Don’t cry for me, Argentina

The last couple of days I’ve been “getting in touch” with my Argentine roots. On Friday evening I went to an nice event/talk about Argentine comics and then on Saturday I went to a bar where 200-300 Argentines watched the national team getting trounced 4-0 by Germany in the World Cup quarter-finals. That was fairly disastrous. Still, I got to practise my Spanish and pretend I knew the chants everyone else was singing.

My dad is from Argentina. Born in Buenos Aires, he lived in London between 1969 and 1989, when he moved back to the city of his childhood. He visits Europe when he can.

I was born in London, England. I am English. Growing up, we didn’t speak Spanish at home, except for a couple of words. I remember feeling very English throughout my childhood, even if my name is Gregorio and my father is Juan Carlos. Nowadays I speak pretty fluent Spanish, but that’s thanks to years at university and recent trips to Argentina. My Spanish accent is still a mess of English, Argentine and Castillian Spanish (and American, according to one person).

When we were little kids it was too expensive (and probably too painful for my father) to visit Buenos Aires. I made my first trip there with my parents and sisters, when I was about 12 and from then on I visisted there every 2-3 years to visit my father and see family. There was a period between 1993 and 2000 when I avoided going. I’m not quite sure why. I’ll ask a shrink.

I call myself half-Argentine, but the reality is that I don’t know Argentina, I only know Buenos Aires and of that, mainly the barrio around my father’s place and microcentro. When I am in Buenos Aires I am there to see my father, not be a tourist. There are friends who spend 2 months doing the whole of South America who have seen more of Argentina than I have in my countless visits. They know Cordoba and Mendoza and Iguacu and Bariloche. I know the Linea A subway line. As a teenager my Buenos Aires was wandering the streets of Corrientes and Callao in my leather jacket, smoking cheap cigarettes and hunting through the book and magazine stores for comics and pornography. I loved it.

When I was young, Argentina was an impossibly distant, exotic place. There were few Argentines in London. There was no internet, so contact with my father was limited to occasional letters and phone calls. No-one went on holiday to Argentina. And I liked it like that. Buenos Aires was my playground. It was my Narnia. My secret world.

Now things have changed. I know countless friends who have visited Buenos Aires. It’s a staple part of the middle-class-traveller-seeing-the-world route. I know English people who have fallen in love in Buenos Aires and stayed here. And since the economic crisis of 2001, there are an increasing number of Argentines in London (as evidenced in the bar for the World Cup match). The barriers between England and Argentina have crumbled. I should be happy, but I’m not. It’s like the gates of Narnia have been flung open, and what was once my secret refuge (my secret identity) is now just another place in the world. The world is getting smaller.

Sometimes I’ll be chatting to a stranger and I’ll mention that my dad is Argentine and they’ll say: “Oh, I’ve been to Buenos Aires. It’s amazing, isn’t it?” and I’ll nod and agree, but part of me – a selfish part of me, admittedly – resents them walking through the streets that were once mine alone.

English football: a realistic review

With England now out of the World Cup, I can breathe a sigh of relief and blog about football.

The shocking thing about England wasn’t their humiliation against Germany; it wasn’t even the poor performances. It was the deluded expectation that we would win it. I consider myself a fairly measured, cautious kind of fellow, so I wasn’t expecting too much, but the press (and massive corporate sponsors) get people worked up with their “THIS IS OUR YEAR” bullshit.

Let me be clear: England don’t have a terrible team. We have an ok team. We did better than Italy. We did better than France. And games turn on tiny things – we were woeful against Germany but had Lampard’s goal been given, who knows what might have been. That’s not to gloss over the fact that we were crap, merely to point our the possibilities that always exist in a game as frantic as football.

There’s a kind of collective hysteria in England about our football team. Every four years the usual suspects (Hansen, Shearer, Venables, Redknapp) trot out the same lines about how we’ve got world-class players and how there’s 5 or 6 teams who could win the World Cup and how England are one of them. And this hysteria totally and utterly contradicts the overwhelming body of evidence that shows that England aren’t very good at international football.

Let’s take a look at how England have historically done in World Cups:

Our first World Cup was in 1950. We got knocked out in the first round. In 1954 we got to the quarter-finals. In 1958 we got knocked out in the first round. In 1962 we got to the quarter-finals. In 1966, playing at home, we won the World Cup! Hooray! In 1970 we made it to the quarter-finals. In 1974 and 1978 we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. In 1982 we made it to the 2nd round. In 1986 we made it to the quarter-finals. In 1990 we made it to the semi-finals. In 1994 we didn’t qualify. In 1998 we made it to the last 16. In 2002 and 2006 we made it to the quarter-finals and in 2010 we made it to the last 16.

Show those statistics to a neutral (I don’t know. Someone from India or Belize) and they’d think: “Oh, so England have an ok team. They consistently qualify for the World Cup and then they mostly make it out of the group stages, but they rarely get to the latter stages of the competiton.”

