Lionel Messi, in full bloom in Washington
Lionel Messi, left, signs authographs for some of the hundreds of fans who showed up for a glimpse of the Argentine national team’s practice on Tuesday at Georgetown University. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
By Steven Goff March 25 at 4:22 PM
If you were going to construct the perfect male athlete, you would start with Michael Phelps’s torso and J.J. Watt’s shoulders. You’ll need to borrow Tom Brady’s right arm and Clayton Kershaw’s left, Manny Pacquiao’s fists and Usain Bolt’s quads.
And you will want Lionel Messi’s feet.
Those feet. Those magnificent feet.
Soccer is the world’s game. It’s also the feet’s game. Unless you are a goalkeeper, feet are essential to success. Many a great athlete has failed in soccer because, despite strength, endurance and smarts, they lacked creative feet. In the modern era, no set is better than Messi’s – quick as a hummingbird’s wings with a cotton touch, mesmerizing and punishing.
He is in Washington for the first time during a pitch-perfect 11-year career to play in Argentina’s friendly against El Salvador on Saturday afternoon at FedEx Field. Messi, 27, and the star-sparkled squad are practicing at Georgetown all week. Though officially closed to the public, Tuesday’s session drew hundreds of spectators to the outer fences of Shaw Field.
A few hours before the workout, reports surfaced in Spain that he had hurt his right foot in a match against nemesis Real Madrid on Sunday. Like a thunderstorm rolling through the pampas, rumors boomed across social media. With medical reassurance from Argentine soccer authorities, though, the tempest passed. Messi, and those feet, are fine.
Soccer is not a game of numbers. Statistics are scant. Performances are difficult to quantify. There are no slugging percentages or quarterback ratings to define a player’s value. Who’s to say whether a defensive midfielder had a good game? Watching soccer is like attending opera; individual interpretation varies.
In the case of Messi, and other elite scorers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the numbers are irrefutable. For Barcelona, he has recorded 397 goals in 466 appearances across all competitions. He has added 45 in 97 games for Argentina, four coming during La Albiceleste’s run to the World Cup final last summer in Brazil.
He is the greatest scorer in Spain’s La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, the sport’s ultimate club competition. In 2011-12, he notched 50 goals in league outings and 23 in others for a world-record 73 in just 60 games.
His greatness is defined, however, by the manner he has gone about it – with style and elegance, dance moves on a grass-covered stage.
Often times, the assists are as memorable as the goals.
Ray Hudson, the former D.C. United coach who calls Barcelona games regularly for Miami-based TV outlet beIN Sports, described a recent Messi assist this way: “The touch of the pass, with the outside of his Stradivarius, is softer than the moonlight in Tuscany.”
Messi’s collection of spices includes nutmeg. In soccer, a nutmeg is the act of pushing the ball between an opponent’s legs for the purpose of shooting, passing or retaining possession.
Last week, in the same Champions League match that he nutmegged Manchester City’s Fernandinho, he did it to James Milner, who was left slipping two-footed on the grass in defeat and embarrassment. It was the equivalent of being posterized by Michael Jordan, replayed a million times around the world.
In a video clip that went viral almost immediately after the Milner moment, Bayern Munich Coach Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona manager who was in attendance, was caught by a TV camera gasping in astonishment and putting his face into his hands.
Ronaldo, the flashy Real Madrid attacker, has won the past two world player of the year awards after Messi claimed the previous four. But Messi’s all-around performance against Manchester City – he assisted on the lone goal with a lovely run and put on an extraordinary display of ball control and passing throughout the evening – reminded the soccer world that he is the best of his generation.
Maybe, some say, the best ever – though fans of Pele and Diego Maradona would beg to differ. The Brazilian and Argentine greats raised World Cup trophies; Messi has not.
Nonetheless, former English star and current TV pundit Gary Lineker proclaimed on Twitter after the Barcelona-Manchester City affair: “Messi is indisputably the greatest player ever to don a pair of football boots. Don’t even attempt to argue the point.”
