Book Review: Angels with Dirty Faces

Posted by on Jun 18, 2019 in Book Review | One Comment
Book Review: Angels with Dirty Faces

Angels with Dirty Faces
by Jonathan Wilson
Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson
2016

Few footballing countries can be as fascinating as Argentina. Rich success has been accompanied by ignominious failure, perceived dastardliness on and off the pitch, legendary matches and a cast of characters that have truly enriched the game. It’s a nation the football culture of which is perhaps its defining characteristic. Football is often the first thing one thinks of when Argentina is mentioned and it’s in this field that Argentina has arguably achieved the most.

Jonathan Wilson’s magnificent history of Argentinian football is a true feast of a read. Over the course of 500 densely packed pages, he places the history of Argentinian soccer in its full socio-cultural, economic and political context, skilfully intertwining the nation’s history and financial fortunes with tales of magnificent goals and virtuoso individual and team performances.

It’s a history that is informative throughout with the backcloth of the post-war era in particular looming large. Although only lukewarm about football himself, that most enigmatic of South American politicians, Juan Perón was and remains incalculably influential in the mindset of the nation and, by extension, the game – the man who defined what it was to be populist while cleverly avoiding any label marked ‘left’ or ‘right’, giving the people what they thought they wanted, at vast expense. Later, successive military regimes continued to use Argentina’s national pastime as political capital, culminating with the ultimate victory of a World Cup win on home soil, sullied by the lost cries of the Disappeared.

It’s that rascal mentality that Wilson also charts within the game – epitomised by the semi-mythic figure of the ‘pibe’, a cheeky, darting, tousle headed kid, abundant with talent and presented in a number of human avatars down the years, most notably in the figure of one Diego Armando Maradona.

Maradona is the subject of a new film from Asif Kapadia and Wilson does brilliantly to evoke the life and times of the man, describing the odd dichotomy present in a man who knows he has done wrong and deserves punishment but still manages to sum up a level of righteous anger. Of course this is presented alongside the triumphs – those two goals against England and Belgium in 1986 and the way he took a whole city in Naples by the scruff of its footballing neck.

Wilson describes the various England/Argentina run-ins dispassionately, wisely avoiding both patriotic tub thumping but also post-imperial angst for English ills. Put simply, Maradona cheated with the ‘Hand of God’ but put also simply, Argentina were far and away the better side on that quarter final day in 1986; likewise, in 1966, Antonio Rattín lost his cool but Michael Owen went over too easily in 1998. The Falklands war is dealt with but not in so much detail that you can come down on one side or the other in an argument. I think it would be Wilson’s argument that England and Argentina are two countries that have the ultimate respect for each other in sporting terms.

But this is a book that is only fleetingly about the relationship between those two countries, there being so much to enjoy – from the melancholy genius of Juan Román Riquelme to the cigarette fuelled leftism of César Luis Menotti; from the rivalry with Uruguay of the 1920s that could have seen Argentina win the first World Cup; to the violence of the 1960s and temporary suspension of World club championship hostilities.

It’s an immaculately researched book to place alongside another Wilson <i> magnum opus Breaking the Pyramid. Through his stewardship of The Blizzard to his regular appearances on podcasts, to his always erudite dissection of all forms of the game in print, Wilson is well on his way to a position as one of the best football chroniclers of all time, if he is not there already.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Frank Heaven
    June 19, 2019

    I wasn’t aware of the ‘pibe’ term previously, though Asif Kapadia deals with this concept in his film; there is evident pride from Maradona that his two goals against England in ’86 were achieved through both deceit and natural talent. Kapadia’s documentary is excellent incidentally. The brilliance and darkness of football in South America’s southern cone is always fascinating.

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