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Football Is Full Of Anecdotes About Life

Roberto “El Negro” Fontanarrosa died at the age of 62 on 19 July 2007. The gifted Argentine writer was also a talented cartoonist and an ardent football fan. This was one of the last interviews that he gave before his death.

FIFA magazine: In your book, Football is Sacred, you said that this expression reflected a certain lifestyle. Do you still believe this?
Roberto Fontanarrosa: I still believe it. Time doesn’t make you any wiser or more composed. On the contrary, manias and obsessions become more extreme, including a kind of passion – even fanatacism — for football. I am a keen follower of football everywhere, but I especially like Rosario Central. And luckily, I have been able to go and watch a few games again after a lapse of over twelve months. Although we lost two of the first three games, just the fact that I was able to return with a group of friends, like in the good old days, is one way of replying to your question as to whether football is sacred.
Have you ever thought about why we like football so much?
Fontanarrosa: There is a saying that if you don’t understand that football is a passion, you don’t understand anything. And passion is very difficult to explain. Professional football is the tantalising tip of the iceberg but below the surface there are thousands and thousands of children, teenagers, young people, not so young, old and very old who play football all their lives — badly, just like I did. I think the secret of football is that it’s a clever and attractive game to watch and you don’t need much money to play it. And this love for the game inevitably leads to an identification with a certain jersey. If there is any local rivalry such as you see between Central and Newell’s in Rosario, this only serves to inflame passions.
Is this passion peculiar to Argentina?
Fontanarrosa: It’s strongly linked to national pride. Some leaders wanted us to believe that we were from the First World. Obviously we’re not but, strangely, Argentine footballers have always rubbed shoulders with the First World. You just have to think of Alfredo Di Stefano, Enrique Omar Sivori and, of course, Diego Maradona. Somewhere in the Bible there should be a verse saying “and the Argentines shall never lose in football” because we are always surprised, ashamed or confused when the national side loses. But I think it has something to do with a feeling of pride which is quite justified in a culture that goes back a long way because from the day we are born, we hear our parents and grandparents talk¬ing about players they knew and about matches and goals.
How does it inspire you to write?
Fontanarrosa: There didn’t used to be any literature here that did justice to what we felt about football. When I was a teenager, I used to read articles in El Grafico but the reports were limited to the match itself. Then, later on, a story about Pepe Sacia called Desde el Barro, written by the Uruguayan author, Enrique Estrazulas, left a deep impres¬sion on me. It was basically fiction but it was a different way of telling a story and looking at a topic. It wasn’t anything like a match report and it came as a com¬plete surprise to me. It was so lovely and appealing that it set me thinking that I could begin to write about a topic that I love. Nowadays there are many more stories about Argentinian football. There has always been literature about boxing. But football is also full of anecdotes about life, usually with roots in poverty, then moving on to triumphs, defeats, failure, glory, togetherness – everything you experience as part of a team. It’s a joy to write about, especially the passion shown by fans as well as players.
South American football should be a mine of inspiration because of the way we experience it.
Fotitanarrosa: In South American countries, football is a means of financial salvation, just as in Africa. But, as with everything else in Latin America, it has a vitality, importance and competitiveness that makes it more entertaining and more dramatic than it could ever be in Europe or Japan. In the World Cup in France, I saw splendid stadiums but I missed the atmosphere of the Primera B (second division) matches played on small pitches, where you are close to the players and you are immersed in the roar of the crowd. Its much more homely; you could even have played on these wretched little pitches. You can identify with them.
Do you prefer a Central Cordoba v. Argentino de Rosario to a Roma v. AC Milan match?
Fontanarrosa: Definitely. I used to watch any match but, to be honest, if I don’t know the players, it doesn’t interest me so much. If an Argentinian is playing, especially one from Central, just like Vitamina Sanchez, who used to play in the Netherlands, I am interested, but if I don’t know them, I doubt whether I would watch the game.
Do you like modern football?
Fontanarrosa: I still like it and I’m interested in modern football. Years ago, there used to be much more space and more time, but now teams play within 30 to 40 metres and the players are extremely athletic. It’s more aggressive and less spectacular and there’s less opportunity to show off skills. But these are truths that we have to accept because years ago you had to come to an agreement with your opponent to the effect: ‘Don’t mark me and I won’t mark you.’ Just like farewell matches for certain stars – they’re so boring. Football is still interesting and much more a question of teamwork. In the 1960s, if a man was sent off, it didn’t make much of a difference. Now the opponents’ fans cheer as if it was a goal. It is almost a goal. Playing with one man down upsets the whole balance of a game.
In your stories, you talk about superstitions, which are part and parcel of football.
Fontanarrosa: Absolutely. I don’t go in for it much but if I ever went to a match wearing a certain cap and we won, I would wear that cap again. But the best method is having eleven good players because caps and T-shirts don’t always do the trick. After a couple of matches, you then have to change everything. I saw that with the sketch I did for Central’s jersey. When they unveiled the design, I asked Kily Gonzalez not to lose the first three matches because I’d be insulted. Well, we didn’t lose the first three matches but we lost the rest. But you get carried away by it.
Which South American players do you like?
Fontanarrosa: To start with the Brazilians, Ronaldinho and also Robinho, who was very young when he joined Real Madrid. I also like Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, Chile’s Matias Fernandez and Venezuela’s Juan Arango, who is a very good player. Colombia’s Radamel Falcao also plays well. I like creative players, the forwards.
And Argentinians?
Fontanarrosa: I have always favoured the traditional role of the no. 10, the player they call fantasista in Italy, where the position has now been completely eliminated. Bundles of talent such as Beto Alonso, Ricardo Bochini and obviously Diego Maradona. The sad thing is that you don’t see them for long in Argentina – Sergio Aguero for instance. I have never seen Lionel Messi, who is simply dazzling. If there was a match between Barcelona and Recreativo de Huelva, which I wouldn’t see otherwise, I’d watch it if Messi was playing. And since Kily Gonzalez started playing in lower divisions for Central, I think he’s been exceptional. We keep moaning at him for being sent off for stupid reasons but it’s part of the same package. It’s very rare to see a cold, calculating, rational player decide a match. But, miraculously, Argentine football is still producing really talented players thanks to the lower divisions’ unselfish work, despite the relentless player drain. I used to wonder what would happen in the Argentine theatre if they dispensed with the ten best actors and ten best actresses at the end of each season. The hierarchy would collapse.