Four days after that game, Messi assisted on the opening goal in Barcelona’s 2-1 victory over Real in El Clasico, the sport’s greatest rivalry. Barca leads Real by four points through 28 of 38 league matches. Messi is atop the scoring chart with 32 goals, one ahead of Ronaldo.
Messi’s gems are the antithesis to soccer’s ugly side: FIFA chicanery, match-fixing scandals and racial incidents. Not all is well on Planet Futbol. But with Messi in full bloom, the game is forever beautiful.
“Messi is the best player in history,” Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez said. “He’s only competing against himself because he has no rival.”
By Peter Prengaman and Paul Byrne
March 25, 2015
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina’s foreign minister on Wednesday criticized Britain for building up its military capacity in the disputed Falkland Islands, a small increase that caused a big stir in the South American country.
Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said Britain’s decision underscored an unwillingness to negotiate in the face of U.N. resolutions urging the two nations to do so.
“It’s not only a provocation for Argentina but is also an insult to the United Nations,” Timerman told local station Radio Del Plata.
Timerman said the decision was a way for Britain to justify increasing its military budget, a claim made by other Argentine officials.
“Argentina has no plans for conflict with any country while Great Britain is continually at war in some part of the world,” Timerman said.
On Tuesday, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the military would add two transport helicopters and an enhanced communications system to its defense systems on the islands.
The islands about 300 miles (500 kilometers) east of Argentina are claimed by both Britain and Argentina. They fought over the remote archipelago in 1982 after Argentine troops invaded.
While the dispute always strikes a nerve in Argentina, Britain has repeatedly said the question of sovereignty has been decided. In a 2013 referendum, the vast majority of Falkland residents voted to remain a British territory. The islands have a population of about 2,563 people, according to a 2012 census.
Several U.N. resolutions have urged the two nations to negotiate. Argentina claims Britain stole the territory by placing a naval garrison there in 1833.
The latest dustup began earlier in the week amid news reports in Britain that Argentina would lease several long-range military aircraft from Russia. The Argentine government on Wednesday denied such a deal was planned.
Defense Minister Agustin Rossi said Argentina was looking to upgrade its aging fighter jets and is considering proposals from China, Spain and Israel. Russian planes “were never considered,” Rossi told local news site Infobae.com.
By Richard Lough
Wed, Mar 25 2015
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Britain’s remark that Argentina remains a threat to the disputed Falkland Islands is baseless and aimed at stirring nationalist sentiment ahead of a May general election in that country, a senior Argentine government official said on Wednesday.
Britain’s defense secretary told lawmakers on Tuesday that it would reinforce its military presence on the Falklands to ensure they were properly protected.
“They are provoking Argentina, hoping that the country reacts in order to strengthen nationalist feelings … thinking that it will favor them in their election,” Daniel Filmus, a top official in the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs in charge of Falkland-related issues, said in an interview.
The secretary, Michael Fallon, had earlier told the BBC before addressing Parliament that Argentina’s leftist government represented a “very live threat” to the islands, over which tensions still fizzle more than three decades after a brief war between the two countries.
Argentina’s government claims the islands, which lie 300 miles (480 km) off the Argentine coast and 8,000 miles (12,870 km) from Britain, as its own. It has stepped up a campaign to get sovereignty over the islands – which Argentines call Las Malvinas – as nearby oil and gas exploration ratchets up tensions. About 2,800 people live on the islands, where the main industries are sheep farming, fishing and some tourism.
In 1982, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a military task force to the Falkland Islands after Argentine troops seized them, winning them back in a conflict in which more than 600 Argentine and 255 British servicemen died.
The military victory helped Thatcher bounce back to re-election and remains an emotive subject for many Britons. British voters go to the polls on May 7 in what is expected to be a tight vote.
Filmus said Argentina would never be sucked into another war over the Falklands. He said there was no justification to talk of Argentina being a threat. Argentina’s response would, he said, be through diplomatic channels.
Britain plans to deploy two Chinook helicopters to the Falklands beginning in mid-2016, upgrade communications and renew the surface-to-air missile defense system which is due to come out of service in 2020.
“This makes no sense because no one wants to attack. And so who are they defending themselves from?” Filmus said.
