Tuesday, February 2, 2010

For the Love of A Game


GOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!

On my second day in Argentina, I meet up with my two friends Rocco and Larah, a married couple living in NYC traveling in Argentina at the same time I am. Despite not being a soccer fan, Larah and I accept Rocco's proposal to check out a match of one of the club teams of Buenos Aires. There are two major teams in the city, Boca Junior, former team of superstars Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, located in one of the poorer Italian neighborhoods. The second is Boca's upper class arch rivals who call themselves River Plate. There are no Boca games that week, so we opt for a lower key experience at the River Plate stadium. Little do we know to what we are committing.

In order to assuage Rocco from his concerns that the game would sell out, we go to the stadium at noon to pick up tickets for 8pm. We wander around the stadium and are directed by security to a lone vendor window flanked by security guards. In our broken Spanish, we ask for three tickets. His face contorts into a look of concern. "Look, are you here to see River Plate, or the visiting team from Rosales?" We confirm that tonight we are River Plate fans. "Then you need to go to the vendors on the other side of this stadium and buy tickets over there. Hurry!" He looks around furtively to see if anyone has seen us, and waves us towards the other side of the stadium.

We do as directed, finding 8-9 vendors at windows, chatting and chanting a song they will likely be singing tonight. There no guards near them. We purchase our tickets without incident and continue touristing it up before the game.



At 7pm, we return to the stadium, along with a massive pack of males of all ages. They are decked out in red and white soccer jerseys. In front of the entrance to the stadium, there are 15 swat team guards fully clad in riot gear. We pass through three gauntlets of security. Our bags are searched and we are frisked three times. No bottles, no alcohol, nothing that could be construed as a weapon if thrown.



Inside, on this ordinary Wednesday game day, the stadium is packed with red and white, at least 20,000 River Plate loyalists.


Way across the other side of the stadium, we see an isolated pack of a few thousand, quarantined in one small box, a buffer region of empty seats surrounding them. They are flanked with plexiglass barriers and security guards.


The stadium is constructed of old, cracked, concrete steps and wooden bleachers bolted to the cement. The exterior of the field is surrounded with more security and German Shephard dogs. Fans are separated from their players by a chain link and barbed wire fence. The bleachers are vibrating under the bouncing River Plate butts drumming and bouncing to the game chant they all know by heart.

I peer over at the vendors holding trays with small foam cups. They sell Coke, Sprite, and....no beer! Rocco educates me that for crowd control purposes, at most soccer games in Latin America, South America, and Europe, alcohol cannot be sold and none can be brought in. Nothing is sold in bottles. These people, these bouncing, chanting, t-shirt waving people, they are sober.

I am impressed by the degree to which their fanfare perseveres through the sobriety. Unadulterated. The stadium is littered with gigantic, homemade signs bearing the names and numbers of the players, gerry-rigged with long lengths of webbing. There is homemade confetti being flung for about every possible play. And the fans are on their own: there are no professional cheer leaders, no brass band, no half-time show whatsoever, let alone one with Janet Jackson showing her nipple. They don't need Janet to get them going. Their eyes are glued intently on the game and the word "puta" is thrown around liberally during close plays. And these fans are not fair-weathered. They cheer when one of their dear players misses a goal. They cheer when one gets fouled. They cheer when the score is 0-0.



Rocco explains to us that unlike the Europeans players, the River Plate boys are quick, nimble, shorter passes, more plays. For the first time in his life, Rocco ignores Larah and has devoted his heart for this short period of time to the adult men running around on the grass. And true to soccer, the game ends with a score of 0-0.


We exit the seating area but are barricaded within the stadium exterior walls for at least 40 minutes. Only later do we realize we were corralled so that the visiting team fans could exit the stadium safely, again flanked by security. Like high profile figures in the FBI witness protection program, they are given separate transporation and are relocated to other parts of the city, security on either side of them, their true identities as Rosales fans unknown upon their dispersal throughout town.

Later in the week, Larah and I agree to humor Rocco and pay homage to the Boca Junior stadium. We take a cab to the smaller and poorer neighborhood of La Boca, the traditional ghetto of some of Buenos Aires' first Italian immigrants. We are on the water, near the dock and the ships. We get out, stroll around, have a bite to eat at one of the home-made pasta restaurants. We ask a cab driver for walking directions to the "Chocolate Box" (La Bombonera), as the stadium is so lovingly called. "Walk two blocks ahead, make a left, and there you will see the most beautiful stadium in the world," he explains, without a hint of irony in his voice.

Following his directions, we find a short, squat, blue and yellow thing. I once heard that the the team colors are blue and yellow because those were the only colors left on the boat from which the first members stole the stadium paint. Despite the international fame of its team, the Boca stadium is a fraction of the River Plate one, and not even a complete circle in shape. But the stadium is far better cared for than River Plate's. Even though it is concrete, it is almost shiny. Seats begin at grass level and there is crystal-clear plexi-glass separating players from fans. Inside and outside the stadium, Boca groupies are loitering, mouths agape, staring in awe at their surroundings. The air is reverent, austere. Little boys in flip flops are playing soccer outside on the sidewalk wearing their Maradona jerseys. There are footprints and handprints of the players on cement slabs outside. Bronze statues of Maradona are placed throughout. Boca Junior is more ghetto but clearly more loved.

I used to believe that a nation's cultural heritage is reflected mostly in the food and music. After the game and our pilgrimage to La Bombonera, I am obliged to add soccer to that list. Like movies during the Great Depression, soccer provides millions with respite from a hard day's work. The fan base is age-less, crossing class divide, and the hope, even for a losing team, is eternal. The superstars, many of whom were plucked from thatched shanties in the countryside, are as big as the Beatles and their stories comprise the fodder for dreams of so many little boys all over the Americas, rich and poor. And poor. A French historian of once said, "Culture is the sum of all forms of art, love, and of thought, which, in the course of centuries, have enabled man to be less enslaved." Goal.


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