Craig Foster is one of the most influential people in Australian football.
Having moved to Buenos Aires six months ago, much of my experience here so far has naturally been framed by football, such is my passion and borderline unhealthy obsession with the game.
Luckily for me I could scarcely have chosen a better country to indulge in this passion, as the beautiful game permeates all facets and levels of Argentine society, from the conspicuous and obvious to the subtle and imperceptible.
The highly dramatic and controversial Copa Libertadores final last year between Boca Juniors and River Plate shed an unwanted spotlight on the disruptive and idiotic element of fans in Argentina, but as the lazy cliches and condescending opinions on the matter rolled in, people here understood the all-consuming Superclasico is but one, albeit much-publicised, part of the countries footballing tapestry.
I play five-a-side football every Thursday in Palermo, the most gringo and expat-heavy part of the city nestled deep within its centre, and I am constantly fascinated by the wide cross-section of people playing at all times. There are fat old blokes going in for full-blooded, studs-up tackles, wispy teenagers bamboozling all and sundry with outrageous skills, unassuming women putting many men to shame with their touch and control, and myriad ordinary people bedecked in kits from around the world living out their footballing fantasies.
There are football pitches ranging from big to small dotted everywhere, and often I find myself walking past a random building and suddenly hearing the unmistakable yells and shouts of a football match from behind the windows and doors, the pitch seemingly crow-barred in no matter the shape or size of the space, and I can’t help but peer in at the always mesmerising sight of football being played, no matter the level.
The cafes, bars, parillas and small shops are full of portenos with big bellies, dodgy moustaches and limitless opinions watching games every night, from glitzy Libertadores matches to third-division hoofballers. The footballing knowledge people possess here is truly astounding, ensuring you can find common ground with everyone from taxi drivers and builders to doctors and lawyers.
Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme are the three pillars of legendary players from the past 40 years, and I have had countless debates and conversations with many Argies about my belief that Pablo Aimar is the most underrated and exquisite player to have been produced by these shores.
Speaking of Messi, he is never far from the surface of almost any conversation here, and I personally have never witnessed the so-called backlash or annoyance with his commitment to Argentina, only pride and adoration that one of their own has yet again scaled such Everest-like playing-ability heights that Maradona was able to reach.
The match day experience itself is a joyful occasion, and having attended the insanely fierce derby of Independiente vs Racing Club, the oft-conjured words of intoxicating, captivating and passionate are wholly appropriate. It felt like rage and injustice, and the local adrenaline-boosting pre-game drink of choice, fernet and coke, fueled every person in attendance.
For many people the football club they support is one of the most steady and long-term things in their life, especially in a country with such a perilous and roller-coaster-like economy, and the fact my mate nearly had his head kicked in after being caught filming an away team goal shows how easily the passion here can overstep the mark in to recklessness.
Despite this, the Argentinian footballing culture is as exciting and alluring as one would hope, with some of the terrible and soul-destroying aspects of ‘modern football’, such as sky-high ticket prices and relentless hype, noticeably absent, leaving just the pure, unadulterated and nerdy joy of the game itself.