The theme of the latest issue of The Classical Magazine -- which came out last week, and which you can get here if you haven't already and want to do so -- is built around the idea of Being There, of how sports we experience sports in the various places we experience them. Over the next weeks, we'll run other pieces that relate to the idea of Being There, but are not in the magazine. This was one. So's this:
I knew only a few things about South American soccer when I first touched down in Argentina. I knew South American teams routinely kicked the crap out of European players and teams at the Intercontinental Cup. Also that Argentina's top two clubs, River Plate and Boca Jrs., had an intense rivalry and played a heated derby known in Spanish as a "clasico." On the 12-hour flight out of Miami, I knew before the plane even hit the tarmac that I had to catch Boca and River games in the flesh and, if the stars aligned, see a clasico. I did and they did. It was wonderful. It's a stretch, maybe, but I knew it would be.
But there was so much I did not know. There was safety, for instance. It's nearly impossible to Google "Argentine soccer" without a story about baroque, violent hooliganism cropping up among the early results. This was only the beginning of my immersion in a great, roiling, very passionate and very loud unknown.
It had been only a few years earlier Argentina had elected five Presidents in less than two weeks, the result of a disastrous decision to un-peg their currency from the US dollar. Nobody disputes that Argentina had to unpeg the peso. However, the decision to do so overnight and with no warning created chaos. Instantly, the middle class saw their savings all but wiped out. At the time and to this day, Argentines buy dollars on the black market and stash them under their bed. Nobody was in the streets clanging pots and pans when I arrived, but graffiti death threats still donned the walls outside closed banks. The whole country felt thick and mean with unease.
For the Argentine middle class, the devaluation was a devastating blow. For a not-so-affluent university student from the US, currency devaluation meant one thing: affordable living. As someone whose education was not financed by a trust fund, decent Yankees-Mets tickets would have been a stretch and a downtown Manhattan apartment a pipe dream. I got the equivalent of both in Buenos Aires. My apartment sat at the intersection of Corrientes and Scalibrini Ortiz avenue, a quaint barrio called "Villa Crespo" with great pizzerias and proximity to the bustling Plaza Serrano. A metro stop was in front of my building and I could even walk to Palermo Hollywood, a place of fashion boutiques and bars patrolled by Argentine yuppies. I enjoyed the security of proximity to wealth without the daily doses of Palerm-an obnoxiousness.
As a safety precaution, I stuck to the metro and collectivos (city buses) during the day, but at night used radio taxis – that is, the ones you call, and which then come pick you up. I'd spent summers in Juarez, Mexico as a youth and was reasonably prudent but not overly worried. Some other students in my exchange program talked about fighting back if mugged. They had clearly never had a gun waved in their face. Another thing I knew.
I memorized my credit card cash access pin numbers just in case -- if I so much as saw a knife-like bulge in a mugger's pocket, I'd hand over everything, clothes included, before he could mutter "uno, dos, tres" in a mumbled porteno accent. "Can I be of further assistance, person who I have never seen and will never report to the police?" I practiced saying in my jumbled Tex-Mex while looking at my bare toes. It seemed prudent to know.
In terms of design, Buenos Aires is a beautiful city that reminded me of Madrid -- lots of lovely plazas, folks walking about, and great restaurants. In terms of population, Buenos Aires resembled a slightly less diverse Mexico City -- the population was largely white, but dark haired and dark eyed. I fit in snug as a glove. Almost every day, Argentines assumed I was a local and would ask me the time or for directions. When I opened my mouth to answer, the reactions ranged from incredulity to suspicion. A handful thought I was an Argentine but from some backwater province like Jujuy or Misiones.
Soccer and sport transcend language, though, and I soon hooked up with some fellow students and teachers in regular five-a-side games similar to futsal and known as futbol cinco. On any given Saturday, I'd play one afternoon game at Muni Futbol in Belgrano near River Plate's stadium, then catch a train North to San Isidro, a satellite municipality, to play another. To my surprise and amusement and faint pride, I garnered a reputation as a fierce header of the ball, which was at least moderately hysterical given I was always the shortest player on my US teams and generally assigned to stand by the post on corner kicks. I scored some goals, but my real goal was to catch some professional Argentine games. Without getting knifed, if at all possible.
