Uruguay v France: Under-20 World Cup final

Not much in the way of proper, meaningful football going on in Argentina but it was a very different story over the river in Uruguay at the weekend.

Their Under-20 boys were playing France in the final of their World Cup, being played in Turkey.

Coincidently I was scheduled to interview the president that same afternoon. Yes, you read correctly. I interviewed President Jose Mujica.

“We’d like to be done well before three,” said the press people. In any other country you might have asked: “Why? Phone call coming in from Obama? A budget to rubber stamp?”

“No. Everyone wants to watch the football.” Obviously! This is after all a country of less than four million that has twice won the World Cup and are currently champions of South America.

Jose Mujica has been dubbed the poorest president in the world since he gives ninety-percent of his salary to charity and drives a second-hand Volkswagon Beatle. The hole-riddled chunky cardigan could have been invented for him and he has a three-legged dog called Manuela.

In my research beforehand I read that he’d also spent two years imprisoned at the bottom of a well – a bizarre fact that I never had the opportunity to question him on. He was a former rebel – a leading member of Uruguay’s Tupamaros organization – who spent fourteen years in captivity after participating in an armed operation to take control of a small Uruguayan town. It was during that captivity, while the military was in power, that he spent the two years in the well. I had other things to ask him and our time was limited.

The president’s press office drove us from Montevideo to the presidential country retreat, La Anchorena, a two-and-a-half hour drive westwards in the direction of Colonia. We traveled in a mini-bus with presidential license plates which allowed us to whiz through the toll gates without paying and attracted many a curious stare to see if the man the locals affectionately call Pepe was inside.

After a brief wait in the gravel car park of La Anchorena we were told the president could meet us. He stood at the corner of the house clad in a sweat-shirt of indistinguishable colour thrown over an off-white sweat shirt that stretched over a protruding belly. He was slightly hunched, his grey hair long and swept back to give maximum prominence to bushy eyebrows that arched over small, dark and piercing eyes. The only other adornment on his weather-beaten face was a pert moustache of the type you’d see a lot of in films from the nineteen-fifties and sixties.

The president and his wife, Lucia Topolansky, a senator in the Uruguayan parliament, were in the midst of a ministerial meeting which had to finish promptly since, as I mentioned, there was football to be watched.

The three-legged dog, who Mrs Topolansky told me had suffered a lawn-mower accident, pottered about the lush-green grounds like she owned them.

We still were not ready when Mr Mujica appeared at my shoulder.

“Let’s just go,” I said between gritted teeth. “We’re ready.” It’s not every day you get to interview a president and I suspect that somewhere the protocol suggests you don’t keep them waiting – even one as amiable as the president of Uruguay.

The American whistleblower, Edward Snowden, was the top of everyone’s agenda. And since a Mercosur summit had ended the day before in Montevideo, I had to assume that had been their main topic of conversation – especially since the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, was there. And several countries in Europe had the previous week refused his plane entry to their airspace since they, wrongly, suspected Snowden was on board.

Hundreds of years of pent up Latin American resentment over European colonialism bubbled to the surface.

“Should a country in Latin America grant Snowden political asylum?” I asked the president.

“Political asylum is as important as a religion,” he replied. “It’s one of the fundamental human rights, with all the errors of judgement that can be made. As an institution humanity must defend political asylum.”

Unequivocable! The trouble was, he continued, he feared retribution from the United States if they did. “A superpower doesn’t let you defy it,” he explained. “Even though it has no reason, even though it has no legal standing. The US is trying to deter others so that these things don’t happen again.”

I’ve interviewed many politicians from many countries of all political colours and increasingly they talk on auto-pilot, programmed by their press offices to spout the party line. Not Pepe Mujica! He was animated. He thought about his answers and told it like he saw it, waving his hands in the air, stroking his chin, slumping back contentedly into the folds of his armchair when his point had been well made.

“Marijuana?” I said. “Uruguay wants to legalise its sale. What’s that all about?”

“Our main concern is drug trafficking,” he explained. “Much more than drug addiction. Drug trafficking is the main reason why violence has increased in our society because it brings criminal behaviour which infiltrates the whole society. Human life ends up not being worth anything.”

I work for Chinese television so I couldn’t not ask him about Chinese investment in his country. He’d been there just a couple of months earlier. “We have to negotiate with China,” he said. “They’re too big not to.”

It transpired that he’d also been to China as part of a student delegation in the early nineteen-sixties when he’d met Chairman Mao.

