Jorge Valdano should have been at the Monumental; instead he was standing alone in a bar somewhere. He can still remember its name: Rincón de la Victoria. Just him and a group of Dutch fans looking at the screen, wondering what might have been. Mention Argentina and the Netherlands, who face each other on Friday night, and that’s the moment that comes to his mind. The 1978 final. Ticker tape, Mario Kempes and, clearest of all, Rob Rensenbrink hitting the post. “I watched with ‘long teeth’, envy,” he admits.
He was missing out on Argentina winning their first World Cup; he couldn’t know it then, but he wouldn’t miss out on the second. Thirty-six years on from Mexico 86, Valdano would love a third, a spectator again but in the stadium, not some bar. “I asked [the coach César Luis] Menotti. He said if the World Cup started that day, I’d be in the squad. ‘What I can’t promise,’ he said, ‘is that I’ll be coach tomorrow, given this chaos.’ “There was a strike on. We were in the hotel together but he wasn’t allowed to coach us. He would sit in the car, watching from a distance. A bit of crossing and heading, then a kickabout. It was like being back in the potrero. He did continue but I didn’t play in the first division [until 1979]. Menotti only took one ‘foreign’ player: Mario Kempes. The rest were playing in Argentina. There was a guy called Maradona who was also left out.”
Valdano laughs. “I was in good company.” Always. Valdano tells great stories, if too rarely about himself, instead analysing and describing others, which he does better than anyone, taking you with him. He’s been talking for 69 minutes before his goal in the World Cup final even gets mentioned, and he’s not the one that eventually brings it up. As he talks, certain themes dominate: the joy taken from talent, inspiration, genius, the men who transcend, break through the system. “Pelé is one, Cruyff, Di Stéfano who revolutionised football. Every 20 years or so they appear. Messi is the latest. Maradona before.”
How could you not look at Maradona? It’s easier to end up like Maradona than like Messi. Messi has a remarkable self-control that has saved him. There’s no hiding place. He can touch down in an African country, an Asian country, he’s still Messi. The others have to know how to live with a genius. For a long time, this Argentina team didn’t; now they’ve learnt. The idea that everyone’s the same isn’t true. If you’re Messi, how are you going to be the same? If you’re Maradona? You have to respect their space, their habitat – and give them the ball even if they’re marked.
It’s a reality. One day, Menotti calls a team meeting. When we get there, he tells Maradona he’s not allowed to come in; he doesn’t want him to hear what he’s going to say about him. Maradona goes. He sits us down and says: “Right, I have to ask you something. How many times do you think you have to give the ball to him during the game?” There’s a pause and Menotti says: “All of them. Right, tell Maradona to come back in.” It’s not good for him to find out, but it is good to “overuse” a genius. He wins you the game.
Every time has its peculiarities. [Daniel] Passarella had to live with Maradona. We all knew the relationship was broken. As chance would have it, Passarella got ill and from there Diego reigned. There are lots of elements, including luck, in making a team. Karim Benzema is the example now. This game never stops surprising us. Three days ago we were talking about Messi, the next day it was Kylian Mbappé, the day after Neymar. The three stars of the World Cup all play for PSG and they can’t find a way to win the Champions League. Give me your all-time team. How can I not put in Cruyff, Pelé, Maradona … but you write it down and think: “Would they actually beat anyone?”
I feel like Argentina have found the right ecosystem. I saw a photo that looked like Ocean’s Eleven: the players getting off the bus, Messi at the head, the rest behind him, flanking him in a triangle. That has a symbolic value that went without comment but explains what Argentina is. You see the happiness that Leo has: he’s liberated. By the group and by the Copa América in Brazil in 2019. There is a before and after for them and above all for Leo. He talks about how despite losing there was a unity. What struck me was him saying he most regrets not having enjoyed the Guardiola era more, as if he wishes he had savoured what he now knows is special.
