Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Cherrybombs

Before we left the United States, Norberto asked if we’d be interested in seeing a soccer game in Buenos Aires, offering to arrange it ahead of time. Now, I realize that while soccer is a comparatively minor sport in the US, it’s a big deal in the rest of the world. So I thought seeing a game in a country that is always a contender in World Cup tournaments would be exciting and interesting.

Soccer in Argentina follows the European “athletic club” model. A group of people forms a club, and individual members pay dues. The club uses the dues to provide practice facilities, compete in tournaments, and pay salaries to club employees. Thus, the members “own’ the teams fielded by the club, and have a financial and emotional interest in their success or failure. The better the team fares, the more people purchase memberships. The more members, the more income. The more income, the nicer the facilities. The best clubs have their own athletic complexes with Olympic-size swimming pools, tennis courts, gymnasium and a stadium that seats 70,000 - 90,000 people. They field lots of teams in various sports, in all divisions from pee-wee league up to professional level.

However, in Argentina, the business of club operation means little, if anything. It’s the emotional component that drives the entire industry. In Argentina, soccer isn’t a business, it’s a religion. Worse, it’s a religion equivalent to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. People are fiercely loyal to their favorite team, and will defend their honor to the death, if necessary. You don’t wear your favorite team jersey in certain parts of town if you know what’s good for you.

When the day of the game approached, Norberto informed me that we were going to see a match between the Argentine team called Velez-Sarsfield, and a Peruvian team called Universitario. “I won’t take you to one of the crazy games,” he said. He was referring to the teams called Boca and River, the perennial first and second place rivals in Argentine soccer. Their fans are insane, and the teams they play have equally insane fans.

When we arrived at the stadium, we were frisked by armed police, not rent-a-cop security guards. We had nice seats at midfield, and I noticed a long inflatable tube running from the side of the stadium out to midfield. This tube was the means that players used to enter the stadium. Norberto informed me that it was to protect the players from things thrown by fans. “Sometimes the fans want to kill the players,” he remarked. “That’s why they frisk you when you enter.” I guess they don’t have “bat day” in Argentina.


The next thing I noticed was that the midfield sides and one end of the stadium were occupied. The empty end was reserved for opposing fans, who had endured a long bus ride over the Andes from Peru, and were ushered into the stadium shortly before kickoff. Their section of the stadium is segregated from the rest of the stadium by high fences covered with razor wire. It was unclear whether these fences were to keep them in, or the rest of the stadium out. As it turns out, it’s both.

They don’t serve beer at soccer matches in Argentina, or as Norberto pointed out, “People would be killed.” In fact, the service areas pretty much limit themselves to Coca-Cola and bags of chips. This is because people aren’t there for food. Soccer fans don’t care about nachos.

As the Peruvian fans entered, I noticed some of them laboring under huge burdens, large packages that required as many as four men to carry. These were cloth banners that when unfurled, stretched 50 or 60 feet long and 5 feet high, bearing what I assumed were inspirational team messages, or possibly vile insults.

On the Velez end, similar banners had been deployed, and those fans began to sing some kind of team fight song that everyone in the stadium knew. There are at least a dozen of these songs, known to every fan, and they’re different for every team. Some are accompanied by mysterious gestures. The Peruvians, for their part, sang some other song in retaliation. I realized that the ends of the stadium were reserved for the most rabid fans. They don’t even have seats there, it’s just concrete steps on which people stand.

Once the players entered and the entry tube was deflated, the game began to a huge roar from the stands. Within the first 5 minutes, the Peruvian team scored a goal, and the Peruvian fans went into a frenzy, beating on huge drums and jumping up and down. Some rushed the fences and climbed halfway up to the razor wire, as if threatening to come over the top. No sooner had I turned my attention back to the field when a cherrybomb went off at the Peruvian end of the field, scaring the crap out of me. Didn’t they frisk those people?

Minutes later, the Velez team scored, and the crowd went crazy, roaring and singing, waving signs and banners, screaming “AMARILLO!!!” at the referees when one of the Peruvian players argued the legality of the goal. The game got serious then, and the Peruvians scored twice more before halftime, leading the match 3 - 1. Cherrybombs were going off at regular intervals now, setting my nerves on edge.

In the second half, the Velez team scored three times, winning the match 4 - 3 in an exciting comeback victory. The tube was inflated, the teams left the field, and a swarm of police in riot gear began ushering out the disgruntled Peruvian fans. The Velez fans were not permitted to leave the stadium until the Peruvians exited, boarded their bus, and departed. This was to prevent murders in the parking lot. Norberto said that at the Boca and River games, the home team fans often wait for 1 - 2 hours after a match before they are allowed to leave.

When we finally left the stadium, I considered buying a jersey, but to tell the truth, I was afraid to wear it, even in the United States. We jumped in a cab, and the driver had the post-game show on the radio. “Did you like the game?” he asked, in broken English. “Good game, yes?” We agreed with him enthusiastically. “This,” he said, pointing at the radio, “is my life.”

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