The Sheep and The Goat

Just what has happened to Argentina?

I’m not an overly religious man. Outside of attending a deluge of weddings and funerals in the last eighteen months, I couldn’t tell you the last time I stepped across the chapel door. And the forecast ain’t looking good either. Like any self-respecting Roman Catholic man in Ireland approaching his thirties, going to Mass to be pontificated to by a member of the clergy interests me in the same way venereal disease does. Which, in itself, is a fitting analogy.

In the lead up to the World Cup, some of you might have caught the piece on Guillem Balagué’s trip to Belfast. I more or less made sure you did. Tactically securing a retweet from a man who has north of a million followers on Twitter has done wonders for me in terms of developing an Asian readership. A big dhanyavaad to all my boys in Bangalore.

Anyone needing a refresher, voilà…

Balagué Backs Messi to Defy Boo Boys

Despite backing Lionel Messi to overcome the rising tide of animosity emanating from the media in his homeland, the notion that all was not right in the first place was of particular interest, I thought.

After all, any media outlet east of Buenos Aires, practically dutch rudders the guy – the maestro, the magician, the GOAT. Greatest of all time. I know somebody, somewhere has finally made sense of all the bovine related speak in their WhatsApp group over the past year. You’re very welcome.

Balagué refuted the suggestion that afternoon, that Messi played any role in Mauro Icardi’s exclusion from the Argentinian squad, implying that it was one of a growing number of sticks being readied to beat the Barcelona playmaker with, should the South Americans return from Russia empty handed. And whilst, the tale might seem far fetched when read in isolation, the sentiments of such a story surely could not have escaped the consciousness of fellow members of La Albiceleste.

Messi cut a fraught figure on Thursday night, pre-game, playing and post-match. He was made to endure his own torturous road to Calvary, burdened by a cross weighing approximately forty four million football headcases. Against the backdrop of Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick for Portugal against Spain last Friday night, he too was ineffective against Iceland on Saturday. Evidently, all is not well.

We all want answers that we are never going to get in the immediacy, unfortunately. But that’s not to say, all won’t be revealed in time.

Ill feeling may well have festered in the camp. The notion of Messi putting to bed the debate as the finest to ever pull on a pair of football boots has certainly overshadowed the hope of twenty two other players becoming the first side in a generation from their country to become World Champions.

Egos could well be bruised. After all, marquee talents in the shape of Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala have been restricted to only a few moments game time between them to save a sinking ship. The exasperation on Kun Agüero’s face when he was substituted less than ten minutes into the second half, and immediately after the Croats scored their first goal, on Thursday night, was difficult to hide. Are there whispers about Icardi? Does Messi have a say in tactics, on who plays, when they play and how the play?

He has yet to be nailed to the Cross, for now. Nigeria, next Tuesday evening offers him a final chance to actually get on the end of a bloody cross or two, and complete a Messiah-like resurrection.

But the vultures are circling over head.

I’m not an overly religious man, but let me tell you about Matthew’s parable of The Sheep and The Goats.

Judgement will be passed amongst those gathered, and we will be separated into sheep and goats. The sheep on the right hand, the goats on the left. Blessed are the sheep, the lowly who toil. They will ascend to glory. But of the lofty, stubborn goats. The eternal fire is prepared for them.

It begs the question. Who would be a goat?


Balagué Backs Messi to Defy Boo Boys

Today’s blog post is brought to you by the letter B.

It could have easily been Barcelona. Shorts and sunglasses. Sun blazing from a cloudless sky. The males flock to the watering hole, and, with pints in hand, chew the footballing fat of a Thursday lunchtime.

Yes, after Guillem Balagué bringing some sultry Catalan weather with him, Belfast gave him some culture of it’s own in return – marching him into a dark backroom, and throwing a spotlight on him, whilst a room of thirsty men sit eager to hear his testimony. Ahh, home!

The Spaniard spent this afternoon at The Black Box venue in the heart of Belfast, where he graciously gave a candid and leisurely appraisal of his latest biography, Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs, as well as tackling head on and in his own unique style, current stories emanating from the Premier League and Spain, ahead of the World Cup. Seven days, ladies. Seven. Days.

Local football writer Keith Bailie opened proceedings, quizzing Balagué about his good friend Pochettino, who was refreshingly unconcerned when the former Revista de la Liga front man asked for full and candid access to the Spurs supremo’s life, when the idea of the book surfaced just prior to the kick off of the 16-17 Premier League campaign.

Balagué explained that Poch wanted to “kill the myth of the manager” through the book, to crack open the shutters that surrounded his early years in England. Despite struggling with the language, Pochettino’s unconscious ability to endear himself to those around him has been captured by Balagué, who pointed to the Argentinian’s almost sorcerer like capacity to strike instantaneous chemistry with strangers.

