England and Argentina: Life at the end of the food chain

Former Buenos Aires resident Rob Brown looks at the differences and similarities between football in England and Argentina…

Although the subject is hotly debated, it’s generally accepted that the English Premier League is now the best division in the world. Its unmatched wealth, rich history and aggressive marketing make it hard for any other division to keep up. Crucially, the league is well-organised and located in a country with no possibility of political or social upheaval that could lay waste to its schedule. It’s a well-oiled machine and now generates nearly £2bn in TV money per year.

The Premier League is fast becoming the world’s first and only global league – football’s version of basketball’s NBA. Of course, most of the money and the media attention go to a small minority of teams and those are the giants that players all over the world now dream of representing, but the Premier League’s rapid growth means that even the smallest clubs have entered something of a golden age, pulling off expensive transfers that take the breath away.

Eduardo Vargas’ reward for scoring a World Cup winner against holders Spain was a loan move to newly promoted QPR. Jefferson Montero, one of the most exciting prospects in South American football, chose Swansea as the place to take his career to the next level. Esteban Cambiasso, a bona fide legend, is winding down his career with Leicester.

As any long-time match-goer will tell you, this economic growth has come at a high cultural cost. English clubs have never cared less about their fans in traditional heartlands of support and spend most of their time trying to attract the attention (read: money) of fans (read: potential customers) in North America and Asia. Even the cheapest match tickets are now beyond the reach of most locals and most of the time the atmosphere inside grounds is funereal.

Without wanting to get too misty-eyed and nostalgic, it’s hard to deny that the Premier League’s big clubs have traded their souls for cash. While attendances remain at record highs, the average age of paying supporters is rising in check with attendance and enthusiasm among the young seems to be going down with every passing week.

Those of us under thirty have grown up seeing the Premier League prioritising the needs of Sky TV over those of the fans, clubs referring to supporters as ‘customers’ and talking about expanding their brands, and squads full of mercenaries who couldn’t point to the club they represent on a map before they signed.

The quality of play and the occasional high-profile meltdown keep it watchable, but with such cynical, Randian (a)morality in the boardroom and increasingly predictable outcomes on the pitch, it’s getting harder to sustain real interest. The number of fans walking away from clubs they’ve supported for their entire lives to watch lower or non-league football is on the rise.

At the other end of the food chain is the Argentine Primera División. As one would expect, the contrast is stark. In 2010, Argentina overtook Brazil as the world’s largest exporter of footballers, with 1,716 professional players leaving the country to earn their living elsewhere in a twelve-month period. It’s now readily accepted that if an Argentine shows any promise whatsoever between the ages of 15 and 21, he will be sold on as soon as possible to anyone who offers good money.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important are firstly that Argentine players tend to be very good and secondly that Argentine clubs exist in perpetual bankruptcy. There’s little the clubs can do to improve their situation: even if they were well-run – and they’re anything but – the local economy is permanently on the verge of total collapse. The peso loses value daily, so the salaries on offer in almost any other country’s currency equate to several times what’s on offer at home.

Given that anyone with talent leaves before they reach adulthood and generally returns after Europe’s clubs have laid waste to their bodies, it’s no surprise that the standard of Argentine football has fallen considerably in recent years. While the conveyor belt of talent keeps churning out saleable prospects, they vanish before they can make a real impact. There’s little to admire in the average Primera match in terms of quality play, clever management or tactical intrigue.

Despite this, Argentines are as passionate about their football as ever. The atmosphere in almost every ground is routinely brilliant and genuinely inspiring to an English observer. It’s true that attendances have fallen in the last few decades, but this is less because fans are falling out of love with their clubs and more because of shoddy match organisation on the part of the Argentine Football Association, valid concerns about gang-related violence in stadia and the ever-worsening economic squeeze.