Violence does happen at South American games; not necessarily at all, or even most, but at many. This violence is generally associated with a special section of supporters known as a barra brava, which every Argentine team has. The barra bravas parade around the stadium playing drums, waving flags, and singing songs; if they wind up offending or punching anyone with that behavior, then… well, that would have happened. This is, to American fans used to a brawl-free sports experience, a bit menacing. It's notably less so after meeting actual barra brava members. The ones I met were, variously, barra bravas for Boca Jrs., Racing, and Independiente, and were, universally, University students looking for a fun time, not assassins. There may well be hooligans among them, but the ones I met were young people out for a fun, moderately rowdy time. Which is to say they were young people.
In Europe, stadium violence, orchestrated and accidental, eventually reached a crisis point and UEFA passed a law barring standing sections and requiring all stadia to be seating only. The goal was to prevent violent barras from roaming the stands like a pack of wolves. In Argentina, despite the occasional brawl, no equivalent of the Heysel Stadium disaster has occurred, and so stadia seating includes large standing sections. In fact, most stadiums feature two levels: platea and popular. The first is the seated area; popular is the standing area. It should be easy to guess which is rowdier.
I longed to see a Boca/River clasico, but the regular season game at the Bombonera restricted ticket sales to socios (members) and sold out quickly; scalped prices were well out of my budget. As luck had it, though, that same year, Boca Jrs. and River Plate had both qualified for the prestigious Libertadores Cup tournament, which is the South American equivalent of the Champions League. Both teams advanced to the semifinals, and drew each other.
I again missed out on the first leg game at the Bombonera, where Boca squeezed out a tense 1-0 win. The second leg, at River Plate’s Monumental Stadium, was my last chance to catch clasico. I couldn’t let it pass. I logged onto MercadoLibre, the Argentine equivalent of eBay, and found a resold ticket for a princely sum in pesos, but there was a dilemma. My Argentine pals could not afford a ticket. My American friends were scared. I would have to fly solo.
I did some in-person reconnaissance before the match, and visited River Plate’s digs. The Monumental Stadium was originally built in 1938, but underwent significant renovations in the 1970’s as part of the then-dictatorship’s facelift for World Cup 78. It holds 67,000 souls and brings to mind nothing so much as an NFL stadium. In fact, during the part of the tour in which we were allowed wander around the field, I could have sworn I was at my hometown of Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. The only difference is that the Monumental’s no frills, barren concrete structure is a circle, not an oval. I looked up at the second level, the popular, where I would be standing by myself during the game. I remember that I gulped.
I bought myself a River Plate replica jersey, or “trucha” in local parlance, off Florida Avenue, a major shopping area in downtown Buenos Aires. The night of the game, I arrived early and enjoyed the sweet smell of hotdogs cooking and peanuts roasting outside the stadium. The lines to enter were immense and police officers scowled above the crowd atop horses. I donned my River Plate jersey, but had covered it with a tan jacket while riding on one of the city’s colectivos. Alone, I didn’t want to risk any altercations. Safely adrift in a sea of red and white, I unzipped my jacket and displayed the kit proudly.
Somewhat proudly, that is. At the time, I didn’t have any set club affiliations. However, Boca Jrs. had slowly grown on me. They’d sold my favorite player, Riquelme, but featured a young and electrifying striker by the name of Carlos Tevez. All over the city, banners featuring the scar-faced Carlitos encouraged me to purchase Pepsi products. His nickname was El Apache, after the downtrodden neighborhood where he grew up. Everything about his upbringing screamed “pibe” and I loved the narrative. He even played the game like a kid in an alleyway—elbowing other players when the ref wasn’t looking, nutmegging defenders with ease, and almost always offsides. Controlling my emotions, though, was a matter of survival. I couldn’t wear River’s red at the Monumental and cheer on Tevez. I was sure of it, and still more or less believe it: one errant shout and the masses would swallow me whole.
I elbowed through crowds towards my section. I could barely breathe. Personal space was nonexistent, but the view of the pitch from the second-tier was gloriously unobstructed. About a half hour before kickoff, the barra brava arrived in force, somehow pushing through the masses with snare drums, trombones, and flags. The mania swelled and ripened, then burst floridly into noisy fruition when the game started. Fireworks were launched, flags were waved, and songs full of four letter words were sung at full voice. I learned the important distinction between the terms “cancha” and “concha.” The first is “stadium”; the second you should never say in a civilized setting.
