Martín Ainstein & The Provocation of South American Soccer

InterviewChris Yong-GarciaComment

Martin Ainstein is a journalist, seasoned traveler, foodie and soccer expert, with a passion for discovering simple stories that reveal the soul of a people or a culture. Martin has two segments on ESPN Deportes “El Diario de Martin” and “Destino Futbol,” and he covers top world soccer events, for both Spanish and English media. Last month, Martin was in Brazil covering the World Cup 2014: thirty-three days on every street in every city, in search of the perfect story to tell with his signature coolness and big smile. We, at LatinLover, had the privilege of catching up with him there.

What are your thoughts about the final game?

Objectively, Germany had an advantage. They were the team with the best players, and they risked more and gave a better spectacle. Argentine came with their arguments, with a very good defensive strategy, but the goal was missing. Argentina could have won. On the three occasions they had to score, their top players weren’t at their best level.

How did you feel as an Argentine amongst all these thousands of Brazilians rooting for Germany?

It's what soccer in South America is all about: provocation. Rivalry is part of the game. In fact, winning is also about enjoying it in your adversary's face. It has to be understood in that sense, and everyone has to accept it and deal with it. It’s obvious that Brazilians didn't want Argentina to win the cup in the Maracana, after what happened here, and obviously the Argentines came to Rio with the desire to express loud and clear that they are Brazil’s biggest rival on the soccer arena. 

However, beyond soccer, Argentina and Brazil are friends, brothers. There is a very good relationship between them. I, at least, feel a lot like a Brazilian, given the way they understand life, culture, music, etc. I love Brazil. I also love soccer. And I am Argentine. If they play against each other,  I will cheer for Argentina. It’s just a game, and it shouldn't go beyond that.

Often World Cup teams have particular strengths or weaknesses that we associate with a nation’s culture. Is there something in the way Germany, Argentina, and Brazil play that sheds light on their national characters?

Every country plays as they are. Brazil wasn't truthful to themselves, to what they are supposed to be. I mean playing soccer as the expression of culture. And that's why they failed. Brazil has to be fun, has to be creative, and has to have players with the characteristics that historically have represented Brazilian soccer. Argentina played the same way they always play in a World Cup: a team with a lot of nerve and character, very well organized from the defensive lines to the attack, and with 3 or 4 players that make the difference on the attack. Germany is a team that prioritizes the collective over the individual: aggressive, fast and strong. Specifically, they had matured and improved their winning mentality. 

Is the play of soccer evolving? How did you see that in this year’s World Cup? And where do you see it going in the future?

I do not think this tournament showed us anything about evolution. The last three World Cups had been won by European countries, and that has to do with the fact that, in Europe, it is easier to implement philosophies or styles or changes that can last for several years, whereas, in South America, it is much more difficult. Look at the last two world champions. Spain was built on the Barcelona team, Germany is built on the Bayern Munich. Both were already teams accustomed to playing well together. That is something that can not happen in South America, because its players are all over Europe. They don't play together on their own local teams, and that is a great advantage that the European teams have.

Also, European countries have the ability of create a structure to promote and maintain players through their local tournaments. In South America, players leave at a very young age. So in that sense, there is an evolution of the European soccer over South American soccer. These are the two main columns of soccer worldwide.

Brazil's defeat against Germany may be one of most humiliating events in World Cup history. In your opinion, what happened? Have you ever seen something similar to the“Mineirazo”?

It was a shock! Brazilians didn't expect to lose in such way. There was too much pressure on the players. I believe what happened that day was the result of a brutal pressure and an extreme expectation that Brazil built for themselves: they were the host of the tournament and the only acceptable result was to win the World Cup. That is simply preposterous, because there are a lot of teams playing very well, very well prepared. At the end, this is just a game. There was too much pressure on the Brazilian players, and everything exploded during the game against Germany. Their only responsibility should have been to play well and defend the Brazilian style, not to win the cup. 