The major plus in favour of the Argentine model is that their clubs are fan-owned, democratic multi-sport community epicentres and not fat-cat-owned, profit-hungry businesses. Rather than looking to exploit their fans, Argentine clubs exist to serve their members. Almost all have centres in which a member can practice nearly any activity they like, from competitive team sports to martial arts. Some even offer childcare services to parents and have regular programmes as esoteric as literary workshops and acting classes.

Monthly membership fees are variable depending on age and club, and while it’s true that most big match tickets are probably unaffordable to the Argentine working class, the benefits of membership seem scarcely believable when compared to the privileges ‘enjoyed’ by English fans.

At most clubs, if one presents a membership card at the stadium they can enter the stand behind the goal free of charge. A fee is charged for entry to the stands either the side of the pitch, presumably for the right to a good view. Non-members must pay a considerably bigger price to enter either stand, but any trip to any Argentine ground will show that a healthy cross-section of society is in attendance.

Indeed, rather than making it harder for the less well-off to watch their teams, as the Premier League has through skyrocketing ticket prices and the rise and rise of Sky TV, the Argentine Primera has made it easier. After eighteen years of pay-per-view broadcasting, a complex and highly political stand-off in 2009 saw the creation of the Fútbol para todos (‘Football for all’, following in the tradition of left-wing slogans like ‘Bread for all!’, ‘Freedom for all!’ etc) programme, which now beams live football at all levels of the pyramid into every Argentine home for free.

Instead of teams full of millionaires who know nothing of their clubs’ traditions, Argentine football is full of cult heroes, local legends and wonderkids taking their first steps in the game. As in days gone by in England, one can bump into most of them in the street, on the metro or in a nightclub and have a chat, and these bonds matter. Where a neutral might watch a match and find no redeeming feature, a die-hard supporter will look out onto the field of play and see eleven heroes, many of whom they feel like they know on a personal basis.

There are numerous examples of such cult figures that come to mind, but perhaps the best is Walter Kannemann, a left-sided centre-back for current Copa Libertadores champions San Lorenzo. An unspectacular and quite honestly limited footballer, he has risen to cult hero status due to the combination of his indomitable passion on the pitch and his unassuming boy-next-door personality.

A home-grown player and die-hard fan, Kannemann has forged a career that resembles the plot of a Hollywood movie. In 2012, before he’d even signed a professional contract with the club, he scored the goal that saved San Lorenzo from relegation. Just eighteen months later, he won the 2013 Torneo Inicial league title as a first-team regular. In August 2014, he was part of the team that won the club’s first ever Copa Libertadores title. He was one of the first to receive the trophy and for a while it seemed unlikely that he would ever give it up.

As well as being incredibly successful, Kannemann’s exploits have added to San Lorenzo folklore and given the fans an untouchable on-pitch idol. The archetypal Kannemann moment came before the Torneo Inicial title decider against Estudiantes. The club’s then-manager Juan Antonio Pizzi arranged for a motivational video to be shown to the squad the day before the game, in the hope that it would focus the players and give them the additional desire to get over the finish line.

Kannemann was so intensely moved that he punched through a window, badly gashing his arm and almost ruling himself out of the biggest match of his fledgling career. While Pizzi went crazy with anger at his player’s recklessness, the fans saw only Kannemann’s raw passion and fell even more in love with him. There’s quite simply nothing like that in the Premier League any more.

It’s quite common even today for an English fan to say that the club they support forms part of their identity, when events post-1992 mean that it’s more or less impossible for that to be true. In 2014 our clubs are all the same: faceless, heartless corporations that only differ in terms of location and wealth. Their links to local communities are minimal – the idea that a Manchester United fan might after work go to a complex next to Old Trafford and learn about acting from a club-appointed teacher is patently ludicrous.

What we have is high-quality football that we can barely afford to watch either live or on TV, clubs which treat fans with gleeful contempt and a league full of unknowable players that could barely care less about the institutions they represent. Maybe it’s just that the grass looks greener in the other field, but life at the bottom of the food chain seems far preferable to this writer.

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