I have never been that interested in soccer, which is a fact that separates me from about 90% of the male-aged population on this particular planet. Something about the seemingly pointless kicking around of a ball for 90 minutes in order to set up two minutes of actual action has never made a strong impression upon me. Nonetheless, I do own a number of soccer jerseys from various countries visited around the world, given my penchant for being a poser, and I enjoy a good random sporting event in other countries, especially when I am oblivious to the rules (or even objectives) of the game.
As it so happened, during our 11-day stay in Buenos Aires, one of my oldest and only half-Argentine friends, Nick, decided to come down and meet us. Or so I thought – rather our time in the Argentine capital happened to coincide with three upcoming matches for Nick’s beloved Boca Juniors soccer club, two of them against archrival River Plate. Regardless of the underlying motivations, we took full advantage of having a local guide, and Nick’s family took wonderful care of us in the ‘Good Airs’ (i.e. Buenos Aires)
Fast forward to the second of the two Boca Junior matches, on Thursday of that week. The two clubs had played against each other the previous Sunday, a game for which Nick’s uncle had inquired about getting tickets, only to dismiss that notion upon discovering the $1,000 price tag. So we watched that game at his house, a barnburner 2-0 victory for the home Boca team that we were supposed to be cheering for.
That game, however, was a league match – so like a regular season NFL game between division rivals (a la the mighty Redskins versus the pusillanimous and downright dirty Cowboys). The second match, and now this is where soccer gets quite confusing, was the first in a two-game series for the first round of the Copa Libertadores, a competition in which club teams from all over South America play each other for a title. So it’d be like if the Rhein Fire (if they still existed), Toronto Argonauts (if Canadians recognized the concept of competition), New England Patriots (if they brought their own air gauges), and the Ulan Bataar Ice Khans (if I was their captain) all played each other randomly for no real reason. So basically there are two different competitions going on simultaneously, and it just so happened that Boca was matched up in the Copa Libertadores against River around the same time as one of their regular season draws, allowing them to play each other twice in a four day span for two completely different reasons (got it? I still don’t).
So having failed at getting tickets for the regular season first match, we figured there was no possible way to score seats for the second match, what was essentially a play-off game.
Lo and behold though, Nick’s aunt worked some Argentine connections, and on the day of the game (the night match being at 9:30pm – very in-line with the nocturnal lifestyle), she informed us that she had scored tickets. Two tickets to be exact, to be divided evenly amongst the three of us. There was an awkward moment of “oh, I see . . . ” as we all knew what had to be done before anyone verbally broached the topic. Christine, bless her heart, quickly recognized the dilemma and expressed that she did not have to attend, allowing Nick and I to utilize the two tickets (as evenly as could be).
There was one other hitch, however. The game was to be hosted at River’s stadium, and Nick is a die-hard Boca fan. Soccer hooligans are a real thing here – to the point where in 2013 the Argentine Football Federation decided it just was not worth it to have away fans in attendance, and banned them from attending the home games of opposing teams (you might wonder how anyone could truly prevent away fans from attending given that you don’t demand the loyalty of the ticket buyer via polygraph at the time of ticket purchase, but it is more of a self selecting situation as opposing fans before sat in a completely separate section of just their kind, being too dangerous to mix in with the opposition). This new enactment came after the death of a fan during clashes following a match near Buenos Aires, making over 70 fan-related soccer deaths in the country since 2000. So it’s a pretty big deal to be found in the wrong crowd, meaning that Nick was going to have to suppress every instinct he had to feign support for River, or at the minimum a level of healthy ignorance (in contrast, Nick’s uncle specifically informed us ahead of time in case we obtained tickets, he would not attend the game at River, as he ‘would not be able to control himself’).
On the plus side, however, was these were not just tickets, but VIP tickets! We had no idea what that meant in the Argentine context, but were hoping at a minimum for a lifetime supply of beef.
Nick’s uncle dropped us off as close as he could get to the River stadium, which was still about a two-kilometer walk. The roads to the stadium were completely blocked off to traffic ahead of the game, and the police began checking up to a kilometer ahead of the venue for tickets, only letting those in possession passing by.
The environment just walking up to the stadium was intense – alcohol is also thankfully banned from the stadiums, so fans were getting their fair share in ahead of time. It seemed like everyone was chanting in unison to lyrics for which I had apparently not received a memo, nor could find printed on my ticket. Given my limited Spanish capabilities, I could not pick up on the subtle pretext of the crowds’ words, but I understood enough to realize it was not appropriate for my PG-13 rated ears. And everyone sang, from the recently christened 5-year-old fans to hardened 85-year old veterans.
There were also a ton of police lined up all over the streets – reportedly up to 1,700 had been deployed for the purposes of this particular match. These police figures were often the subject of derision from the local crowd, with many a crotch grab thrusts in their direction. I guess without an away crowd to direct aggression towards, the police became the next best target.
One other thing I should mention – Nick is such a fan of the opposing Boca Juniors team that he has a tattoo of their initials going down his (left?) bicep. Now it was a bit of a cold day, so we were wearing long-sleeve shirts and jackets – thus no incriminating skin was exposed. But as we walked the long walk to the stadium amidst this oppressive and intimidating crowd, with Nick believing everyone knew his secret and had a bull’s eye on his back, I began to envision some ridiculous scenarios in which his arm would somehow get caught by a protruding nail on a piece of wood in a nearby trash can, or some other similar sharp object, ripping off his upper layers as he struggled to get free in the process, leaving his torso and thus secret exposed. I decided that in the case of this unlikely but still harrowing scenario, I would not wait a moment’s notice, but just take off running. In what direction it did not matter, as I had no idea where anything was, but just as far from Nick as possible. Twenty years of friendship is great and all, but survival is important as well. Thankfully in the two-kilometer lead up to the stadium, this situation did not come to pass.
