Giving Argentina a Sporting Chance

Cardinal Jorge M. Bergoglio SJ (Pope Francis I)

The transition from avid Pope watching to fervent Argie bashing was almost seamless. Less than 24 hours after Pope Francis I (the one-lunged Pontiff) made his first balcony appearance in Saint Peter’s Square, the British press was reminding us of supposedly inflammatory comments he made 12 months ago about the Falkland Islands. Speaking on the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, Jorge Bergoglio (as he was then), led prayers for the fallen and referenced the disputed territory as “the country that is theirs and they were usurped”.

Meanwhile, The Guardian had its own axe to grind, delving into the murky history of the Argentine junta in the 70s and 80s and Bergoglio’s role as part of the discredited Catholic hierarchy of that era.

Not to be outdone, The Sun weighed in with its “Hand of God” headline – a none-to-subtle reference to Diego Maradona’s controversial “goal” for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. By tonight, I fully expect to be reading that the new Pope Francis cheats at cards and has been caught riding the bus in Buenos Aires without paying.

I’m not a Catholic but I am a sports fan, and the real story here seems to be Britain’s longstanding antipathy towards lying, cheating Argies of all shapes and sizes. On the same night that Pope Francis was elected, Andy Murray was having a run in with Argentina’s Carlos Berlocq at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. The Scot eventually won their fourth-round match 7-6, 6-4, but he was enraged by his opponent’s “extremely, extremely loud” grunting at key moments during the match.

“Murray annoyed at stupid grunt”, claims The Sun, in what by that paper’s high standards is a rather limp headline. I’d have gone with something a bit more indignant – “Muzza blasts grunting Argie”. That might strike a chord with the Telegraph reader who quipped earlier today in reference to Pope Francis, “I thought we’d sunk the General Bergoglio”.

Having listened to the brief clip on the paper’s website, I think Muzza does have legitimate cause for complaint. As far as I know, Andy’s never criticised his good friend and rival Rafael Nadal for inappropriate on-court noises. That’s probably because the Spaniard keeps his grunting at a consistent level throughout – much like his legendary whipped topspin forehand. So let’s hope that Berlocq doesn’t team up with Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova for mixed doubles, or the decibel count will be well off the Larcher de Brito scale.

Closer to home, another Argentine we love to hate is in trouble yet again this week. Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez has been charged with driving his white Porsche while disqualified and without insurance. If found guilty he could face a jail sentence, a fine, or even an ASBO, though probably not a lengthy spell in manager Roberto Mancini’s bad books. Unlike the British press, Mancini has been notable for his forgiving attitude towards Tevez – whatever the provocation. Last weekend he joked “I hope that the police can stop him every day”, after Carlos celebrated his arrest by scoring a hat-trick against Barnsley in the FA Cup.

But there are some Argentine sportsmen who enjoy an unsullied reputation. In the 70s we marvelled at the muscular tennis player Guillermo Vilas, whose successes in the mid-70s have been rather overshadowed by those of Bjorn Borg. A few years later, there was Gabriela Sabatini, whose film-star looks are now ideal for promoting her own range of perfumes.

Formula One fans still revere Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five world championships, survived a kidnapping and heart surgery and lived to the ripe old age of 84.

But perhaps the greatest Argentine sports star is the man who was dominating the headlines 24 hours before Pope Francis. The majestic Lionel Messi scored two goals on Tuesday night, to help Barcelona beat AC Milan 4-0 in the second leg of their Champions League tie. Carlos Tevez may struggle with tricky English words like “constabulary”, but for the prolific Messi, “phenomenal” and “fantastic” don’t really need translating.

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