By Chris Vellacott
March 25, 2015
LONDON, March 25 (Reuters) – Investors who have shunned the high-yielding dollar bonds of the “Toxic Trio” of Argentina, Venezuela and Ukraine may be kicking themselves after a strong Argentine rally over the last year.
While all three countries are rated deep junk by the big three ratings agencies, Argentine dollar-bond spreads over U.S. Treasuries — the premium investors demand to hold the debt — have fallen to about 600 basis points from more than 1,000 in the last year. Venezuelan and Ukrainian spreads, in contrast, have skyrocketed.
“The Toxic Trio is actually now the Toxic Duet because Argentina has done very well and gave up their membership this past year,” said Edwin Gutierrez, head of emerging market sovereign debt at Aberdeen Asset Management.
This is despite the fact that Argentina is already in default, forced into that state by a U.S. court order to settle with “holdout investors” suing for full repayment of bonds restructured after a 2002 default.
Even as its legal dispute continues, Argentina’s debt has rallied, and the prospect that it will see a change of government in elections later this year make it the most popular investment of the former trio.
“Argentina is a rosy story. Distressed investors have come in as the marginal buyer, and they are not the marginal seller,” said Aberdeen’s Edwin Gutierrez, adding that he took profits from an overweight position in Argentine bonds, bringing it down to neutral.
“Optimism stems from the idea we are going to get regime change at the end of the year, and the developments of late suggest it will be a market-friendly candidate,” he added.
Venezuelan spreads have soared to around 3,000 bps from 1,000 in January last year, while Ukraine’s have jumped to more than 4,000 bps from around 800 bps.
But bond investors say that in spite of similarities in the levels at which they trade the markets for Venezuelan and Ukrainian bonds are very different.
Ukraine is negotiating a restructuring of its dollar debt, held by a small pool of investors such as Franklin Templeton, PIMCO and Blackrock while Russia holds around $3 billion of its dollar bonds maturing in December.
Its situation, investors argue, is dire, with Kiev asking creditors to write down the face value of their bonds.
While the International Monetary Fund is backing an economic recovery plan with $17.5 billion of loans, it has warned efforts to restore financial stability face “exceptionally high” risks from further conflict and disgruntled creditors.
This means the debt has failed even to attract the interest of specialists in distressed debt who seek out value from assets at the bottom of the market.
Ukrainian bonds currently change hands for well below half their face value.
Venezuela on the other hand, with bonds also trading at under half their face value, is widely regarded as a promising investment prospect.
“The narrative for Venezuela for many years has been ‘These guys have so much oil in the ground and it’s been a policy that they are very keen to service their debt’,” said Colm McDonagh, head of emerging market debt at Insight Investment, which is part of BNY Mellon.
Venezuela’s government recently renewed its habitual pledges to honour its debt despite deteriorating economic headwinds such as falling oil revenues on account of a sharp decline in energy prices.
“The yields are so attractive, if they don’t default in the next month or two, you miss out on a lot of carry,” said James Barrineau, co head of emerging debt at Schroders.
Much of this investor optimism does not extend beyond this year, however.
“My concern is that they get through this year, but the longer things go on without policy adjustment the harder it becomes, the odds of default go up over time. They need to make adjustments before they run out of various unorthodox options,” said Stuart Culverhouse, Global Head of Research at brokerage Exotix.
By Sarah Marsh
March 25, 2015
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentina’s Economy Minister Axel Kicillof said on Wednesday a deal between Citigroup Inc (C.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and a U.S. judge allowing the banking giant to process two Argentine debt payments violated the South American country’s laws.
Kicillof said the securities commission and central bank would examine the deal to determine officially if it was legal.
“Reading the fine print of the deal, what we find is a trap possible aimed at scamming the bondholders,” Kicillof told a news conference.
Citigroup, which acts as custodian of some Argentine bonds, has been embroiled in a court battle between the South American country and a group of New York-based hedge funds seeking full payment on their defaulted sovereign bonds.
Argentina has long accused the U.S. judge hearing the case of working hand in hand with the funds, which President Cristina Fernandez and her minister disparage as “vultures”.