“He makes a call within five minutes of meeting a player, whether he stays or goes. It’s no surprise that those who are most central and steadfast in the Tottenham side are players who have most chemistry with the manager. Victor Wanyama in particular enjoys a great relationship with him, also Lloris, Harry Kane and Dele Alli”.

This, he suggests goes a long way to explaining why these players are reluctant to leave White Hart Lane, despite the stringent wage template that Daniel Levy has carved into the North London outfit’s board table.

It may also help us mortals understand why the players work for him the way they do, in that high pressing system that has become synonymous of his time in England.

In summing Pochettino up, Balagué pointed to hard work and that ability to forge strong relationships with those around him as being central to his success as a manager to this point, and denounces the “he’s never won a trophy tag”, pointing to the fact that Spurs under his tutelage have outperformed the financial scenario they find themselves in. A team with the sixth biggest outlay on wages finishing fifth, third, second and third in his four seasons in charge.

In what will be music to the ears of all on the Seven Sisters Road, the insider is insistent that his old friend is in no hurry to return to Spain, regardless of the ongoing rumours in the wake of Zinedine Zidane’s departure from Real Madrid.

“He obviously signed his new contract at the end of the season and as much as Florentino Perez wants him, he knows that Daniel Levy is almost impossible to deal with”.

Balagué – famous for his willingness to share information coming out of La Liga – didn’t disappoint when pressed on this Summer’s potential coming and goings either. Deep breath…

  • Suspects Bale will not force a transfer away from Madrid in the wake of Zidane’s departure. Agent is seeking assurances from the board that Bale is still a central figure in the Galactico’s plans – with or without Ronaldo.
  • Ousmane Dembele will definitely not be swapping the Camp Nou for Anfield this season.
  • Leeds United’s pursuit of veteran manager Marcelo Bielsa – the father of the 3-3-3-1 high press – is not as far along as the press would have you believe. Leeds new board are desperate for a big name after the Heckingbottom fiasco, but no indication from Bielsa camp at this point of contact.
  • Hinted at a revolving door at Spurs over the next couple of years as they are still a selling club, with Poch not afraid of selling big assets in order to facilitate strengthening the squad where he sees weakness – Kane not for sale however.

However, some of Guillem’s most interesting comments were saved for the maestro himself.

Balagué’s admiration of Lionel Messi is no secret. On several occasions he’s made the admission that the Argentinian is the best footballer of all time – a view he reaffirmed today in Belfast.

But the Rosario man goes into the World Cup with gathering clouds of animosity collecting above his diminutive little head. A wave of Anti-Messiism has come forth from his homeland in recent times. The presumption that he has underperformed in the blue and white stripes has intensified as his success in Catalunya has become greater, and this is the stick that most of his detractors beat him with, explains Balagué.

“People use the fact that he has been in Barcelona from the age of 12, that he isn’t really Argentinian, that he doesn’t really care. In reality, he is still that Rosario boy, he speaks with a Rosario accent, his family are all around him. His home is like a little Rosario. Messi is most definitely Argentinian”.

And it is these nay-sayers that Balagué believes are behind stories stirring the notion that Messi has played a direct role in influencing the choices for the Argentinian squad this Summer. Some South American media outlets have not been shy in pedalling that Messi vetoed the inclusion of Serie A’s top scorer, the mercurial Mauro Icardi, over the well documented personal standoff the Inter man has had with former international teammate, and friend of Messi, Maxi Lopez. Balagué refutes such a suggestion.

“Any influence Messi has on Sampaoli’s squad is bore simply out of management’s hopes to get the most from their star man. Messi tends to cut in from the left and right, he has done his whole career, and Icardi is a true number 9 who occupies the space in which Messi eventually wants to be. We’ve seen this before, most infamously with Zlatan, of course”.

And what of the World Cup and the prospects of arguably the game’s greatest player getting his hands around the Jules Rimet trophy?

“Well, it settles two arguments really. Firstly, it settles the argument between himself and Cristiano. But when we talk about “greatest of all time”, we talk Maradona, we talk Pelé who have both won World Cups. Lifting the World Cup would complete Messi’s legacy, for sure, and then we can say he’s the greatest of all time. Personally, I’d love to see it happen, and I think they’ve a great chance. I constantly tell my Argentinian colleagues that they are living in a golden generation for football in their country. They have reached the final of the last World Cup, as well as two Copa América finals since, and have been beaten in extra time in one and penalties in the two others. Maybe now is the time”.

Fortunately, we won’t have long to await the answers.

And so, after a handshake and a photograph and him ribbing me for not having a score on me to buy his book, I emerged back into the Thursday afternoon sunshine, pleased with my £8 investment.

Balagué. Ball. Black Box. Beer. Belfast….Brilliant!