Football: the other religion of Argentina

Angels with Dirty Faces
by Jonathan Wilson, Orion, £20

Some of the best sports books of recent times have sought to survey the football culture of entire nations. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, about Dutch football, and Futebol: A Brazilian Way of Life, by Alex Bellos, are two of this sub-genre’s finest examples. Now Jonathan Wilson has thrown his history of Argentine football into the mix, and it’s a worthy addition.

Wilson is a cerebral and knowledgeable sports journalist. His book, Inventing the Pyramid, was a thorough exploration of the complexities of tactics and he recently appeared on BBC television’s fiendishly difficult quiz show, Only Connect. And what he gives us in Angels with Dirty Faces is a not just a history of the game in Argentina, but also an exhaustive account of all the cultural, social and political contexts in which moments such as the country’s World Cup victories in 1978 and 1986 took place.

At times, the sheer volume of information that Wilson crams in is a little overwhelming. Nevertheless, the extraordinary attention to detail will reward the dedicated reader as he serves up reams of entertaining titbits, involving one-handed strikers, buried chickens and plenty more, alongside serious consideration of the junta’s reign of terror and other instances of Argentine discord.

Early in the proceedings, Wilson introduces the archetypal character of the pibe, a ragged-haired street urchin who plays his football with passion and abandon. Argentina’s two greatest players, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, undoubtedly fit the pibe mould. There is plenty on both men here, but it’s with the latter’s arrival at the halfway point that the book truly takes off.

We get all the familiar Maradona stories about the “hand of God”, the drug-taking and his run-ins with the Camorra during his time in Naples. More importantly, Wilson fully illuminates the extraordinary genius that Maradona was on the field.

Pope Francis recently said that Messi was the greatest player of all time. As an Englishman I probably shouldn’t say this, but to me it’s Maradona. A crazy one, for sure, but still the ultimate pibe.