Midfield General

Avoiding the Messi Curse

For Argentina's soccer team, like its economy, diversification is the key to success.

Argentina is not known in the world for economic management. But its road to the final game of the World Cup is indeed a lesson in economics. Far away from the larger-than-life epic style (on and off the field) of Diego Armando Maradona who took the country to the final stage in 1986 and 1990, Lionel Messi's team arrives at the 2014 finals by rather the opposite road.

In economics, Dutch disease is used as a cautionary example of what can happen when a country discovers a new source of wealth, typically a natural resource. Investments are directed to the "star" resource - whether it is copper, diamonds, or oil -- triggering a currency appreciation, which makes the country's other products less competitive on the export market. Star players like Maradona and Messi present national teams with an analogous dilemma by creating structures and strategies around those exceptional resources. Argentina's head coach Alejandro Sabella has openly recognized this during and before the 2014 World Cup, even coining the phrase "Messidependence" to refer to his team's reliance on Messi.

To avoid Dutch disease the economy (or the team) needs to reduce dependency by managing the structural imbalances created by the booming sector (or player), to ensure equitable distribution and stability, typically through worker retraining and product diversification. This is precisely what Argentina has done once it entered the World Cup's knockout stage. Messi's role was balanced with the rest of the team and Dutch disease was averted. The booming sector (player) adapted himself to the rest of the economy (team) and the development continued -- all the way to the finals. Sabella himself admitted his job was "to disguise that imbalance in the best way possible."

In consonance with the times, Argentina's economy fell full throttle into the resource curse in 1986 and 1990, Maradona's heyday. Growth based on a "star" product has locked Latin American countries into commodity bubbles that burst when international conditions turned adverse. National football teams also get locked into excessive dependence, lack of diversification, and -- ultimately -- an unbalanced pattern of development and playing. Amid the Argentina's 1986 World Cup win against West Germany, nobody questioned the model built around a star player. But this kind of dependence can create institutional instability and even regime breakdown -- both in politics and on soccer field. This was one of the effects caused by Neymar's loss and exposed by Germany in the match against Brazil, when the home team could not react to Germany's first goal, completely lost direction and henceforth suffered seven humiliating goals.

When Maradona coached the Argentine team in 2010, Germany exposed the vulnerability of the Argentine model and sent them home with four goals. But times have changed. Just as in macroeconomic terms the 1980s was the lost decade for Argentina and the 1990s a period of neoliberal reforms, the 2000s were times of economic growth and political maturity. 

Emerging countries are more prudent. Argentina is reflecting this in its national soccer team. Sabella maximizes his star resource, Messi, but as a means to further the collective game, encouraging forwards to score and also to help in defense when the team loses possession. Regardless of the end match against Germany, Argentina´s team is an example of economic diversification at its best, a lesson in handling booming and lagging sectors within an economy.

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Midfield General

No One Cares About Third Place

In soccer or in war, a bronze medal isn’t worth much.

The team that lost this week is trying to beat the other team that lost this week. It's Brazil versus Netherlands -- honestly, I may have that wrong -- and at this point, even Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima is barely interested. #becausefutbolwhocares

Ah, the curse of the consolation match. No young wannabe Maradona dreams of playing in the game that determines who comes in third in the ho-hum run-off that's played a full day before the World Cup Final! And yet, here we are. They're gonna turn the cameras on and everything.

A run-off for third place makes sense in American Youth Soccer Organization. But in the World Cup? At the very least, it offers a reason to hand out a few more, if slightly smaller, trophies. And, granted, coming in third is far better than coming in second from a purely psychological perspective: third-place finishers are lucky to get a medal. But does it really make sense on an international stage, with the reputation of countries and continents on the line? We already know that Brazil isn't the powerhouse it used to be. Do we really need to know at this point if Brazil is better than the Netherlands? Must we separate the chaff from the chaff?

Even those who compete in third-place competitions are on record: "This game should not take place," said the coach of Bulgaria's fourth-place team back in 1994. Twenty years later the same words are still relevant. "This match should never be played," said the coach of Netherland's team this week. "Teams don't want to play for third place," Dutch coach Louis van Gaal whined. "I've been saying this for ten years."

Which brings me to a question that's been asked for ten centuries. From a geopolitical balance-of-power perspective, does anyone care who comes in third? Is there a war in history where a country took home (at least, what was left of home) the proverbial bronze medal?

After President Bush declared Mission Accomplished in the Iraq war, did he announce a run-off between Al Qaeda and Moqtada al-Sadr?

When the Allied forces beat the Axis powers, did some neutral country -- Andorra, say, or the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen -- demand to know where it ranked (literally) in the new world order?

In the Peloponnesian War, after the Spartans battled the Athenians, did everyone wonder how the Olympians fared?

And in the words of John Belushi, "was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?  Hell no!" But only because we still had to determine whether the Italians would defeat Costa Rica at the Alamo.

So on the question of global bronze medals and whether they have the power to shape history, I doubt it. History is written by the winners. It's hard enough for losers to get a fair shake. For third-place finishers to get the attention they're due, even revisionist history would need one more level of revision.

But I'll still watch today's consolation game. #becausefutbol. And #becausememphis.  And #becauseadrianalima.

And because I suspect if Brazil loses again, they may just go to war.

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