In the latest twist of this long-running tale, Citi said this weekend a U.S. District Court had announced it would not restrict Citi from meeting its payment-processing obligations relating to dollar-denominated Argentine bond payments under local law due on March 31 and June 30.
The court also said it will not impede the bank from exiting the Argentine custody business, as it has said it wants to do.
Fernandez’s government had threatened to cancel Citibank Argentina’s operating license if it refused to process payments to other bond holders.
While Citigroup has now secured the possibility of making the next two payments, it is not clear if its deal with U.S. courts could also have legal consequences for its retail banking business.
“From my point of view, the deal they have signed with the vultures clearly violates Argentine laws,” Kicillof said.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa in New York ruled that Argentina must settle with the hedge funds seeking full payment on their defaulted sovereign bonds before it continues paying interest to the large majority of investors who accepted significant writedowns on the debt holdings after the country’s record default on $100 billion in 2002.
By Daniel Cancel and Charlie Devereux
March 25, 2015
(Bloomberg) — Argentina’s economy minister said Citigroup Inc.’s local unit is violating the country’s laws by signing a private accord with hedge fund NML Capital and U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa without consulting the nation.
The agreement, announced March 22 by Citigroup, undermines the government because it doesn’t create a clear path for holders of the country’s bonds covered by local law to get paid, Economy Minister Axel Kicillof said. While it allows Citibank to fulfill its obligations as custodian of the debt by passing along payments to other financial institutions in March and June, that money is unlikely to ever make it to bondholders, Kicillof said.
“Citibank is trying to be friends with both God and the devil,” Kicillof told reporters in Buenos Aires. “It needs to comply with local law or be susceptible to sanctions.”
Citigroup was faced with either potentially being in contempt of U.S. court if it made the bond payments in defiance of Griesa or losing its local license if it compiled with his ruling, which prevents Argentina from paying interest on restructured debt before holders of defaulted bonds including NML are paid in full. Under the agreement reached between Citigroup and NML, the bank’s Argentine unit will exit the custodian business after making the June payment.
Kicillof said he will send a letter to the securities regulator, central bank and other entities so they can investigate if the bank is violating local laws.
Citibank “has signed an agreement that’s going to call into question its activities in Argentina,” Kicillof said.
Asked to elaborate on what he meant by Citibank’s activities being called into question, Kicillof said he couldn’t say whether that would mean it would have its licence revoked since that decision falls on regulators.
Citigroup’s press office in Buenos Aires didn’t immediately return a telephone call and e-mail seeking comment.
NML, a hedge fund run by billionaire Paul Singer, sued Argentina to demand better terms for its defaulted notes from the economic crisis. After winning a 2012 decision that said the nation must pay so-called holdout creditors in full at the same time it serviced restructured debt, the ruling went into effect last year, causing Argentina to default on July 30.
The default on foreign-law notes may now spread to bonds issued under local legislation, which have an interest payment due on March 31, if financial intermediaries beyond Citibank comply with Griesa’s ruling.
Kicillof said Citibank shouldn’t have agreed to drop an appeal of Griesa’s decision to include local law bonds in his injunction. The agreement is a “scam” that hurts bondholders because while Citibank is making the payment, the funds will still get blocked in the process, Kicillof said.
March 25, 2015
The United Kingdom plans to spend about $417 million, or 280 million pounds, to beef up defense spending in the Falklands Islands during the next decade to counter what the country’s defense minister calls a “very live threat” in Argentina.
The UK believes Argentina is becoming a growing menace to their south Atlantic territory because of the country’s nascent, but troubling, relationship with both Iran and Russia. So UK plans to improve its defense system and other facilities on the island and will send two Royal Air Force Chinook transport helicopters to help the islands’ garrison mount a “swift and decisive response” to any “emerging incidents,” said Defense Minister Michael Fallon, according to the BBC.
Troop levels on the islands will remain steady, at around 1,200 soldiers.
“The principle threat to the islands remains,” Fallon told legislators on Tuesday, according to Time. “I am confident that, following this review, we have the right deployment.”
