Monday, July 18, 2011

River Plate's Loss as a Metaphor for the History of Argentina

On June 26th, the unthinkable happened: the Argentine football club River Plate got demoted to the B league. It's an event that provoked this kind of reaction throughout the country and the football-playing world:

For those of you who don't follow Argentine football, let me explain. The two strongest teams in Argentina have always been River Plate and Boca Juniors, and they have a rivalry that's practically unmatched anywhere else in the world. Every person in Argentina is a fan of either one or the other. When the two teams play, it's the sporting event of the year.

River (as it's known colloquially) has been one of the most successful Argentine clubs of all times. But lately they've been struggling, and losing, and losing. By June 26th it got to the point where River had to win the match in order to stay in the top ('A') league of Argentine football. It should have been a no contest; they were playing some no-name team from the interior.....and still they lost.

A dedicated River fan became so irate while watching that fateful game that this video of his tirade has made him the most well-known man in Argentina:

[As you'll soon tell, there aren't many different kinds of curses in Argentine Spanish. This man uses about three or four principal insults, with variations and combinations:

"la puta que te pario" = the whore that gave you birth
"pendejo / boludo / pelotudo" = stupid / asshole
"andate a la concha de tu madre / hermana / etc." = your mother / sister's /etc.'s pussy

At one point he cries out, in supplication, "¡No les pido que hagan 28 pases como el Barcelona, hagan dos seguidos, nada más!" ("I'm not asking you to make 28 passes like Barcelona, just two in a row, nothing more!")]

On the media circuit on which this poor man was later dragged, he sheepishly explained that he did go a little too far. But really, given the situation, who can blame him? Imagine being a fan, a devotee of River, learning from a young age to adore the River jersey, to be proud of a team with an international reputation and a long, glorious history; and to have that team that you so adore now be known as just "some other" team, with bygone glory days?! It's hard to comprehend how one copes with such a trauma.

But these kinds of falls from glory aren't new to Argentina. Rolando Hanglin, writing for the daily La Nacion, puts this story in its larger context, tapping into the essence of the Argentine psyche:
River ya no es la élite del fútbol mundial. Es sólo un equipo que fue próspero y señorial (de ahí el apodo de "Millonarios") con una escuela refinada, que se ha perdido. Además, está rodeado del entorno que corresponde a un país del Tercer Mundo. Un país que fue rico hace ciento veinte años, y que ya no lo es.

"River is no longer in the elite of world football. It's just another team that used to be successful and noble (from there came the nickname of "The Millionaires") with a refined school that has lost its way. In addition, it's surrouned by an environment that corresponds to a country in the Third World. A country that used to be rich one hundred twenty years ago, but no longer is."
What Mr. Hanglin is referring to is how Argentina (believe it or not) was contending with the United States as a world power in the New World around the end of the 19th century. Why not? Argentina had a vast resource endowment, skilled European immigrants, industry and trade. All signals pointed to success. But now all the books written on the history of Argentina have the subtitle, "What went wrong?" (how Argentine ended up "failing" is a subject that has so interested researchers that it has its own name: the so-called "Argentine Riddle").

For decades now, economists and sociologists from Latin America's dependencia school have been arguing that poorer countries have an inherent disadvantage when competing in the world economy. Something analogous seems to be true for football in the case of River: as D.S. over at The Economist notes,
The cruelest consequence of relegation, of course, is that the demotion itself makes it much harder for a club to work its way back up to the top:" River’s annual television revenues will fall from $6.8m to about $4m, and it will have to cut ticket prices. It will probably lose transfer income as well, since few European clubs search for talent in the second division.
For Argentines with pride in their people and their country, all this must be terribly frustrating. How do you prove you don't suck? If you're a batter in a slump, every hit you make seems fleeting; every strikeout just confirms and reemphasizes your worst fears. Similarly, every time the newspapers in Argentina report rising inflation, or the lack of respect their dignataries receive abroad, the more and more Argentines confirm their fears that they're stuck in the "Third World" (a category that they care a lot about, critical theory be damned) forever.

Argentines respond to this frustration in different ways. There are some (especially the rich) who stopped caring, and have simply shifted allegiances to America or Europe. They openly put down their country and go on and on about how glorious it is abroad. Then there are those who care about their country, but resigned at its fate. Many still harbor resentment against the world superpowers, especially Britain and America, for having cheated them out of a better position in the world pecking order. Throughout Latin America, Argentines are derided for their arrogance, and they have it, it's true; but when we see that arrogance through the lens of their history, it's much easier to sympathize and understand how they're feeling.

Like Argentina, which has been struggling to find its identity for the past century, River too will have to reorient itself in the world of football. Most Argentines haven't handled their country's fall from grace well, and remain bitter at the world. Let's hope River fares better.

1 comment:

  1. Así es mitad más uno aquí somos de uno u otro equipo, fue dramático en verdad pero así es este deporte podés haber jugado genial pero gana el que mete más goles... este pueblo sabe salir del pozo...ya sabrás cual es mi cuadro...AGUANTE RIVER CARAJO!!!!!!!