There is no place for the Dialectical Method in football.
The rabidly tribal football fanatic will, however, engage lustily in argument and lose many hours in vociferous debate. But she is, more often than not, blinded to any reason by the love of her team. There is no room for unemotional sterility. If you are going to enter the lists of a football discussion, your primary objective is usually not to be enlightened by the bon mots of your interlocutor. The whole point of a football argument is opposition. It thrives on antithesis. One fan wants their version of reality to vanquish another fans version of reality. That’s the antagonistic nature of football. You pick a side and you support that side, come what may. The tenet of your contention is your team. Even if, in a genteel moment of weakness, you might concede your opponent has a valid point to make, you will never cede that point to them. That would be as good as them ( and you can’t get more adversarial than referring to your opponents as the pejorative “ them “ ) drawing first blood. That would be akin to going one nil down in the early stages of the first half before you had time to settle in.
Football is all about assertions. It is not an arena where shrinking violets flourish. Even the most sensitive and gifted players, preferring to calibrate their football prowess via their little grey cells rather than the thuggish brawn that might get them locked up in a cell, are not immune from being assertive on the field of play. They have to dominate a match and the circumstances of that match in order for their artistry to gain access to a canvas free of agricultural oppression from any opponent who wants to subjugate with his intimidating physical heft. Such poets of the Beautiful Game are no effete, consumptive Keats’, gasping for an inhaler and a caress of Mummy’s comfort blanket. Rather, they are muscular Hemingway’s on the look out for the next bullish centre half to slay.
The same conditions prevail in the gladiatorial colosseum of football argumentation. Football debates held between fans of rival clubs- even between fans of the same club- are fuelled by not only a partisan loyalty to the team you support, but to whoever your favourite player might be in that team. There is no escape from the partisan pathology of the football fan. She might not argue that the club strip is black when it is, in fact, white ( there are some boundaries and limits which act as a Cordon Sanitaire in the sociological and cultural conventions of The Football Argument and one of them pertains to club colours: for example, it is unlikely a Rangers fan will argue that his club shirt is green and white to a Celtic fan, and vice versa, simply to score a point. Football fans are churlish and petty, but they do maintain some entrenched and sacrosanct scruples about some things ) but if she feels that her integrity is being undermined, or if she regards an antithetical opinion to her own challenges a fundamental shibboleth of her club’s existential being, then she will , almost against her will, retaliate with venom and forthright spleen. If not always in a manner that is becoming of eloquence, respectful decorum to the polite etiquette of the Agora ( or, as it is known nowadays, “ The Pub “ ) or magnanimous chivalry.
I relish a good pub ding dong about football. I get giddily excited in a quite unseemly way that should come with a Government Health Warning advising those of a sensitive disposition to look away now. My blood froths in my veins, my cheeks get all hot and sticky and flush a cute shade of pink. My eyes start to twitch. Strange, inhuman palpitations start gurgling and gyrating in my throat, as if I’m trying to cough up a peanut that has gone down the wrong hole. My mouth starts blathering, almost on a reflex, compelled by some muscle memory honed and ingrained in my psyche and my brain’s automatic response circuitry from previous such football pub ding dongs, long before said brain has realised just what the hell is going on and has paused to catch its neurons and engage in basic motor action.
Before I can consciously catch up with my own tumbling, gushing, Vesuvian helter – skelter splatter of words they sound like some inebriated and mad fool is uttering them and I am transported into a curiously detached, out of body state where I am an on-looker, an innocent by-stander, to my own public performance. It’s not a pretty sight. But when the stench of a football argument is in your nostrils, there’s no turning back. Retreating is not an option.
My favourite recent Pub Football Conundrum is the one about Maradona and Messi.
It sounds as if I should continue with the line as if I’m introducing a joke: “ Have you heard the one about Maradona and Messi? “ Or, the other rib tickler that has this opening gambit: “ Maradona and Messi walk into a bar … “. This should actually be funny, in an Avant Garde, French Situationist anti humour kind of way, because the thought of Maradona or Messi laughing at anything is just…well, funny. But funny peculiar and preposterous, not funny ha ha. Both men strike one as unnaturally serious and humourless, each dedicated, in their own particular style, to playing football with a joy and an ecstasy that somehow precludes anything as frivolous as humour. It is as if football, for them, is too serious to be chuckled about. Football is not a joke to Maradona and Messi. To echo and paraphrase the great Bill Shankly with shocking concision that teeters on the brink of disrespectful curtness, it’s more important than that.
But, I digress. Back to that classic and very modern Pub Football Conundrum I set this whole section up with.