“Just a photograph,” he said modestly. But he was sure about Mao’s legacy. “Chairman Mao Zedong was aware that China was a potential power and that the reforms that he had promoted had had a relative degree of longevity but had to be framed in their 1000 year long history. What remained was a China that was solid and strong and proud of itself.”

President Mujica took office in March 2010. Under his watch Uruguay became the first country in the region to legalise abortion. “I don’t like abortion,” he said. “No-one likes abortion.” But it’s a reality, he explained, a reality that requires pragmatic solutions.

And his greatest achievement since he took office? Taking seven to eight hundred thousand people – in a country with a population of less than four million – out of poverty. “However,” he said. “The work is not done.”

Neither is Uruguay’s battle to bring to justice those who under the military dictatorship of the nineteen-seventies and eighties tortured and killed hundreds of their own people.

“They used torture,” said the president. “The country can’t use torture. We can’t use the measures they used because that’s not logical.” Too many people, he explained, were harbouring too much vital information that they were not willing to give up.

“Time passes and we are disappearing,” he said, referring to his own seventy-eight year old body. “I think debts of this kind leave great wounds in society.”

There was much more that I wanted to ask him. Whether he thought, with hindsight, that the armed struggle he took up in the nineteen-sixties was the right course of action, whether he had really been imprisoned at the bottom of a well and, if so, what was it like? But our  half-an-hour was up.

As we climbed aboard the presidential mini-bus taking us back to Montevideo, Manuela the three-legged dog waddled into view to see us off.

I’ve long held that countries probably get the politicians they deserve. Here was a man who had fought and suffered for his country, who had thought long and hard about its history, who at seventy-eight years old was still prepared to host ministerial meetings at the weekend and had the compassion to care for a three-legged dog.

Uruguay I thought as we pulled along the gravel path away from the presidential country retreat, is in good hands, well able to overcome their Under-20s’ defeat to France on penalties after the game ended goalless.

Game Nine: v Atletico de Rafaela

Argentinos Juniors  0  Atletico de Rafaela  0

Game Nine and the first one I’ve attended this season. OK, I  was present last month at that scintillating 3-0 victory by Leo Messi and his gang over Venezuela in the World Cup qualifiers and I did have my butt frozen to the seat at a bitterly cold Craven Cottage in February to see Dimitar Berbatov break sweat, almost, as he blasted a volley into the Stoke City net.

Then there was our regular visit to the West Ham shop in the Boleyn Ground to stock up on Hammers pencil cases, slippers and the like. We also paid a non-matchday visit to Anfield and trekked around the very impressive National Football Museum in Manchester.

I should have placed a bet on it on Codere

So I’ve not exactly been lacking football. It’s just that this is where it’s truly at. The bread and butter, the nitty-gritty, the bare bones of live, league football action on the terraces on a chilly Friday evening whinging and moaning about the quality of the play, the referee, the price of soft drinks and swimming in a cacophony of foul language.

The game was truly awful. It started badly and steadily deteriorated. The first-half ended with barely a shot on goal and the fans reduced to celebrating the one corner. The atmosphere was lively among the home fans. The huge away stand opposite hosted a mere straggle of Rafaela supporters, like Wigan followers at a Wembley final or Thatcher diehards at a miners’ meeting.

We consoled ourselves at the break that the second half couldn’t possibly be any worse than the first. Could it??!

It could and it was. Passes went astray, goalkeepers blasted their kicks into touch, defenders collided with one another. “What is this? Anti-football?” shouted one wit from the stands.

Then the home side brought on their little number 17. Diego Maradona was short, Kevin Keegan wore stacked heels and a puffed up mullet to hide his lack of stature and plenty of other quality players feel themselves fortunate if their eyeballs are on a level with Peter Crouch’s nipples when marking him for corners. But Daniel Villalva was tiny, a pocket-sized 152cm. I don’t know if he’s finished growing. I hope for his sake he hasn’t. His headers were met with ironic cheers, he scurried and hurried around the ankles of the Rafaela defenders, on one occasion nipping in below their field of vision to steal the ball and hit a rare strike on goal.

But the high point for me, on an occasion when the bar had been forced dangerously low, was when one disgruntled fan threw his false teeth over the railings at a Rafaela player about to take a throw-in.

It landed in a pink plop at his feet, the saliva glistening in the creamy glow of the floodlights.

