly plants, at much for the burgeoning Argentinian market as for export. It seemed to be a NIC, a Newly Industrialising Country, rising from less developed to more developed status in less than a generation. And if that was not enough, the country had managed to shake off decades of military dictatorships and terror, and became a parliamentary democracy. It was not a Shangri-La or utopia, but it seemed to be moving in the right direction, and its people were getting a better quality of life.

    Now the President fears for the future. "Argentina is on the edge of a bloodbath," warned Eduardo Duhalde, "this time bomb will explode if we do not carefully dismantle it. Class war may not be far off." And all it needs is a match to light the fuse. Already looting and rioting have turned many cities into war zones. Banks and shops are guarded 24 hours a day by armed guards, yet many have still been ransacked or left abandoned. Worse still, violent political demonstrations have ended in several deaths. Even the football hooligans have been joining in - an already under funded police force can no longer afford to control the massed gangs, angry at their teams selling off every player worth more than a few thousand dollars. Now the gangs join in the looting and violence. Society is on a knife-edge.

    But what will be the final straw that tips this delicate balance? Could it be a high profile loss to old enemy England, just a week before the twentieth anniversary of Argentina's loss in the Falklands War? That is too scary a thought to think about, but time and time again football has been used by Argentina's leaders to placate the people - the World Cup in 1978, the World Youth Championship in 1980 - and this time they more than ever want a patriotic upsurge to help subdue and pacify the people. But what if it all goes wrong, what if Beckham or Owen scores a late winner in what is sure to be a tight, tense game? Duhalde may well want his people to take to the streets to celebrate victory, but what will they do in defeat?

    And it had to be England. The English and Argentinian press has been full of quotes from the two sets of players, many talking of wanting victory, but also tempering expectations. "They are a strong team, it will be a hard game" tends to be the general tone, but of course it always ends with "but we will win". Yet in the background, harder more rabble-rousing stuff can also be found - much from Argentina.

    Talk of taking revenge for the Malvinas, of English imperialism, is barely concealed. Argentina may have had the best of the football battles recently, but Britain is still in possession of the Falklands and all its mineral wealth and fishing rights. And that still rankles. Memories of that disastrous, pointless war are fading, and are being replaced by nostalgia and hindsight. Stories in the British press of just how close Britain came to losing the war have only served to promote what might have been in many Argentinian minds. And while no one is ever suggesting that armed conflict between the two countries will take place again, Argentina will not allow this unwanted anniversary to be compounded with further defeat on the football pitch.

    Of course, the English hardly help here. Constant re-runs of old World Cup footage is always peppered with 1986 and 1998 chants - 'Argentina, Argentina, What's it like to lose a war?' - and while it is not fashionable to espouse such sentiment in the press, there has been an upswing in British nationalism as well. This past week's Jubilee has not helped. Huge flag waving 'celebrations' like those seen in London over the weekend would not have looked out of place in Videla-era Buenos Aries or some other dictatorship, and they really are not the type of thing a forward thinking, European democracy should be engaging in, especially in the Twenty First Century.

    Part of me wants this game to peeter out into a dull draw, but then again as an England football fan I want to see my side win. I just hope it does not have dire consequences.

    We have all been waiting for this game for a very long time, building up to it and looking forward to it. Football has the power to do a lot of good in the world; it brings nations together, and makes us all happy. I hope this game is no different.



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