The announcement from British officials comes as the government of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been seen as cozying up to both Russia and Iran.
The Sun newspaper reported that Russia is planning to lease 12 long-range bombers to the Argentinian government — something that Fallon denied was credible – and an investigation by late Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman found that the Fernández government was willing to cover-up Iran’s role in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center for cheaper oil from Tehran.
Besides Argentina’s growing ties with some of the U.K.’s main adversaries on the world stage, relations between London and Buenos Aires have hovered between cordial to ice cold since the end of the brief, but bloody Falklands War in 1982.
Argentina, which calls the Falklands islands Las Malvinas, says it has a right to the territory because it inherited it from the Spanish crown in the early 1800s. It also cites the islands’ proximity to South America as another reason why it should control them.
The approximate 3,000 residents who live on the islands, which lie about 300 miles off the coast of the Argentinian Patagonia, are almost exclusively of British descent and consider themselves loyal subjects of the British Crown – a fact that the U.K. uses to base its claim on the islands.
There is some speculation that Fallon is using the Falklands issue as a political tool in the run-up to U.K.’s general election in six weeks. His Conservative Party is traditionally viewed as soundest on defense in an election where the issue has taken the forefront.
The defense minister, however, is not without warrant in U.K.’s concern over the Falklands.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, visited Buenos Aires last year to try and strengthen its ties to Latin America and Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, linked the Ukraine and Falklands issues on Twitter.
“Attention London: Crimea has far more reason to be in Russia than the Falklands have to be part of Great Britain.” Pushkov tweeted.
Argentina’s Fernández has referred to the islanders as “squatters.” Her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, has called them “non-people.”
“We don’t want [the British] to come here to make this unnecessary show of military strength,” Arturo Puricelli, Argentina’s defense minister, said, according to the Telegraph. “We have no doubt at all that we are going to recover our Malvinas islands. The international community will support us.”
The British government rejected last year calls from Argentina to sit down to negotiate sovereignty over the islands.
March 24, 2015
Wheat and corn exports rose by 125% and 407% year on year in January-February, it was reported on March 23, as the need for hard currency led the government to ease export controls. Argentina’s soya crop harvest is expected to yield a record 58.0 million tonnes — up 8.6% from the 53.4 million tonnes recorded in 2013-14. However, soya prices are currently down some 20% from last year, more than offsetting output increases in Argentina’s leading export commodity.
- Corn and wheat have experienced smaller price drops than soya, at 6.0% and 2.5%, respectively, which is encouraging more exports.
- Agriculture accounts for only around 5.5% of GDP, but farming commodity exports will be the key source of scarce hard currency revenue.
- The president’s strained relationship with farmers, who staged massive protests in 2008, will persist over the rest of her term.
No changes in farming policy are likely in President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s final months in office. Her successor will need to reverse the current export tax policy, probably gradually, and address the issue of currency overvaluation, which has undermined export competitiveness.
Soya output is expected to hit a record in 2014-15 (see BRAZIL/ARGENTINA: Soya output will rise despite price – October 2, 2014). The expected rise is due mainly to favourable weather, as the sown area increased by just 1% to 20.05 million hectares — from 19.8 million in 2013-14.
However, due to the drop in soya prices, a record crop would not necessarily increase revenue either for producers or the government:
- Exports of oilseeds (mainly soya) and by-products (vegetable oil, soymeal and biodiesel) reached 24 billion dollars in 2014 — 33.3% of Argentina’s total foreign sales. Soymeal (12.6 billion dollars) was the leading single export product.
- However, export revenues from these products could drop by 5.8 billion dollars in 2015, due to lower soya prices, while related export tax revenue would drop to 5.9 billion dollars from 7.7 billion dollars in 2014.
Other estimations for the 2014-15 harvest include:
- a corn crop of 23.5 million tonnes — down from 33.0 million tonnes in the previous harvest;
- wheat output of 12.1 million tonnes, compared with 9.5 million tonnes in 2013-14;
- soymeal production of 30.4 million tonnes and exports of 28.8 million tonnes;
- soya oil output of 7.44 million tonnes and exports of 4.48 million tonnes;
- a 38.3% drop in barley to some 2.9 million tonnes;
- a 7.0% rise in sorghum output to 3.7 million tonnes; and
- a 25.0% rise in sunflower seed output to 2.5 million tonnes.
