In some countries, football is a religion. In Argentina, it’s much more important than that. Painter Martin Gordopelota is obsessed with capturing the culture that surrounds amateur football in his home country. And over the years he has found that Argentina’s love of the beautiful game follows him wherever he goes.
Martin takes up the story. “I remember the first time I had the chance to travel to Europe. I went to see the Eiffel Tower, and as I was a couple of blocks away, the first thing I saw, even before the tower, was a man on his knees, holding his tiny little baby high in his hands, like when Simba from the Lion King is presented to the animals.”
He's referring, of course, to one of the opening scenes of the 1994 Disney musical. The young lion cub (Simba) is held aloft from a high rock by the wise old monkey (Rafiki). It's magical; Elton John is playing in the background and all the animals are there to pay their respects. If you've never seen it, take a long hard look at your life.
Martin saw that both father and the son were wearing Rosario Central jerseys, a team from Argentina’s third biggest city and the birthplace of superstar Lionel Messi. “I remember thinking that the baby was probably a Rosario Central supporter before even having a name,” Martin says.
Martin’s own family were not quite as fanatical, but even so he says he was “born with a ball in my hands.” He played for a time for a local club, but found the set-up too competitive and switched to basketball as his main sport instead. But every week, he would still get together with his friends to play an informal game of soccer, a world of pre-match cigarettes, post-match beers and the occasional wonder goal that keeps people coming back every week.
It’s this world he captures so well in his drawings, paintings and murals. He admits that the world of amateur five-a-side football is a world away from the preening, posing professional leagues so many of us live and die by.
“We suck,” he laughs. “We walk instead of run, we are chubby, slow, unskilled. When I play, in my head I’m just like Kun Aguero, but if someone saw it, they would either fall asleep or die laughing. So in my paintings I try to work with everything around the ritual or the culture, instead of the actual game.”
Anyone who has ever played football with dreams (or delusions) of grandeur will find something familiar in Martin’s creations. In one painting, a group of players limber up before the game. One is smoking, one is brandishing a beer bottle, one tucks into a burger and one slumps forward in what may be a stretching exercise or, more likely, a hungover penance. There are shirts stretched over beer bellies and the strange, cheap trophies you find in clubhouses around the world.
It’s clear though this isn’t a world Martin is poking fun of – it’s a world he adores. “Those weekly games are my therapy,” he says. “They help as a social glue, with anxiety, as catharsis. It’s something I just need to live better.”
Unusually for an image-maker, Martin usually starts with words and is not someone who fills up sketchbooks with his initial ideas. “I’m not a doodler or an avid drawer,” he says. “Mostly I write down sentences in my phone notes with ideas, experiences, situations, frustrations, things I saw, I like or which make me laugh.
“I rarely draw from nothing; it’s really difficult for me to use a pencil if I don’t have an idea of something I want to draw.”
He moves quickly once his ideas start to harden into plans – a rough pencil sketch, a small-scale version on paper and then “I take it to the canvas or the wall.”
His murals brings his creations to life on a grand scale, but they pose some personal challenges too. “I´m pink-white, so the sun kills me and I have to use all kinds of hats and sun blockers if I don’t want to become a shrimp,” he says. “I also suffer from vertigo, so when the mural is too high and I have to use lifts or scaffolds I don’t enjoy painting at all.”
Words by Rob Alderson.