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
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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
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
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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