The end of Argentina's dream is not necessarily the end of the world
In a tournament of painful losses, Argentina's 4-0 defeat is in a category of its own
It is unclear how Argentina will rebound and if Maradona will stay on as manager
Germany simply outplayed Argentina and the side's 4-0 victory is proof enough
A dark and somber mood descended over a nation as the whistle marked end of play and the young men who had carried the dreams and hopes of millions marched -- tearful, exhausted and drained -- off the field for the last time at this World Cup.
"Angry, bitter, depressed, exasperated" one fan said, oozing all those emotions and more through every pore. "Gutted. I'm finding it difficult to speak at all," said another. "A deep sense of deja vu, of having been here before. In fact, of always being here."
An Englishman, a Ghanaian, and a Mexican at different points over the past few days. Tonight, it was Argentina's turn. "I just want to go to bed and stay there," one young man uttered solemnly, while a middle-aged woman offered, "It feels like a repeat of last World Cup, without the fight at the end."
The road to trying to capture the mood of a people is slippery: individuals may have different reactions, factions can emerge. But soccer's unifying agent quality never fails -- just as the joy of a run which looks like it might end in goal gets thousands of Argentine voices roaring in a synchronized crescendo, so too does the great long 'aaahhh' of disappointment echo in unison.
Four-nil is a crashing defeat. "Humilliated" is one word which has come up several times already, and it's only been a few hours. "Shame" is another which Argentinians are trying to avoid - one twitter was shouted down in seconds after a daring attempt.
It's not as if Maradona didn't have critics, but something about his little flicks with the ball on the touch-line, his gentle twist of the ankle in the training ground, whipped us all up into remembering what it's really like to actually be in love with the ball.
"We talk about everything. We've worked on the little problem of Jonas [Gutierrez] playing too tight behind Michu [DeMichelis]; Michu is a good enough player that Jonas can defend wide, and if he gets beat to the inside, we have Michu covering for him there. If he stays in tight and gets beat wide by the attacker, then Michu has too much ground to cover to help him out there," Maradona reassured us early on in the group stages.
But it wasn't quite 'solved'. Not really. The Achilles tendon of Argentina had been exposed and it never really recovered. Solving the little problem of Jonas turned out to be playing Nicolas Otamendi, a player clearly out of his depth by miles when confronted by the German team's zest.
Otamendi was not alone, though. All the Argentine players -- some hailed as the best in their league, some as one-time best in their position, one as best in the world, a few as not really good enough to be there at all -- looked stumped. The other team played better. Simple really. Much better. And they scored four more.
Maradona had hogged the limelight before, during and perhaps now will continue to do so after the tournament. Interestingly, many fans both in the streets of Buenos Aires, in the stadiums of South Africa, and over social networks, voiced unconditional love and gratitude nevertheless. "I don't regret the love," said one fan, quoting both a famous song and a beer advert. "He's given us so much. Until today we had a great World Cup," said another.
But it is inevitable that sooner or later some more detailed scrutiny will start to take place. After all, this is one of the more crushing defeats in World Cup history for the country. "Worse than England," ventured one Argentine in a London park.
"Are you taking the piss?" Maradona asked in his serious, measured and menacing tone at the press conference. He was addressing a journalist who had asked whether he thought anyone back home might be happy about the result.
"As a fan, I know how painful it is to see your country toppled," Diego, the man, spoke.
His players marched quietly onto the bus. Only three stopped to talk to the press corps in the mixed zone. Carlos Tevez, who left his soul on the pitch, said the pain must be stored and used next time on the pitch. Javier Mascherano, named captain as Maradona's managerial opening gambit, said there is a time for everything. "The time to analyze and draw conclusions will come. This is the time to suffer. And we will suffer." And Gabriel Heinze, more tellingly, said he had left the dressing room alone and early. "For personal reasons I had to leave."
A revealing quote. Suggestive of some internal discord, perhaps? Will it be picked up and elaborated on over coming days? Will we discover that among this group of men, some of whom remained on the bench far longer than a lot of people wished, there were gripes, and conflicting desires, and that some thought this or that about this or that formation? Will this be proffered as an explanation?
Of course, yes, and yes again. This is football. There are human dimensions, political and financial interests, internal power struggles and petty spats. And not just over this game, in the immediate build-up and aftermath, always.
What will be harder to digest, for the players and the fans, is just how guttingly fair the hurtful score-line was. No bad refereeing decisions to blame, no strange fouls or unfair tackles, no CIA plot or FIFA vendetta to point the finger to. That, too, is part of football.
"What we have shown is that the football of touch, and attack, and going forward is the football people like," Maradona said, trying to salvage some modecum of dignity. Maradona has fallen deep and deeper still and raised again, not once, not twice, but many times. Tonight we faced yet another unfamiliar facet of the man: the loser who was simply outplayed. And whatever the reasons which lead to his not making a single substitution until the 80th minute, whatever the reasons of his sticking stubbornly to fielding the weakest combination of his many experiments in the build-up to the 30 days of joy, it will be the image that endures for now.
Tears and sadness all over Argentina tonight. But the fans know full well that we cannot only look at the top of the pyramid to truly understand a phenomena. The base of the pyramid is part of the whole. Argentina's performance -- and more importantly the result attained by such a performance -- against Germany was reminiscent of the Argentina of the qualifiers. And not just the one that was there when Maradona stepped in, as a bizarre and surreal headline grabbing appointment, but the Argentina which had kicked off the qualifying campaign in a shambolic manner a couple of years earlier.
In Nigeria, the government is looking into suspending players for two years. In France, the government is speaking of an investigation. In Italy, the talk is of limiting the number of no E.U. players in the domestic game. What will it be in Argentina?
Speculation over Maradona's resignation will follow, but what might be of more enduring and long-lasting benefit than knee-jerk reactions and the inevitable dissection of him and his character would be a thorough shake-up of the football industry, from the youth development academies upwards. "The emotional time after a catastrophe is never a good one to make profound changes or decisions" Shami Chakrabarti, once said.
But soon after is probably a good time to start.
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