The Brazilian people took the lead up to the World Cup as an opportunity to express anger and frustration with their government. It seemed like for them football was more than just a beautiful game, right?

That was expected. Every country, including Brazil, that suffers from poverty and inequality would use an event such the World Cup to get the world’s attention. There were several groups that tried to show to the world that there wasn’t a party going on in Brazil, and that there were more important issues to convey.

I think that Brazilians were okay hosting the World Cup, but that it was wrong to waste so much money building stadiums in places that would never be used on that scale again. There was a shift in the priorities of the country, which has to do a lot of work in areas like health, education, housing and income distribution. Brazil is the fifth richest country in the world, and you don’t see people meeting their basic needs in large parts of the country. A lot of Brazilians believe that would be the way to grow and evolve as a country, rather than spending huge amounts of money on events like the World Cup.

For some people food lies at the heart of a culture. Have you discovered any memorable place or edible in Brazil?

Bahia is a place that mixes a lot African traditions and customs in its music and food. There was a dish that I really loved, called Moqueca. You can have it with shrimp or fish. It is a stew, with coconut milk, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, pepper, cooked in a clay pot. The secret is the dendê oil that gives it a very unique taste. If I had to choose a dish in Brazil, I’d pick the Moqueca. It’s just delicious!

If someone special asked you to cook them something special in your home, what dish would you make?

Without a doubt, el Asado, Argentinean BBQ. This is the way I like to entertain my friends. The problem is that you can’t make Asados everyday, as it involves a lot of prep time, and you need to get the right meat and coal. But I also love the food of Spain, and you can just put on the table a good ham, olive oil, cheese, foie gras, olives . . . and, of course, a good wine. That will do the job also! 

You’re always traveling, hungry for new experiences. Is there any special place that you have to go every year, or you'll just die? And is there any place you’d like to go before you die?

Yes, my home! I travel so much, home is my special place. You know, it’s just about getting back to your simple routine and habits: go to the market and get something delicious to eat. Those simple things give me a lot of pleasure. I’ve been living in Madrid for 9 years already. Before that I lived in Miami for 5 years. But I would like to visit China and India, places I’ve never been before. I would like to visit Africa again. Because I travel a lot for work, what I like to choose when I’m off is the most simple and basic: a beach, a good bed, something comfortable. 

Several of your ESPN colleagues have said that they want your job. How do you explain your good fortune? What’s your secret for finding awesome stories?

I’m very lucky. But there is a part of my work that nobody sees. There’s a tremendous amount of work involved on every story, on every trip. For instance, during the World Cup, I delivered 33 stories, 1 story per day that I had to produce, record, edit and put on the air. That’s a major challenge. So yes, it is true when people see me on TV having a good time. I do have a lot of fun. But behind that, there’s also a lot of work and a huge responsibility involved. 

One country, several cities, tons of fans, all the emotional ups and downs of what is perhaps the biggest global spectacle. What are your final thoughts about your days in Brazil covering the World Cup? Which moment will live in your heart forever?

I would say several moments. But what I loved the most is that Brazil organized a World Cup. Brazil is a very special country. They posses soccer’s DNA, the fingerprint of soccer. If it’s true that England invented soccer, the happiness, the true life blood of soccer is Brazilian. The art of soccer is Brazilian.

South America really needs the World Cup to return to its soil. It has been so many years since 1978, since South America has had the chance to organize a World Cup. Now it has shown that it is a region that really loves soccer. Its fans came in great numbers: Colombians, Chileans, Argentineans, Uruguayans, Ecuadorians and Mexicans. They all gave this World Cup a very special color, and that has put more attention on Latin America as a region that defines soccer. That is the lesson we learned. We did a lot of interviews with people involved in soccer, and they told us that all the World Cups should happen in Brazil. Brazil is the land for soccer.

Photos courtesy of Martin Ainstein and ESPN.