It is 3.45 on a Tuesday afternoon and Salta, a town of half a million people, is deserted. I mean, absolutely unequivocally completely deserted. Not one soul is visible on the streets. Like Arcade Fire said, no cars go. The traffic lights blink at empty intersections. The footpaths either side of the long boulevards run away until they fuse together, with not one flicker of movement to distract the eye from their vanishing point. Even the ubiquitous colectivo buses are absent. The world is still, only the odd bird-call breaks the covenant. Later a friend sends me a picture of Constitucion train station in Buenos Aires at this same moment, a structure of Spencer Street proportions whose platforms normally hold one or two thousand commuters. It too is as blank as a newly-cleaned whiteboard. We could be seeing a still from the opening scenes of 28 Days Later. The reason for this desolation is simple. The Argentine national football team is playing.
Now let’s just clarify a couple of things. Yes, this is the World Cup. But it is only the group stages, and Argentina have won both their games so far, including a comfortable 4-1 in their recent outing. Their passage to the knockout rounds is all but assured, it would take a string of absolutely freak results to stop them from here. So this is as close to a dead rubber as World Cup football gets. But if you imagined this would make any difference to the game’s following, you don’t understand Argentina. The opponent is Greece, but this doesn’t matter. The match is irrelevant, but this doesn’t matter either. The point is, Argentina is playing. In the World Cup. And no-one in this country is willing or able to do anything else but watch.
Once you get off the streets, you find out where the missing people are hiding. They’re in shops and homes and offices. They’re in cafes and apartments. Anywhere with a power point has a screen attached to it, and anywhere with a screen has a crowd. There are nineteen people crammed into the locksmith’s, lining the counter. The guy from the fruit stall has abandoned it for the sanctuary of the milk bar – there’s no danger of anyone coming by to steal his produce. Out in provincial backwaters, modest houses of mud brick and tin are adorned with satellite dishes. The bars and restaurants off the main plaza are a sea of light blue and white, flags and shirts and hats and make-up, even though Argentina are wearing their solid dark blue strip today. It must be said that the fans of football teams wearing blue have always been just a little unoriginal. The French are routinely Les Bleus, the Italians the Azzurri. Uruguay are La Celeste, Argentina La Albiceleste, Nicaragua Los Albiazules. In the English leagues, Chelsea are The Blues, as are Manchester City, Birmingham, Coventry, Chester, Everton, Ipswich Town, Shrewsbury, Southend, Grays Athletic, Linfield, Ballymena and Stranraer. Not to mention Dinamo Zagreb, Apeldoorn, and of course Carlton in the AFL. Eschewing plurals, Kuwait and Serbia go for The Blue, while Israel, Bordeaux, and Göteborg are The Blue and Whites. But still. Nomenclatural originality aside, with its pucker-mouthed Sun of May in the centre, the sky-blue and white of Argentina has always made up one of the most handsome flags in the world, and it looks just as well on their team and on their fans. To see both in full flight is a privilege.
Argentina are attacking from the get-go. Messi lives up to his name of The Flea, burrowing in and out of the Greek defence with his strange hunch-shouldered hustle. Every time he embarks on one of his scything runs toward the box you can feel the crowd tense and the volume start to lift. Veron lets fly a thunderous 35-yard drive that leaves Tsorvas vibrating like Wile E. Coyote. Aguero is fed about five chances on goal but punches each one straight at the keeper. The break is nil-all, but you can feel that it’s only a matter of time. Indeed it is. Tevez isn’t playing today, so Argentina’s second-ugliest player in Demichelis drags his death-metal haircut up from defence to smash home a rebounded corner after a sniff of handball. Messi is still going for it. You get the feeling that Maradona’s coaching decisions are based far more on the emotional than the tactical or the pragmatic. He wants to see attacking. He wants to see goals. He’d spit on a six-man backline. When asked by reporters whether his players look for Messi too often, Maradona says ardently “Messi should have the ball. Messi has fun when he has the ball. And when Messi has fun, it’s entertaining for everybody. To take the ball away from Messi means that football isn’t beautiful anymore. To take the ball away from Messi, it’s like…” He pauses for a moment, regarding the half-eaten apple in his hand. “It’s like taking my apple away from me when I’m hungry.”