To what depths of frustration must a fan have sunk to feel moved to rip his plate from his mouth and fling it angrily out of reach? Did he have no coins or lighter or  half-eaten sandwich? Did he not consider the consequences? Would he now have to sit out the Sunday afternoon asado, trying to suck molten beef fat through a straw while the rest of the family munched their mandibles on prime cuts of bife de chorizo?

One of the Argentinos trainers picked it up, realised what he was handling and flung it disgustedly back into the crowd. It was thrown back on to the pitch.

What if the toothless one were arrested? For I’m sure there’s a sub-clause of a paragraph somewhere in the Argentine constitution that forbids the flinging of dental accessories onto the field of play. Who knows where it could all end? Would disgruntled fans next start tossing artificial limbs, colostomy bags and wigs onto the pitch?

“Mr Lopez, how to you plead to the charge of throwing your dental plate onto the pitch?”

“Strnngh grt.”

“Sorry Mr Lopez. I didn’t get that.”

“Strnngh grt.”

“I’m afraid, your honour, that my client is totally unintelligible without his dental plate in place. But in his defence, he felt moved to protest in the strongest possible terms at the failure of his side to string more than two passes together. He was frustrated that having spent 70pesos of his hard-earned cash, he didn’t see his team mount a single coherent, threatening attack on the opponents’ goal and was particularly angry at the cynical delaying tactics employed by the Rafaela players who were quite blatantly playing for the goalless draw.”

I would willingly stand as a witness for his defence.

In the absence of goalmouth action, we took to analysing the performances of individual players and focussed on the Rafaela number nine, a lithe, athletic figure with a shaven head who, in full flow chasing after loose balls, was as graceful as a gazelle. In short, he looked the part.

However, on the few occasions that Diego Vera Mendez came close to the ball, an expression spread across his face like that of the average Argentine when answering the door to the tax inspectors.

He didn’t like it one bit and the ball didn’t much like him either, bouncing off his knees, ankles and shins in every direction but the one his team mates were anticipating.

You remember matches like this one as the low-water mark against which future games will be judged. It’s performances like this one that bond and bind the fans together in common disgruntlement.

“I was there for that awful Rafaela game.”

“Yes, me too. Wasn’t it dreadful. Still, could have been worse. At least it didn’t rain.”

“That’s true. And d’you see that geezer who threw his false teeth on the pitch? Never seen anything like it.”

“Remarkable. See you in two weeks for the Lanus game?”

“Si señor. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”


The request was to search for the source, the light, the inspiration for the Holy Grail. Many had before me accepted the challenge, none had emerged holding aloft the burning light, the answer to just why Lionel Messi is so fucking good.

I suspect that the answer is that there is no answer. No one definitive answer anyway.

But I suppose we have to keep searching. Our natural curiosity as human beings and as journalists with pages, screens and airwaves to fill, demands that we persevere.

I didn’t want to go to Rosario, a three-hour drive up Route Nine from Buenos Aires. I was aware that many journalists had gone before me to talk to Leo Messi’s mum, dad, siblings, coaches, teachers, neighbours, schoolfriends, aunties, uncles and the bloke from the corner kiosk who once sold him a lollipop.

But as Leo in Barcelona knocked in that ninety-first goal of 2012 and blasted Gerd Muller from the record books my bosses wanted answers in both Barcelona and Rosario.

The Messi family, not surprisingly, has had enough of answering bland, often ridiculous questions from the world’s media. So, on my list of people to talk to were two of his former coaches and the doctor who treated him for the hormone deficiency that was preventing him from growing. We also filmed the house and the humble neighbourhood where he grew up.

Revelations, there were none. But when you’re investigating a footballer for whom we have run out of superlatives, then perhaps we have to look at the details.

Ernesto Vecchio was a coach at the local club, Newell’s Old Boys, when he saw six-year-old Leo Messi for the first time.

“He’d just arrived at Newell’s, to the school,” he told me as we stood among the cars in his workshop. “He was among the kids born in 1987, playing for what became known as the Machine of 87. We saw a different player, with his young age, his tiny body – that’s why he was called The Flea. Well! Seeing him play was totally different to the other players.”

Another of the young player’s coaches in those early days of his development was Enrique Domínguez. We spoke in a park near the monument to the Argentine flag with the River Parana just a short hop away. “The most difficult thing for a kid of eleven or twelve years old to achieve is coordination,” he said. “He can think and then needs to do what he’s thinking with his feet, his body and with the ball. We noticed right from the beginning that Leo had that coordination, from the age of six or seven. The ball was an extension of his foot, his leg, his chest. He had no problems in passing it, in stopping it. His coordination was excellent.”