I only see my mate, Billy, in the pub. Which prompts my wife, with a delicious, eye brow arching cynicism that she has had a lifetime of living with me to master, to declare that he can’t be a proper “pal “. He can only be, at best, an “ acquaintance “. She goes on to say, twisting the social dagger in my heart, that if the pub didn’t exist, would Bill? I have long begun to suspect, with a nagging disappointment that my wife suspects that Billy might be a figment of my mind. An imaginary friend for lonely adults.
Billy, however, does exist. I promise. Even if he does only materialise in the boozer. Billy asks the fateful and immortal question: “ Who is the better player: Maradona or Messi? “ and, before I have time to assimilate the nuances of the proposal, he adds, without further preamble and almost without drawing breath, “ For me it’s Messi. Class act. I mean, Maradona was OK, but Messi has it all. Maradona was just a one trick pony. And lazy. Messi has more of a dedicated work ethic. Not as selfish. He’ll work for the good of the team. Unlike Maradona. “
I raise my pint to my lips and let the tumbler hover in front of my face for a few, pregnant moments while I quietly consider on Billy’s proposal. His opening salvo. Such an aggressive kick off. I don’t have to be a crack behavioural psychologist to determine that Billy is not joking. But I have to take into account the significant omissions from Billy’s justification for slighting Maradona. And these are germane to his animosity to the diminutive Argentine. Firstly, Billy has never forgiven Maradona for the most infamous incident that has befallen and besmirched English football and even now, some 34 years after the event, continues to be a wound that festers and goads: Maradona’s hand ball goal against England at Mexico 86. That small soupcon of treachery, regarded as “ viveza “ by Maradona, an ingenious complot of cunning and blessed by him as “ The Hand of God “, is considered by Billy, a proud Yorkshireman, to be the infernal opposite; the cloven hoof of The Devil.
Even when Billy’s wife ran off with a Japanese Sushi chef, nothing inflicted more egregious agony on his soul than Maradona’s taunting and woundingly provocative hand ball goal.
It is fascinating that two people can have such diverse and predominant memories of the same event. My overwhelming recollection of that match is not the sheer audacity of Maradona’s handball. When I summon that game in my mind’s eye, I see the ineffable and transcendent, yet savagely visceral beauty, of Maradona’s stunning second goal that day. We will come to that in a moment. For now, I place my glass carefully on the table and prepare to join battle with Billy.
I refute him. I denounce Messi. As tremendous a talent as he is, he is no Maradona. We stake our claims. We line up behind our men. Is It a coincidence that we go to Pub War over two of the most celebrated and greatest Argentinian football players of the last 40 years? In Argentina there is no such entity as a “ grey area “ in any zone of life, let alone football. An eminent anthropologist has studied this and eloquently and emphatically pronounced this is so ( no doubt his detractors have disagreed. Many an anthropologically themed pub argument has ensued in down town Buenos Aires ) . Argentina has always been a nation riven by Manichean fault-lines, from politics to Asados to football. But the divisions are much more evident in football and serve as a prism through which the rest of society can be refracted through.
In Argentina, it matters to a degree perhaps unknown or only flirted with on the level of casual Dilettantism elsewhere, if you believe that the essence of native football is Criollo or Pibe ( the idealised caricature of the poor, street kid football urchin who aspires greatness and is an uncanny premonition of none other than Diego Maradona himself ); if you subscribe to La Neustra ( a self referential term that alludes to a certain attacking freedom of expression in football, a less dogmatic approach ) or Anti-Futbol ( a more repressive football philosophy predicated on physicality and organised sterility ). And, ultimately, all these antipodes are sheltered under the umbrella of Menottism or Bilardism, named after the most prominent and influential figure heads and proponents of either school of football.
To sit on the fence is abhorrent. In Argentina, to sit out the debate is as impossible as not breathing. One might as well be dead.
When I grasp the cudgels in the Pub Football Argument and passionately advocate Maradona at the expense of Messi, the schizophrenic temperament of Argentinian football is the ghost at the feast ( or, at the very least, the ghost sniffing at the Pork Scratchings ). Very loosely and amorphously, I can construct a riposte against Messi motivated by the tenets of Bilardism. He would have fitted perfectly well into the mechanized, cog like efficiency of a Carlos Bilardo team. Yes, Messi has his flamboyant episodes of virtuoso wonder, but you always get the feeling it is part of the plan and is somehow orchestrated.