And in different positions. He abandoned one role and adapted to a new one on the very day he occupied it. I’m a winger and Guardiola says play false 9: we win 6-2 and I inspire it. Now we see him as a strategist, a midfielder. As if being a genius wasn’t enough, time made him wise. Against Australia, it was like the essence of his 1,000 games, the aroma of everything he’s been. Even as a madridista, I’ve always thought that whoever doesn’t love Messi doesn’t love football. I won’t allow anyone to say he is less than anyone ever.
People talk about ego, but it’s the most profitable ego in history – for his teammates too. His case speaks to me of the speed with which people forget. Big players performing is important because World Cups are defined through them. 1970 was Pelé and his band; 1986 was Maradona and his. That’s why it’s such a pity Sadio Mané’s not here, that Erling Haaland isn’t. It’s wonderful seeing Mbappé, who seems to have time for everything: he can do it all, and then score the goal. Whereas with Leo, it’s about his brain identifying the opportunity to make his talent tell, even without the physical condition. He has less but is giving more. We’re seeing individuals against systems, returning us to the football we came from. Football came from its place: Brazil had an identity, Germany had an identity. Now, it belongs to its time. And this is a time of uniformity, national teams look alike. Football, as ever, tells us about the world.
Partly because we did that. Russia provided ample material for a political debate which has been made even more patent by what followed. And that’s before we mention the Argentina World Cup. A complicity between Fifa, and especially [former Fifa president [João] Havelange, and the state. It’s good to put the focus on the sociological elements because we’re talking about the most representative game in the world; football explains many things. Argentina was the interruption of a democratic process by the most butcherous government in the country’s history.
I don’t think a footballer is distracted because he has a political position. I have no doubt attention will also be placed on the aberrations that happen in the US, which are more sociological than political. Not much has been said about the most popular sport staging its defining competition in one of the most expensive countries. Football has turned towards the rich. Argentina’s connection with the people is so powerful that it becomes another reason to want them to win – for that to prevail, not the artificiality of marketing and finance. That said, I’m as scared of method as marketing: one removes something from around the game, the other removes the soul from the game itself. And technology alarms me too. [The Spanish author] Javier Marías described football as savage and sentimental. Technology removes that savagery. We seem determined to turn it into entertainment when it’s emotion, a prolongation of life.
Yes, but it’s curious. The best player on the pitch was Casemiro. Or Alisson. But they gave the man of the match award to Neymar. There’s a subservience to big names. And Neymar is a pop star, a persona. While Messi hides that persona, Neymar plays the role. At first I felt Vinícius was a bit inhibited but not any more. England and Brazil have as much talent on the bench as the pitch. No one else has that.
In South Africa, Spain won with six from Barcelona. In Brazil, Germany won with six from Bayern. There aren’t so many from City but there’s a cultural movement he has pushed. I look at Harry Kane: he can play a pass, combine, see things, finish. He’s a crack. And Jude Bellingham is buenisimo, buenisimo. He does everything so naturally, including running. He runs like a gazelle. It’s wonderful. He’s differential.
Argentina face Holland. Not much is said about Louis van Gaal. And what the Dutch do say is negative! Someone asked me what I thought of Van Gaal’s catenaccio. I said: “Listen, it’s one thing not having the possession of old, another to accuse him of that.” We could say they’re more the Netherlands than Holland. Argentina’s advantage is that first traumatic loss created a vicious circle but also a virtuous cycle: it obliges change, forces you to overcome, makes you stronger. That would be my fear with Brazil: they’re living happy times, too happy for football, which tends to hide around the corner and stab you when you least expect. So happy even the coach dances.
If I dance, it’s a lack of respect. But they’re Brazilians. They had Ronaldinho, Romário, Ronaldo, for whom life is an exercise in happiness and football is an extension of life.
Without doubt the happiest moment of my life. That classic thing: this isn’t happening to me. There’s a limit to happiness and then suddenly you’re beyond it. I had missed out in 1978 but the World Cup that really hurt was 1982. I got injured early in my first start, when I was flying. In 1986 I had missed an open goal in the semi-final and in Argentina they abused me in every language. If you miss, it marks you, kills you. In the final I was running through, praying to the ball: go in, please. Now people who weren’t even born ask me how I scored. That’s a moment that makes you happy the rest of your life. Football.