Given the lengthy walk to the stadium and our inability to find the VIP and not regular people entrance (meaning we had to back track even further amidst the hooligan crowd, as you couldn’t just enter into the stadium grounds and walk to it from there), we missed out on much of the VIP party. We got there late, but there was a room we were granted entrance to that clearly had had a healthy dose of a fog machine with some confetti. There wasn’t much left – the food was gone, but luckily there was still Freddo’s ice cream available. We got a quick dulce du leche cup, took some photos amongst a trophy, watched a FIFA match on a PlayStation set up, and then exited to try to find our seats as the players entered the stadium.
Upon entering the actual crowd, the atmosphere was electric. I’ve been to a number of Redskins games in my time, but I can say this was genuinely something beyond what we call sports passion in the United States (perhaps it has something to do with the team for which I happen to feel passionately about . . .). Every single person was wearing red and yelling their hearts out – and nothing had even happened yet. There weren’t even any cheerleaders or other crowd pumper uppers – there was just no need for such gimmicks. It was an instant sense of awe that came over me, just by simply walking into the actual stadium grounds. In fact, I’ve basically stopped going to football games back home given the high ticket prices, ubiquitous large screen crystal clear HDTVs, and the hassles of trekking out to FedEx field, but if the atmosphere was anything like this was, I’d be inclined to see the action first hand on a more regular basis.
Of course, even though our section was technically the VIP section and thus less raucous than other sections of the stadium, it was still a rowdy crowd. I looked over and saw in the section next to us someone had basically passed out and 4-5 people were carrying him away, motionlessly. I wasn’t sure what happened – some in the crowd said he was too old to handle it, but the intensity of the game claimed it first victim (and the match hadn’t even really begun).
Another interesting aspect is that no one pays attention to seating assignment. In fact, they actively disavow it. Rather, if you are in your general section, it’s a free for all – something we did not realize. Thus getting there late, right before kickoff (is that a soccer term too? should be), did not put us in an advantageous position as somehow basically all the seats were taken. We saw some guys sitting in our seats as we entered and decided best not to broach the subject in hostile territory. Rather we stood in the aisle at the side, perfect since no one was sitting anyways. We were, however, very close to the field with a great view, to make up for it all.
At halftime, more comfortable in our surroundings, Nick decided to get the guys to move, but to no avail. They said someone had told them to sit there at the beginning when they arrived, even though we clearly showed them where their seats were, a few rows back. It was an odd sort of Argentine stand off, with them clearly recognizing they were not in the seats printed on their ticket, but also clearly expressing no inclination to move. We kind of stood there for at least five minutes going around in the circular sort of argument, as they basically assumed we would eventually give up and leave them alone.
They were right. Nick finally took their tickets in exasperation and gave them ours, and we tried to sit in their seats a few rows back. Of course, those seats were empty, but a family sitting nearby told us they were holding them all for people who would return after halftime. Distraught, someone took pity on us and showed us two seats together in the middle of the last row. We happily took those, until about five minutes after halftime when a larger dude than us came out and said those were his. Opting for the pacifist route, we meekly moved to a different aisle, and watched the second half from there.
As for the game, it was a 1-0 result as I predicted (and have always predicted each and every soccer game will be, with about an 80% lifetime success rate). The home team won – though it was apparently on a late and poorly called penalty shot, requiring Nick to suppress an extreme amount of rage. Luckily though, given that the home team won, no one was shanked. The exiting crowd was in a triumphant mood, and Nick had not been out-ed as an enemy, so we were able to make a departure from the stadium unscathed.
Nick’s depression over losing the game was heavily outweighed by my jubilation of making it out alive of the perceived enemy’s den, with nary an incident (we did both pretend to be confused foreigners anytime someone commented to us about an assessment of the play, which I suppose was 50% a truth). On the way out we did see a car window smashed to pieces with the insides ransacked – interesting given the 1,700 cops posted around, but I didn’t really like the car anyways, so worked for me.
I can’t say that I appreciate the game of soccer anymore after those 90 minutes of (in)action, but I did enjoy the spectacle of fans so passionately pouring their hearts out over what is ultimately a pointless round of exercise between two groups of young adult males. It is something I can relate to (though my sporting events tend to end in utter despair – so I didn’t quite comprehend the ability to leave a stadium ‘happy,’ as these fans did). The obsessive passion behind sports extends worldwide, but I do have to say the futbol fans here have exceeded anything I have witnessed before. Perhaps it’s a necessity, as the less exiting the game, the more exciting the crowd needs to be to make up for it!
Post script: As a testament to just exactly how insane soccer fans can get in Argentina, the second half of the two-series match for the Copa Libertadores between Boca Juniors and River Plate took place the following Thursday, this time at the Boca stadium. When the River players came back onto the field after halftime, some Boca fans sprayed them with some sort of ‘irritant,’ sending four to the hospital and forcing the match to be suspended (at a 0-0 tie). Imagine the chaos if away fans were actually allowed into the stadium as well – I think Argentina would be in the throes of a civil war by now!