As Argentina re-emerged in the tunnel for the second half of their first Copa América match against Paraguay, a giggling Lionel Messi and Angel Di María had a brief exchange – both players with their hands over their mouths, as is becoming the norm, only too aware of the lip-reading that accompanies major sporting events these days.
The first assumption – by all accounts incorrect as it turns out – was that Messi and Di María were mocking Tata Martino’s half-time chat. TV microphones – only partially audible – picked up Messi’s use of the word boludez, an Argentinian slang term for nonsense, something not important, “balls” one might say.
Lionel Messi and Argentina losing sleep as Uruguay loom at Copa América 2015
The video went viral, speculation about tension between Messi and Martino gathered momentum. The Copa was kicking off and everyone needed something to talk about. Eventually, Canal+ aired extended footage of the incident with clearer sound, changing the official picture: Sergio Agüero tells his team-mates that it’s not going to be an easy result, Javier Mascherano pronounces a general “c’mon, c’mon” and as they all move on towards the pitch Messi reveals, if anything, that he wasn’t really listening to any of that and mutters to Di María “what balls did he say?” to which Di María replies “it’s not going to be an easy result”. Agüero was proved right, as Argentina lost their 2-0 lead over Paraguay and the match ended in a 2-2 draw. In their next two group matches, against Uruguay and Jamaica, Argentina won by a single goal and so now as the quarter-finals approach, La Albiceleste are through and ready to face Colombia.
When Martino was the manager of Paraguay national side some years ago many praised him for his pragmatism; as a player he had been an exquisite exponent of the ball-on-the-ground style of slow passing; thoughtful football, emblematic not just of Argentina but of Rosario, the city from which he hails.
As he began coaching Martino worked closely with Marcelo Bielsa, a rigid scheme builder who has been labelled by Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola among others as a master among masters. Yet Martino’s Paraguay were fast-paced, long-ball, somewhat defensive exponents of the game, which led many to decree that Martino the disciple had cut the umbilical cord from Bielsa and learnt to work as best he could with the players available to him, as well as the idiosyncrasies of Paraguay.