The decline in prices of leading farming commodities has not been matched so far by similar drops in land rents or the cost of fuel and fertilisers. The drop in farmers’ purchasing power had already been reflected in sales of farm machinery, down 30% in 2014. Farm revenues have also suffered due to the government’s taxation policies, which take up to 50% of farming income, mainly via income and export taxes.
Three of Argentina’s four leading farming organisations — Coninagro, Argentine Rural Confederation (CRA) and the Argentine Rural Society (SRA) — held a three-day strike between March 11-13, during which they halted sales of grain and livestock to protest against the current farming policy and to demand a reduction in export tax rates ranging between 20-35% for the leading crops.
The Argentine Agrarian Federation (FAA), which groups smaller producers, did not to join the protest. The four organisations had been working in unison since 2008, when massive farming protests forced the government to repeal a regulation that would have allowed for further hikes in export tax rates on key commodities (see ARGENTINA: Artificial crisis risks government support – July 3, 2008). However, under a new chairman, Omar Principe, the FAA appears to have mended fences with the national authorities, a move that threatens to jeopardise the sector’s cohesion.
On March 16, Fernandez de Kirchner announced the creation of a 2.5 billion peso (285 million dollar) fund to offer tax reimbursements to small farmers, whose output reaches up to an annual 700 tonnes of grains and oilseeds. The new fund will distribute an average of 54,150 pesos per producer annually.
The leading opposition presidential candidates — Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri from the conservative PRO party and dissident Peronist Sergio Massa (Renewal Front) — have both promised gradually to lift export taxes on farming commodities.
Macri, who leads most opinion polls, has promised to lift all export taxes immediately except on soya products, which would be reduced gradually by an annual 5 percentage points from current levels — 35% for soybean and 32% for soymeal and soya oil.
Argentine farmers have been hoarding soya to shield their revenue from inflation, running close to 40% annually. Hoarding has also been encouraged by devaluation expectations. The government uses the foreign exchange rate as an anchor to prevent inflation from spiraling out of control; the official exchange rate (8.6 pesos per dollar) is around 50% stronger than the black market rate of 13.0 pesos/dollar (see ARGENTINA: Elections will drive monetary expansion – March 4, 2015).
A US Department of Agriculture report estimates that Argentine farmers have hoarded 29 million tonnes of soya, some 44% of world stocks. A further increase in stocks to 35 million tonnes is expected this year, as producers expect more favourable treatment by Fernandez de Kirchner’s successor.
The government has been combating hoarding, in an effort to build up Central Bank reserves:
- In March, the tax authority, AFIP, issued a regulation that requires companies that sell silo-bags to report all sales. Farmers have traditionally run many of their operations informally, so registration is often used as a discouragement.
- In December, former Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich announced that, as of January, state-owned Banco Nacion would deny credit to farmers who hoard soya. Banco Nacion provides two-fifths of the credit available to farmers.
Argentina has been suffering a hard currency shortage which severely restricts growth prospects. With higher debt payments scheduled in 2015 and an expected drop in export revenue, the dollar shortfall could reach 16 billion this year. Central Bank reserves dropped to 28 billion dollars in August 2014, from an all-time peak of 52 billion dollars in January 2011, and ended 2014 at 31.44 billion dollars, boosted by short-term loans from the Chinese Central Bank.
With access to international credit markets all but closed, Argentina has been relying on strong trade surpluses to meet foreign currency demand. However, the performance of exports has been increasingly affected by the current policy of overvaluing the peso.
Exports fell 12% to 71.9 billion dollars in 2014, while the trade surplus reached its lowest level since 2001, at 6.7 billion dollars (see ARGENTINA: Export decline puts pressure on finances – February 11, 2015), according to the National Statistics Institute (INDEC). However, not unusually, private economists have called INDEC’s trade figures into question, claiming the foreign trade surplus may have been closer to 2 billion dollars last year.