Messi has won every possible tournament at his club, FC Barcelona. Argentina regularly produces world class soccer players that excel in Europe. Argentina has also won two World Cups. So, the question arises: why hasn’t the pulga lifted any trophies with the albiceleste?
Theories abound. Some claim that Messi relies on the midfield brilliance of Barcelona players Xavi and Iniesta. Others point to generational talent gaps in his national team. A decade ago, Argentina rode a wave of creative midfielders with Veron, Riquelme, and Aimar. Now, however, they feast on forwards like Tevez, Aguero, and Higuain. This lack of balance complicates team formations, especially since Ever Banega plays enganche about as well as he sets his parking brake. Some point to the long shadow of Diego Maradona. The pulga cannot escape the legacy of the pibe diez, they speculate.
All these theories are quaint. They are also wrong. Why? Because they are myopic. The soccer universe has constructed an elaborate lexicon and discourse to explain itself, yet this closed system chokes off alternative explanations. Messi, and Argentina, won’t win anything for the foreseeable future and it has nothing to do with soccer. Allow me to explain.
I had the pleasure of living in Argentina several years ago. I enjoyed life in Buenos Aires, and even caught a few so so games. Many Mexicans & chicanos feel a weird inferiority complex towards Argentines based on general stereotypes of soccer-skill. Many other folks from Latin America hold Argentines in low regards – they view their confidence and demeanor as borderline “brash and arrogant.” I definitely didn’t get that vibe, but I was raised in the US, so perhaps my arrogantly brash blinders clouded the view.
Regardless, at the time Argentina beamed with promise. Pekerman had recently constructed a gorgeous team that played possession soccer and lost to Germany on penalties at the latest World Cup. A young Mascherano snapped into tackles, a wiser Riquelme spread passes to and fro, and the reliable Abbondanzieri stood around like a patient father. Things could only get better, right? Right? Wrong.
Flash forward several years. I live in Managua, Nicaragua, and now have two young children. Young children watch programming geared towards young children, as you can imagine. Network TV in Managua offers very little of said programming. I cave, we get cable, and, one day, a program that would forever change the course of Latin America enters our living room.
In the novel 100 Years of Solitude, various characters from the town of Macondo wander around mirrors at key moments. Why? Because the mirrors reveal humanity’s two most prominent and polar opposite traits as a species: genuine reflection and self delusion. Mirrors can show us who we really are, but they can also fool the eye with ease. Our capacity to recall the past is only matched by the power of the present to re-write the past.
Tragedy can foster reflection and recollection, or delusion and amnesia. Thus, nobody in Latin America remembers much about the short-lived Argentine TV show “Patito Feo [Ugly Duckling].” Nobody, except for me, the only person brave and strong enough to recount the horrors. As a premise, Patito Feo revolved around a nerdy girl that didn’t fit in at high school. Practically, Patito Feo combined the worst aspect of Disney’s High School Musical, lackluster singing and dancing talent, with the worst stereotypes of Latin American telenovelas, catty girl and guy fights. It was toxic.
Yet the kids gobbled it up. In fact, Patito Feo became such a phenomenon that it toured all over Latin America, holding concerts and even dance competitions for kids. Like the plague, it spread and disregarded sacrosanct national boundaries. Once airborne, it easily circumvented routine airport screenings. What could spark such insanity? What fueled this propitious and cancerous reproduction?
Well, here’s a brief glimpse. I really am torn about showing NC-17 content on this site, but here goes. Watch this clip, if you can stomach it:
That video has received over 1.8 million views. In Chinese prisons, peasant farmer rights activists are forced to watch entire episodes and write original Patito Feo spec scripts until their brains dribble out their nose. Most commit suicide before the first commercial break. Luckily, though, the universe is a just place. The world will never forgive Argentina for unleashing this monster. Therefore, Messi & Argentina will not win, and it’s not because of players or tactics or luck, it’s due to the Maldicion del Patito Feo [Curse of the Ugly Duckling]. This pop culture curse plagues all that don the baby blue and white jersey.
And this isn’t some quaint Bambino curse where, like the Red Sox, you can just hire a sharp & young GM that will steal Billy Beane’s spreadsheets and multiply the sums by a million dollars. To break this spell, Argentina must resort to human sacrifice or instill a new dictatorship and win another shady World Cup at home with dubious 6-0 “victories.” Short of bloodshed or bribing a Peruvian goalie, don’t expect to see the pulga lifting a World Cup trophy anytime soon. The universe’s sense of righteousness simply won’t allow it.
So the next time some TV pundit speculates as to Messi’s failures with Argentina, just recall the Maldicion del Patito Feo and the from-the-gates-of-hell damned dance of las divinas. Then, go to your bathroom, wash your face with cold water, and try to remember to forget what you wish we never knew.
Elliott’s eBook, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, is available for under $5 at Amazon. Check out a free preview here.