Argentina’s Soccer Is More Coherent Than Its Politics

Want to find out what an Argentine politician stands for? Ask him about soccer.

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

Argentina’s history in soccer is every bit as turbulent, if less bloody, than its history in politics. In soccer, three schools of thought have dominated the past 40 years. In politics, two have. But while Argentina’s soccer philosophies are readily identifiable and distinguishable, its political philosophies are slippery and ever changing.

Ask any serious Argentine fan what kind of soccer the national team should play, and you’re likely to hear one of three answers: Menottism, Bilardism, or Bielsism. Each represents a former coach, and each comes with a mixture of political and cultural baggage as well as implications for soccer tactics.

César Luis Menotti coached Argentina to its first World Cup victory in 1978, before the advent of Diego Maradona. His was an Aristotelian style that emphasized the realization of players’ maximum creative potential, both to influence results on the field and society off it. He called soccer "a joyous fiesta in which human beings must participate, because it expresses their feelings and delivers the happiness of being alive." He wanted to win, he said, "because my team played better, not because I stopped the other team from playing." For Menotti, soccer was a force for good and could only be played in a positive way.

Not so the soccer of Carlos Bilardo. The coach of Argentina’s winning side in 1986, he advocated a style that, in dichotomy with Menotti’s, could only be called conservative. He wanted results at all costs, even if that meant stifling his opponents and winning ugly. When Diego Maradona managed the national team in South Africa four years ago, he declared his team would be Javier Mascherano — a defensive destroyer in midfield — and ten more. "Bilardism has taken hold of me," Maradona said, and indeed Bilardo himself was among the mercurial genius’s advisers during his unsuccessful campaign.

More recent is the school of Marcelo Bielsa, who took Argentina to the final of the Copa América and the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. Known as "El Loco," Bielsa obsessively pored over diagrams and videos, refining his strategies before putting players through technical exercises whose objectives were not always obvious. He found inspiration through research and hard work, searching for mismatches and holes in the enemy’s defenses, rather than wispy ideas. Yet his uncompromising intellectual approach came to be seen as almost mystical, inspiring legions of adherents.

Each of these three philosophies bears the name of its inventor, but each also represents a clearly defined set of tenets. Indeed, there is often more red meat in a discussion of Menottism versus Bilardism than a political debate. The reason is simple: The leading political philosophies in Argentina also bear the names of their inventors, but little else.

What, for example, is Peronism? Peronist politicians, from the original Juan Domingo Perón through Carlos Saúl Menem, Nestor Kirchner, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, have espoused wildly different policies. Perón was a devoted protectionist; Menem joined the World Trade Organization. Menem privatized industries; Fernández de Kirchner still struggles to control them.

Even Kirchnerism, the label given to the era of the husband-and-wife presidents, seems to have few goals beyond the preservation of power for their faction. They raise and lower prices, subsidies, and exchange rates as it suits them, always trying to spread around enough handouts to maintain their electoral majorities. (In some ways, they are not so different from the Republicans and Democrats in Washington.)

The Kirchnerists will nominate a new candidate, probably Gov. Daniel Scioli of the province of Buenos Aires, for president in the election next year. Almost certainly, his policies will be quite different from those of Fernández de Kirchner, who faces a two-term limit. But he will still be the candidate of Kirchnerism, with the full force of their machine behind him.

His lack of a clear party platform will be a liability for the Argentine people, however. There will be no guarantee of the ideals he stands for, and thus no accountability if he strays from them. Hopefully, a clever panelist in the presidential debates will ask Scioli if he’s a Menottist, Bilardist, or Bielsist. Then, at least, voters will have some idea of what he stands for.

 Twitter: @altmandaniel

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