Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The beautiful game

Everyone knows football reigns supreme in Argentina, and nowhere is this more the case than in Buenos Aires, which plays host to El clasico, the derby between the capital's ultimate rivals: Boca Juniors and River Plate. (Yeah, weird name I know, pronounce it like you would in English but with a Spanish accent--It comes from Buenos Aires' iconic Rio de la Plata, or River of Silver, which apparently was mistranslated by early British residents.  I need to check on that, though.)

Boca Juniors (home colours: blue and gold), erstwhile club of Maradona, is Argentina's most well-known and supported club, particularly outside the country, but within the country, River Plate (home colours: red and white) isn't too far behind.  As soon as an Argentine finds out that you care in the least about football, they will inevitably ask you, "De quien sos hincha?" ("Who do you support?") And woe betide whoever gives the wrong answer!

One thing that sets the teams apart could be said to be class.  Although I've been met with half-hearted rejections of the theory (most often from admittedly well-to-do River fans), most would agree that the fan base of Boca is by and large the working class, while the patrons of River, although they come in all shapes and sizes, are more often than not...shall we say...more financially stable?  The location of Boca's and River's stadiums, La Bombonera and Monumental, respectively, speaks volumes in this regard.  While La Bombonera is on the banks of the noxious, reeking Riachuelo canal in the dangerous southern barrio of La Boca, Monumental is in the more affluent northern Belgrano/Nunez neighbourhoods with their peaceful tree-lined avenues and upmarket eateries.  The stadiums themselves reflect the economic difference, too: Monumental hosts international matches, and can seat 66,000 spectators in relatively comfortable conditions.  The Bombonera, on the other hand, though only able to seat 49,000, is by far the most atmospheric football experience to be had in Argentina.

La Bombonera, with its steep, close stands

My first experience with Monumental and Argentine football in the flesh was at an international match between Argentina and Peru, a rather important one in fact--a qualifying match for FIFA World Cup 2010.  The opportunity came about unexpectedly; I sometimes worry that I am too much of a plan-oriented person and envy those into whose laps adventure seems to fall because of their spontaneity and willingness to let the wind carry them where it will.  This is one of the reasons I chose Argentina although I didn't have a particularly good reason to go there or anything lined up.  It's also the reason I jumped at the chance to see go to my first international match in Argentina despite being in a bit of a financially tight spot at the time.  I was hanging out with some friends in Recoleta one Sunday afternoon when Johan, a Colombian-American friend mentioned he had an extra ticket to the match he would sell to anyone who wanted to go.  A bit later that afternoon I was debating going and after finally deciding to, I went back and told  him I'd take it...only to find out he'd just sold it to another friend!  But they suggested I might be able to get a ticket at the gate from a hawker, so that's what I did, and after a bit of haggling by yours truly, it turned out to be not only cheaper than theirs, but in a better position!  Of course the downside of this was that I was alone in a row of strangers for the match...

But it was a good experience anyway.  I got to see Maradona pacing the sideline in his requisite tracksuit (which he never seems to be without), a bit of Messi magic (although he definitely disappoints a bit on the international stage as opposed to when he plays for Barca), and an absolutely torrential downpour.  It was possibly the heaviest rain I've ever experienced, and that while sitting passively out in the open with nothing to shelter under!  It started around halftime and never let up significantly for one moment.  In the last ten minutes, I retreated to an upper level of the stands to stand under a very inadequate outcropping of cement.  In fact, by the end it was so torrential that, Peru having equalized on the 89th minute, I was turning to go when I sensed some buildup from the noise.  Sure enough, as I squeezed my face in between the squelching and slick flanks of two stout supporters, Palermo notched Argentina's second of the night in the last minute of injury time, sending the whole stadium into wild paroxysms of joy.  The crowds outside made the prospect of and my futile attempt at taking public transport home totally unrealistic, so I walked the 25 odd blocks home in the deluge, my trainers squeaking and splashing every step of the way, but a smile on my face.

My next experience was at the hallowed grounds of La Bombonera, once again with Johan and co., although this time I was seated with everyone.  I should say standing, because at a Boca match there is pretty much standing room only.  Although the action on the pitch was forgettable--it was a 0-0 draw with Colon, the atmosphere was as electric as at any Boca match, bar only El Clasico.  The stands were a riot of blue and gold, the air heavy with chants of "Vamos, Boca, vamos!" and many other less savory cries that I won't print here.  A word to the wise though: if you ever go to a Boca match, it's a good idea to make sure you DON'T get a ticket in the La doce section (not sure if you can anyway, if you're not a season ticket holder)--this is Boca's notorious firm of hooligans.  It gets crazy in there, let me tell you.  The above picture is me at the match, with a (crazy) Argentine friend of Johan's.

My final football-spectating was a River Plate match at Monumental at the end of November '09, just before I finished my time in Argentina.  A student, Rodrigo, was kind enough to invite me to go with him, so I took him up on the offer.   Being a much more spatially open stadium (La Bombonera's stands are very steep and the atmosphere is almost claustrophobic because of the proximity of the rectangular stands to each other and to the pitch), Monumental doesn't have the same atmosphere, but the match itself was fun to watch as the sun dipped over the stand opposite ours and the heaviness of the warm summer evening set in.  The final result was a 1-1 draw with Estudiantes, which was fielding Juan Sebastian Veron himself, ex-Boca, Inter, Man Utd and Chelsea midfielder and a regular callup to the national side.  Also notable was another of Argentina's former national team members, Ariel Ortega, who scored River's exciting equalizer on the 90 minute mark.

I'm having troubles uploading any pictures of Monumental, I'll try again later.  Both photos above courtesy of Johan.

1 comment:

Pattybutterflies said...

I've been wondering where you had disappeared to and was only yesterday thinking I needed to email you...

That was something I never did in Arg, go to a football match. I should've gone with Johan and Erin when I had the chance, but oh well...

How's life treating you?