Football Read Review: Few angels, but some great players


Angels with Dirty Faces: The footballing history of Argentina by Jonathan Wilson
I HAVE to admit to being a little biased here as Jonathan Wilson is just about my favourite contemporary football writer.

Following classic tomes such as Inverting the Pyramid, Behind the Curtain and the books involving England and Liverpool’s defining matches, Wilson has done it again, producing an absorbing book that tells the story of one of the most enigmatic footballing nations.
As ever with Wilson’s work, it’s superbly researched and he places football in the context of much wider issues – there’s politics, social history and culture all wrapped up in the story of the Argentinian game.

Having worked on Argentinian debt restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s alongside several natives of Buenos Aires and Cordoba, Argentina has always been a special place for me, and Wilson’s book, arguably one of the finest football books of recent years, lived up to expectations.

We would tease our colleagues with the question: “Hey, Carlos, how do you make money out of an Argentine player?”. After a shrugged shoulder, we would add: “Buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.” Well, it was 1982.

That said, we enjoyed Argentina’s successes in 1978 and 1986 – the ticker tape welcomes, the long-haired cavalier style of Mario Kempes and Leopoldo Luque and the scurrying of Osvaldo Ardiles. And eight years later, you could only admire Diego Maradona, despite the “Hand of God”.

Especially interesting in Wilson’s book is the chapter on World Cup 1978, “Glory in a time of terror”, which revealed that Cesar Luis Menotti was not a child of the Junta, telling his team, “we are the people…we come from the victimised classes”.

And the way he talks of the emergence of Maradona, “The Nativity”, says a lot about how Argentina looked to the talented youngster to lead the country to greatness. What’s amazing is that Maradona was being mentioned in despatches as far back as 1971, when he was just 11 years old. Some 15 years later, Maradona had what Wilson rightly calls, “His finest hour” as he almost single-handedly captained Argentina to their second World Cup.

wilson-2Maradona dominates vast swathes of the book, to be succeeded by the luckless Lionel Messi. Although Maradona received his anointment in the form of the 1986 World Cup, along with his pivotal role in taking Napoli to two Serie A titles. Messi has not enjoyed the greatest success with his country, although he was [surprisingly] named player of the tournament in World Cup 2014.

Wilson makes a telling observation about Argentinian football in his closing address. Given that the country has been built on immigration, it is now ironic that most of Argentina’s best players are emigrants. “Football is another Argentinian dream that has slipped away….Argentinian football has become something that is played elsewhere.”

This is a great book – buy it, enjoy it and learn from it!

As my old colleague Carlos would say, “Que grande, Wilson!”.

Angels with Dirty Faces: The footballing history of Argentina by Jonathan Wilson, is published by Orion Books.

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