Maradona, on the other hand, is the opposite. Capricious, wild, exuberant and prone to create the beautifully unruly. Not only would Menottii carve out a niche for Maradona in his Argentina squad, he did do so at the 1982 world cup. But so did Bilardo in 1986. And this is where my argument begins to stall a bit and loose some momentum , if not credibility. My case and my whole contention that Maradona is a better player than Messi rests on what Maradona did in that World Cup Quarter Final in Mexico 86. The success or failure of my argument stands or falls on the second goal Maradona scored that day. And my whole case is potentially undermined by the fact that Bilardo was Maradona’s coach that day. The archetypical Pibe, the thrilling essence of unchained La Neustra, under the auspices of the supreme master of Anti- Futbol and, far from Maradona’s individual genius being impaired, the seemingly contradictory fact that it flourished.
My prize refutation of Messi and my crowning victory of Maradona is vindicated by the second goal in that England match. Forget the first goal. It is merely an inconvenient and meaningless melodrama. It is a distraction. Or a bland appetiser before the scintillatingly piquant main course. Marvel at the second goal in that game. Drink it in. Absorb and immerse yourself in its seductive puissance. Study it like a sacred text. Preen over its exegetical meanings. It is a miracle. A beautiful, barnstorming, joy affirming miracle. I think you can probably deduce that the second goal is my most cherished goal of all time. Or, to compliment the immortal words of Argentinian commentator Victor Hugo Morales that day, “ A move for all time “.
Morales’ remarkable and emotion- soaked encomium to the second goal can make me cry. Just like he said “ I want to cry “. I can – and have – watched the second goal over and over and over again. It never gets old. It is fresh and exciting and wonderful every time I watch it. My spine starts to tingle even if I just think of that goal. Dear God, indeed. Long live football!
The second goal was the apotheosis to a move of brazen and indefatigable brilliance. Maradona controls the ball in his own half. The pirouette away from a clutch of English midfielders is sublime. The way he seems to snag and drag the ball away from them as he spins. And then the run. The slaloming, epic, unbelievable, awe inducing run! The impudence. The artistry! What composure, poise and balance to keep the ball magnetised to his nimble feet as the English defence is either left trailing in his wake or is brutally attempting to eliminate him with ever increasing and outrageous violence. According to Gary Lineker, the balance and control is all the more remarkable and worthy of respect – adulation! – because the surface of the pitch was uneven. The grass was laid out in squares which moved, the pitch not having had sufficient time to bed down. As I say, miraculous!
And then the coup de grace. The English defence believes they have pushed Maradona too far wide; they think they’ve done enough to constrict the angle. Shilton is a big, lumbering and imposing obstacle. He stands firm. Maradona lures him out and slides the ball beyond him from a preposterously acute angle. The sliver of goal is sufficient. The ball is in the net, spinning with delight.
I imagine Maradona’s second goal against England as the second, crucially central screen in a triptych. The first panel is the goal he scored against Hungary at the 1982 World Cup, which is almost a dummy run and a dress rehearsal for the sumptuous second goal in the 1986 Quarter Final. The second panel is the second goal against England, the sketch completed, the final touch applied. This is the Tromp l’oeil, the magnificent heart of the creation. The third panel, completing the triptych in as glorious and beautiful a way as Van Eyck’s Adoration of The Lamb altar piece in St Bavos cathedral in Ghent is the second goal Maradona scored against Belgium in the Semi Final of the 86 World Cup. This outstanding goal was a feat of daring impudence, an almost exact recreation of the second goal against England: as if to say, look, World, I’ve done it once and it was no fluke. See, I can do it again at will. We goggle, infatuated at this masterpiece: The Maradona Triptych. It even sounds like it belongs in the Italian Renaissance.
Nevertheless, it was only Maradona’s second goal against England in 86 that evinced in me an almost ecstatic experience. A feeling of exhilarated transcendence such as I can only imagine those consumed and elevated by religion can feel. There are only two other goals I’ve witnessed in my life that can begin to replicate or have the audacity to touch those feelings of pure rapture: one was Marco Van Basten’s mind altering volley against the USSR in the final of Euro 88; the other, Barry Nicholson’s solo wonder goal for Dunfermline Athletic against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in a Scottish Cup Semi Final replay ( from the sublime to the ridiculous! )
In the adversarial hermeneutics of football dialogue, for every Gianni Brera – “ Maradona is a beautiful abortion “ – there will be a heroic salutation by a Victor Hugo Morales – “ Maradona, you barrel – chested cosmic phenomenon! “ . My friend Billy down the pub will splutter disdainfully into his pint and mutter, “ Ah, but Messi this, Messi that – “ . And I will simply say perhaps too much.
Just watch the second goal and let Maradona speak for himself.