But never is Maradona’s hunch philosophy more apparent than in the 80th minute, when the 36-year-old Martín Palermo is subbed onto the field. The hubbub at the ground goes up ten notches. Likewise in the bar. This, you can tell just from the reaction, is something special, another chapter in an extraordinary story. In 1999, after several prolific years for Boca Juniors, Palermo made the national team only to miss three penalties for Argentina in a Copa America match they lost 3-0. Those in power said he would never play for Argentina again. During a stint in Spain in 2002, he climbed into the fans to celebrate a goal, then broke both bones in his left leg when the concrete barrier collapsed on top of him. For a while it seemed his career was over. But he returned to Boca and battled other injuries to finally make a comeback, with the winning goal against arch-rivals River Plate. There is, my friend Pancho explains, just something about Palermo. For all his ups and downs, he’s a lucky player, he brings luck with him. He’s awkward and gangly and doesn’t look dangerous, but he has an extraordinary knack for being in the right place at the right time. He’s a master of the last-minute score, and an incredible fluke-merchant. He scores goals that bounce off his back, his leg, the back of his head when he’s looking the other way. He has a swag of mid-pitch strikes to his name, including an extraordinary 40-yard header from a kick-in. He’s…Palermo.
But no matter his exploits, the national squad’s lack of forgiveness continued. Until after a decade of exile, that is, when one Diego Armando Maradona was put in charge. When Palermo was first called back for the tail-end of 2009’s World Cup qualifiers, people said Maradona was mad. Palermo was past it. Too old. Never good enough to begin with. A proven failure. But he was still the lucky player of Pancho’s imagination, and as Argentina faced the very real possibility of failing to qualify for a World Cup for the first time, locked at 1-1 with a resurgent Peru, it was Palermo who somehow found himself in the right spot in a mess of players and mud and rain. It was Palermo who scrambled home a scruffy goal-mouth winner in the 93rd minute of the final qualifying game, and Palermo who stood at the corner flag, shirt off, arms spread wide, face upturned to the teeming rain in his own personal Shawshank Redemption.
And so here we are, with Palermo, at 36 years of age, about to make his World Cup debut. Veron is also 36, and his selection faced similar criticism. But it doesn’t matter. The simple fact is that Maradona loves Veron. Palermo was an even more left-field choice. But Maradona loves Palermo. And that’s all there is to it. No fitness trials, no computer modelling, no strategy planning. Maradona wants them to play, and so they play.
Still and all. With a strikeforce comprising Messi, Tevez, Milito, Higuain, and Aguero, you get the feeling that this is a gesture by Maradona, a final few minutes of top level football for an old favourite now that Argentina’s passage through is assured. Palermo is a kind of Argentine Harry Kewell, a veteran and fine purveyor of his art whose service and skill deserve a send-off. But the Palermo story couldn’t be any more different to Kewell’s desperately unlucky return (and farewell) to World Cup football. After a few confident passes through midfield, and a couple of good runs forward, he floats wide right as Messi’s blazing shot is parried away from goal, and is there to calmly sidefoot past the Greek keeper into the corner of the netting. Cue delirium from the fans. Cue delirium from his teammates. Cue the greatest look of childlike joy ever seen on the face of a footballer. They are not so much celebrating the goal as celebrating the man, the sense of completion, the story. As Maradona says after the game, “The film of Palermo has no ending.”
This is what makes this team stand out from the dullard professional automatons of Europe. Argentina runs on emotion. Maradona runs on emotion. Thing is, it works for him. Veron has been rolling back the years controlling midfield. Palermo has turned screenwriter yet again. Messi has been given trust and free rein, and has so far turned in one of the most dominant singlehanded displays in memory, with a hand (though not of God) in every Argentine goal in the tournament. When Maradona has faith in his players, based on nothing but affection and instinct, they respond to it. Such is the power and charisma of the man, flawed genius though he so clearly is.