And they would be right. In the 44 years since we won the World Cup, we’ve managed to get to one semi-final. Other teams to have made at least one semi-final appearance since 1966 include those footballing titans South Korea, Turkey, Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belgium and Poland.  In other words, plenty of other teams have matched England’s acheivements.

In contrast, if you look at teams like Italy, France, Brazil, Germany and Argentina, these teams have, over the last 30 years, fairly regularly gotten to the latter stages of the World Cup. Since England won the trophy in 1966, Brazil have won it 3 times. Germany, Argentina and Italy have all won it twice.

In domestic terms, England are probably about the same as a team like Aston Villa in the FA Cup. We can expect to beat a few of the lower teams and on our day, none of the big teams will relish playing against us, but very few people would put money on us actually winning the competition. But with Aston Villa, I’d imagine that the fans are more realistic about their chances: they probably don’t believe they’ve got the best team in the competition, or that they are likely to win. They know that the likes of Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal and others all have better squads and a better track record. So they do their best but don’t get massive delusions of grandeur.

None of this is to say that England are shit; we’re not. We’re quite a good team – in the top 20 or so teams in the world. But that’s it. Of course we have some very good players, but so do most teams. The difference being that most foreign players aren’t as incredibly overhyped as the England superstars. Is Wayne Rooney a good player? Yes, he is. But aside from a good showing at Euro 2004, he has done nothing for England on a big stage. Compare him to someone like Germany’s Miroslave Klose, who hardly gets a mention as a “world-class” player, but consistently scores hatfuls of goals in World Cups and European championships. The idiot pundits on the BBC were saying that only one or two of the German players would get into the England side. Yes. The German team who got to the final of the last European championship, the semi-final of the last World Cup and the final of the World Cup before it – they’re not as good as the plucky English players who failed to even qualify for the last European championship. It’s an astonishing level of delusion.

Part of the hysteria stems from the mistaken assumption that playing well in the Premier League (or the Spanish La Liga or Serie A) is a guarantee of international success. In commercial terms, the Premier League is a massive success, but everyone involved has started to believe their own hype. The media bias towards the Premier League  and the Champions League has become unstoppable. The commentators on many games seem to be unaware that football exists beyond Europe – that players from Chile, Algeria, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Paraguay can trap and control a football despite never having played in The Champions League. It was pitiful watching an Algerian team of anonymous journeymen with better technical skills than the English players. Just because Glen Johnson earns 50 grand a week, it doesn’t make him a world-class player.

I suppose that’s really what sickens me: the money and the hype. The Nike adverts, the Umbro adverts, the beer adverts, the patriotic crap in the tabloids. It’s the blind assumption that because we’ve thrown billions of pounds at a group of overhyped players, they are world-beaters. Being the best paid team in the world doesn’t make you the best team in the world. Don’t believe the hype.

My dad’s paintings on The Antiques Roadshow

The Sunday before last I was sitting in front of the PC, idly wasting my life, when I got a text message:

“Your dad’s artwork is on the Antiques Roadshow”

I had to read it twice before it sunk in. I rushed across the room and excitedly turned on the telly. The Antiques Roadshow expert was standing next to a nice young couple. Behind them were a number of works of art including, remarkably, two of my dad’s paintings from the 70s. It was very bizarre. I looked at my telly: my dad’s paintings. I looked at the wall opposite my telly: my dad’s paintings.

I phoned my mum. I phoned my sister. I told everyone. Then I waited for the show to be available on Iplayer and downloaded it. There it was in all its technicolor glory.

The backstory: Some fellow was working as an electrician in London, gutting someone’s flat. The owner was chucking out a load of paintings and prints, so the electrician rescued them. The artwork sat about for a while before the electrician’s girlfriend persuaded him to take them onto the Roadshow. And among the artwork – all from Argentina – were two of my dad’s pictures.

The ‘expert’ appraising the artwork was a bit of a knob. He mispronounced my dad’s name, and theorised that the works had been done by some kind of Argentine artistic commune – which sounded terribly exotic, but the truth was that my dad was living and painting in Dollis Hill, north London, when he completed the paintings in question. Still, it was quite thrilling to hear a man in a bow-tie talking about my dad. My dad! When I managed to tell my dad about it, he was less excited than I was, which I understand. When family members spotted stuff about my book/website in the press, they were always more thrilled than I was.

The expert then said that properly framed and promoted, my dad’s paintings would fetch between £1200 and £1500. If only that were true.

The following Monday I phoned up the Antiques Roadshow and corrected some of the incorrect information, and passed my email address onto the couple who found the paintings. Maybe they’ll get in contact. I hope so.

My dad lived in London from about 1969 to 1989, when he moved back to Buenos Aires, the city of his birth. During his time here, he worked in import and export (mainly antiques) and painted and did lino-cuts in his spare time. He had quite a few exhibitions, but was never really keen on lots of self-promotion. He sold work – never a lot, but regularly enough. All fathers are heroes, and despite his many flaws, my dad is a big hero of mine. And it was very moving to see his artwork on primetime TV, watched by millions. Well done dad.