For all the literal and metaphorical fireworks in the stands, the game itself turned out to be a spectacle as well. If this were an ESPN match recap, this is the part where I’d call the game a “seesaw” or a “roller coaster.” River Plate came out aggressively, while Boca Jrs. sat back with five midfielders, content to let El Apache dribble at and off of three defenders. The first half ended 0-0 and the fans were restless: River needed a one-goal win to tie the series. However, the home team scored shortly after the break and the stadium erupted. They bravely sought a second goal, but Boca repelled wave after wave of attacks. Then, in the 89th minute, Carlos Tevez struck on the counter:
The stadium fell silent briefly, before fans started to hurl insults at the players, coaching staff, and their respective mothers. A 1:1 tie would have seen Boca advance. Then, a minute later: pandemonium. Central defender Cristian Nasuti scored River’s second goal and it was game on. Neither team scored in injury time. Unlike the Champions League, away goals did not matter. The teams were 2:2 on goals after two games. They slogged out two 15-minute mini-halves of additional time, but neither mustered even a decent chance. Boca held their nerve in the penalty shootout and advanced, and the fans flooded sadly out of the Monumental. My legs ached from the non-stop standing, and the city had stopped regular colectivo service hours earlier. I stopped at a payphone to try and call a radio taxi, but had no luck. And so the greatest soccer game I’d ever seen featured an anti-climatic epilogue: I wearily walked 40 blocks home in the dead of night, through a strange city.
I had to see the Libertadores final, obviously. The adrenaline did not subside until a few days later. This time, I even convinced some US friends to camp outside Boca’s stadium and wait in line for tickets. Despite braving the elements and being some of the first to reach the ticket stand, we got bad news: tickets would only be sold to socios only. No exceptions, not even for fans from other countries. My friends walked away dejected. I was resolved. The socio-only policy was an obstacle, but not insurmountable.
I scanned MercadoLibre again and, sure enough, some tickets were on sale. Rumors percolated that at the gates they would be asking for carnets, which are a sort of socio identification card. I asked a couple friends from class at the University of El Salvador and they were impressed—did I really plan on going, they asked? I lucked out. One of them, Marco, whose defining feature was an honest-to-god 80’s-era rat-tail, was a socio of Boca and would score me a ticket and get me in.
From a bird’s eye view, Boca’s stadium, nicknamed the Bombonera—it's Spanish for chocolate box—looks compact even by NHL arena standards. It only seats about 40,000, and the second level hovers over the first like a menacing sideways guillotine of concrete. Before the game, Marco gave me two words of advice. First, just hand the ticket to the guard at the entrance and let him talk, if necessary. Second, once inside, if anybody else runs, run. Marco’s tickets were for the popular section on the first level behind the opposing goal. These were survival lessons.
Marco’s bluff worked: the guard looked at my ticket, glared at me for a minute, and then let me in. There were simply too many people there for security to inspect every socio credential, or even ask. Despite arriving hours early, the popular section was already packed. We stood on concrete steps just behind the goal of Boca’s competition, Once Caldas of Colombia. Fans not ten feet from me lit flares and tossed them onto the field. To my right, a shirtless teenager wearing a Boca flag as a cape climbed the chain link fence separating us from the field. The stadium security could only walk around the aisles. They dared not enter this churning, partisan mosh pit.
If the semifinal game was a firecracker, then this game was a dud. As is often the case in the first leg of home-and-away series, the home team is scared to concede and the visiting team plays for a draw. The Colombians packed ten men behind the ball and Boca only mustered a few half-chances. The game ended 0:0; the sole highlight was everything else.
The stadium moved, not so much reverberated as trembled with waves of noise. Even with the home side playing poorly, the force and sound of collective will shook the stadium. They say that “La Bombonera no tiembla, lata.” Spanish for “The bombonera does not shake, it beats (like a heart).”
Having caught a clasico and two games at Argentina’s biggest clubs’ stadiums, I could finally rest easy and pay minimal attention to my studies. At one of my futbol cinco games, I wore River’s jersey and blue socks, the color of Boca. My friends laughed. A few shook their head in disgust. For them, there could only one or the other. That wasn't the case for me. I was a guest. Being there was enough.