Across the road from the bar is a TV in the window of a sports shop. Its broadcast is coming through about ten seconds earlier than ours, but no-one else has noticed. Every close play is followed a belated series of oohs and aahs from our barmates, when we already know the result. So when Palermo slots home in the 89th, Juan is on his feet shouting ‘Goal!’ way too early and too loud. On our TVs, the ball is still in midfield, with Messi yet to make his run. The table next to us half goes up in celebration at Juan’s word. Confusion reigns across the bar, people expectant, frozen halfway up from their seats, looking around for information. The delay gives him time to start videoing the bar before the belated confirmation comes through on our screens, and the crowd erupts in an incoherent roar. There’s not much more to play. The whistle goes. Palermo comes on screen, and the crowd lights up again like the beaming smile on his face.
The girls at the table next to us ask us to email them the video we took. We dick around with phones and addresses for a while. ‘Ok, we’re going to dance now,’ they say.
‘Where?’ we ask, wondering how many nightclubs are open at five in the afternoon.
‘Down there,’ they say, pointing to the street. And sure enough, as we sit and watch, the crowds start to gather, blue and white streaming in from all directions. By the time we make it downstairs, there must be a couple of thousand people, lumped together into a kind of mobile mosh pit that starts to circle the perimeter of the main plaza. There are trumpets and horns and a never-ending array of drums, and by God these people jump and chant and sing. Periodically the music ramps up to a faster tempo, and the people mash together more closely to bounce in circles like a ska concert, before dispersing a little to continue their laps. Little tiny kids are visible above the crowd, their heads jouncing up and down as they ride on someone’s shoulders. People further away straddle scooters and hammer the horns. People are hanging out of windows over the street, draping Argentine flags from the sills. The procession circles and circles endlessly on. Flags are being waved in all directions. Some guy inexplicably has a large model B-52 aeroplane, complete with independently spinning props, mounted on a broomstick, and is zooming it back and forth. On the steps of the town hall, a scruffy but beaming gentleman spreads out a large blue and white banner that proclaims “Dios es Argentino.” (“God is an Argentine.”)
And that isn’t the only striking thing. I once heard in an interview that only ten percent of football fans (as opposed to fifty percent of AFL) are women. Well, whoever came up with that stat obviously never came here. As demographics would suggest, women make up a good half of the dancing crowd, and fill most of the spots in the windows. Every Argentine woman I’ve spoken to knows about the team, the players, the progress, who’s in, who’s out, what their major worries are. At game time the streets aren’t deserted on a gender basis. And however stylish and beautiful, feminine and high-heeled, they’re still here, still accessorised with ribbons of white and blue, with cut-off Albiceleste tube tops, with Messi No. 10 singlets over their designer jeans. They’re still waving flags and jumping and shouting with everyone else. They still do much more than care. They’re still living this moment, drinking it in and feeling the high as much as any testosteronal counterpart. The feeling is amazing. The atmosphere prickles your skin. And what’s more amazing is that Salta is only a small city in the scheme of things. There’s the knowledge that this is happening across the country, in Mendoza, in Bariloche, Calafate, Rio Gallegos, La Plata, Trelew, Resistencia, Cordoba. And of course one granddaddy celebration in Buenos Aires. And just to recap – this is for what was essentially a token group match. It’s impossible to imagine what might happen if they win the thing. And on current form that looks a distinct possibility.
On the way out of the plaza I’m collared by a TV crew to be “our foreign friend” for an interview. Questions in Spanish, answers in Spanish. I’m not sure how well I put my points across, though I do my best. But I think that even in English I would struggle. There are things that are obvious, but hard to explain. There are things that are obvious and don’t need to be explained. And the feeling today in the plaza fits both of these descriptions. It’s simple, and intuitive, and all-encompassing. It’s the raw beauty of sport, and of tribalism: when the andinos and the latinos and the mestizos and the italianos and the rubios and the odd lost gringo can all come down to where the drums beat and the trumpets play, and shout their joy to a darkening winter sky.