The precise nature of the gambeta is a difficult concept to pin down for non-Argentines. Used to most devastating effect by Maradona and Messi, it is a form of dribbling laced with unpredictability and deceit, honed on the dusty streets of the cities.
Buenos Aires is the true home of the gambeta, but football is not the only obsession of the capital. For Argentines there is football and there is tango, but the two need not be separated. Former Real Madrid forward and manager Jorge Valdano noted that for his people, the gambeta “is another form of tango, with the pleasure of applying those extra flourishes and those twists and turns”.
In such a stereotypically expressive nation, dribbling and tango are one and the same. The flourish, the improvisation, the one-on-one nature; the stories of football and tango in Buenos Aires can be told together.
The history of the Argentine tango is a long and colourful one, steeped in urban myth and legend. What is known is that the original European incarnation was only the third dance which saw man and woman facing and holding each other, after the Viennese Waltz and the Polka in the mid-nineteenth century. More significantly, it was the first of the three to introduce an element of improvisation.
The popular notion that the Argentine tango originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires is one which should be ignored; rather, this is where the middle classes would first encounter the dance, which had been brought to the city by European immigrants.
In a city chronically underpopulated by women, tango bands were employed to entertain the impatient customers of the city’s overcrowded brothels. It is thought that men would dance with each other as they waited to practise and hone their technique, so they would be ready when the opportunity to dance with a woman presented itself.
One of the first major conductors of these tango bands was Vicente Greco, a musical prodigy from a modest family in the outskirts of the capital. Having learned to play the bandoneon – a type of concertina – at the age of 14, he was one of the key figures in transforming the tango from a suburban pastime to what writer Leopoldo Marechal called “the pulse of Buenos Aires”.
Greco’s group was the star attraction at the opening of Armenonville, the city’s first cabaret club, having begun his musical journey in the suburb of La Boca. In the early 1910s, this was an area of the city populated largely by immigrants, and home of the recently founded Club Atlético Boca Juniors.
At this time, though, Boca did not rule Argentina, nor did they rule Buenos Aires. Racing Club did. With seven consecutive championships between 1913 and 1919, they were the undisputed kings of Argentinian football.
Their star man was local-born creative forward Pedro ‘Ochoíta’ Ochoa, a fan favourite regarded as one of the finest players the country produced in the first half of the 20th Century. His prowess on the ball saw him handed the unofficial title of ‘King of the Gambeta’, and fittingly it was this which saw him immortalised in Carlos Gardel’s 1928 tango, Patadura.
The title of the song refers essentially to someone who is terrible at dancing, and Gardel references a number of footballers such as Manuel Seoane and Domingo Tarasconi. ‘Two left feet’ is an apt phrase for a hapless dancer or a hopeless footballer – the subject of Gardel’s amusement attempts to emulate the creativity and elegance of the era’s finest players on the dancefloor, but he fails to win the heart of the object of his desires until he learns to dance with his heart.
Rodríguez Peña also honoured the all-conquering Racing team with a tango in their honour while Osvaldo Fresedo penned another ode to Ochoíta, but Gardel clearly felt he was onto a winning combination with his bringing-together of football, dancing, and romance.
Five years after Patadura, Gardel introduced Mi Primer Gol, with the singer this time likening a woman playing hard to get on the dancefloor with a stubborn defence on the football pitch.
Unsurprisingly, the gambeta features once more, but on this occasion, it is not enough to win a first kiss – her ‘great defence’ stops him in his tracks. Eventually, through a combination of smooth talking and silky dancing, he wins her round and her lips ‘allow the first goal’ in a triumph for dancefloor lotharios the world over.
What really ties football and tango together is not these tenuous artistically drawn links, but the spirit which embodies the love for the two on the streets of Buenos Aires.
To a significant degree, it is this which sets Argentinian football apart from the rest – its ability to produce footballers on the streets. What characterises these players is not the fighting spirit with which they are generally associated, but their unwavering insistence on playing the sport as they did on the dusty streets of home – the gambeta is the eternal embodiment of this, and it shares a common ancestry with the tango.
The cliché of people stopping to dance on the streets of Buenos Aires is probably true. Musicians would play on street corners to practise and busk, and people would join them for a spontaneous moment of hedonism and self-expression – giving them a chance to hone their moves, and the musicians more of a spectacle to draw in an audience and their spare change.
When they made it to a night in a club or bar, the dancers would use the moves they had come up with or picked up from others at these impromptu sessions and the spirit of spontaneity they fostered was translated into their performance on the dancefloor. This is the spirit of the Argentine dancer.
This spirit translates perfectly to the upbringing of the country’s street footballers. Youngsters watch their heroes at the stadium or on television, then try to emulate them against their friends. Eventually, they learn to improvise for themselves with that ardent quality of self-expression on which South American football prides itself.
The final thought on this matter comes from the original master of the gambeta, Ochoíta himself.
“Do I think before playing? Sometimes I do, but when I dribble past a player and immediately another one appears, and then another... I can't think anymore because I do not feel like playing. So the legs take control to continue dribbling past opponents.”
Whether you’re passing the time with your friends on the street, causing a stir on the dancefloor or grabbing your moment to shine on the football pitch, sometimes it’s best to let your feet do the talking.
By Sam France.
Header image: Luca Boldrini