Leo Messi’s family spends most of its time in Barcelona but still maintains its ties with Rosario (source: https://codigosapuestas.mx/). I went to the modest family house in a humble neighbourhood to the south of the city. All the lampposts and many of the walls were painted in the blue and yellow of Rosario Central or the black and red of Newell’s Old Boys – the city’s two main teams. The shutters were down but the neighbours all confirmed that this was the Messi house which they often use on their return. I asked some local kids to kick a ball about in the street in front of the house since that’s the kind of corny thing you’ve got to do for TV.

The pitches in the area were all overgrown and riddled with muddy puddles. The centre of Rosario is beautiful with its grand houses, tree-lined avenues and views of the River Parana. But you don’t need to look far to see the poverty…the run-down houses on the outskirts of the city, the cartoneros looking in the rubbish for anything they can sell or re-cycle.

It was apparent to all who saw him that Leo Messi was a prodigious talent, attracting interest from big clubs in Argentina and beyond. But he was too small for his age, suffering from growth hormone deficiency. So Newell’s called on specialist Diego Schwarzstein for help.

He found time between patients to talk to me: “He had a medical problem. Not all the kids that are small have a problem,” he explained. “The majority of the kids that are short are just short. They are normal kids that genetics have decided that they are not going to be so tall. But in some cases, and this was one of these cases, there is some kind of problem and this was the case here – he was lacking the hormone that is necessary to grow.”

The treatment was expensive…paid for initially by the family’s health care then Barcelona football club, aware of young Messi’s talent, stepped in to help:

“I feel happy and proud when I see a kid that has solved his problem,” said Dr Schwarzstien. “Of course, I feel a little bit more happy and more proud when I see where he is now.”

Lionel Messi went to Barcelona, aged twelve, where he grew both in stature and as a footballer. The rest is history. Those who stayed behind in Rosario watch his progress with pride in the small parts they all played in helping The Flea to develop into perhaps the best footballer the world has ever seen.

“I always say that Leo never surprised me,” said Enrique Dominguez. “We knew him when he was six, seven, ten, eleven years old and he’s the same now as when he was playing in the kids’ team. It’s very rare that a player becomes a top professional like him and doesn’t change. But he hasn’t changed the way he plays or the way he treats other people. He hasn’t changed his image or the way he talks. He’s totally natural, everything Leo does is natural.”

Ernesto Vecchio feels much the same: “When I see him play I do get very emotional. I had him here in a team with the other kids and watching him play was always marvellous.”

Later, before heading back to Buenos Aires,  we drank coffee at the Restaurante VIP run by one of the Messi brothers. The family runs a football school in the city. He’s a popular local lad. How could he not be?

But there’s none of the passion for little Leo that still exists for Diego Maradona. Enrique and Ernesto were privileged to see The Flea play as a small boy, on Argentine soil. But he was gone by aged twelve.

The terraces of Argentinos Juniors are still populated by elderly fans with knitted scarves who harbour fond memories of the short, stocky sixteen year old Diego who dazzled them at their modest ground with his precocious skills.

The same is no doubt true up the road at the far grander Bombonera Stadium where Diego still enjoys God-like status among the Boca Juniors fans.

Of course Lionel Messi is Argentine. However, until he lifts the World Cup while wearing the national shirt, he’ll not enter the footballing hearts of his countrymen and women in the same way that the previous Number 10, with all his arrogance and silliness, has done.

The three-hour drive back to Buenos Aires gave me plenty of time to ponder. Messi simply has a wonderful talent but I think it’s relevant that he was born in Argentina. It was Rosario but it could have been Buenos Aires or Cordoba or Mendoza since Argentina doesn’t let much of its potential footballing talent slip through the net.

It has a system of boys clubs and good coaches that feed the bigger clubs and increasingly the world’s top teams, such as Barcelona. They know their football and they know talent when they see it.

The same boy born in Peru or Guatemala or Nepal or even Britain might not have been spotted and his talent nurtured in the way Messi’s was in Rosario. He had a supportive family behind him which is always important.

They play tennis, volleyball and basketball in Argentina. Football, though, is always the dominant sport. Messi’s talent was spotted aged six and, despite his medical problems, no-one was going to let him get away. Little Leo, growing up in a football-crazy culture, also had the will and determination to succeed.

The truth, as you can see, is that there is no secret. Lionel Messi is  simply very, very good. We should just sit back and enjoy and stop asking so many questions.