Monday, May 3, 2010

Bend It Like Beckham; or "Goooooooaaaaaallllllll!!!!!!!!"

You think you've watched soccer before. You might've actually gone to a game or two, to see Toronto's relatively new FC or some other team. But if you haven't seen soccer (make that "football") South American-style, you've had an entirely different experience.

Argentina's soccer fans -- and that category includes pretty much every male Argentino from the age of 6 upwards, and a fair number of las Argentinas, too -- are in a class of their own. They are completely, utterly, certifiably NUTS in their passion for this game. For a wide-eyed inncocent (a.k.a. tourist) attending a game, it's just as entertaining to watch the fans as it is to watch the field.

(The other really entertaining thing was the number of very beautiful men who play soccer.  But that`s neither here nor there for the purposes of this story.)

I went to a game yesterday in Avellaneda, a southern suburb of Buenos Aires, to watch Independiente host their bitter rivals Boca Juniors for the third-to-last game in the Argentina’s Primera Division. This is the top level of Argentina’s football league, widely regarded as one of the strongest in the world. It was a do-or-die game for Independiente; five points behind the first-place team Estudiantes, they had only two games remaining after this one to make up the difference. With a win counting for 3 points, a tie for 1, and a loss zero, they stood virtually no chance of coming out on top if they lost this game.

I opted to go with a tour rather than try to arrange it myself; you pay well over the odds for your game ticket this way, but once I got there I was very glad I had. It was in a far-flung suburb that would have been a very expensive taxi ride away, and I don’t think I’d have even been able to find my seat on my own, much less track down a taxi once the game was over to get back to civilization. Seating seemed a little random; our tickets all had row and seat numbers, but our guide waved his hand vaguely at a couple of rows of seats and said, “We’re somewhere around here ... I think.”

With neither rows nor seats labelled, it was difficult to tell, so there was a bit of shuffling around before the game started as football fans came to claim some of the seats we were originally in.

Riot police separating the Boca fans
It was quickly clear once we’d sat down that we were cheering for Independiente that evening; to do otherwise would’ve quickly gotten us thrown out of the stadium (at best) or lynched (at worst). We were surrounded by a sea of red (Independiente’s colour – they are also nicknamed “El Rojo”) and Boca’s fans in blue and yellow (see right) were congregated in one end of the stadium behind fences, surrounded by police in riot gear. Fans set off fireworks in the stands, and threw so much stuff onto the field that men with leaf blowers came out to clear off the pitch.

Obviously this wasn’t going to be your average North American soccer game.

There was a preliminary game with some of the young players from both sides; fans cheered for their teams but didn’t seem too worked up. But once the main action started, I saw the true colours of the Argentine soccer fans: they started jumping up and down in unison, chanting and singing their team’s fight songs, waving flags and T-shirts and anything else in their team’s colours, and tossing plastic stadium seats in the direction of the opposing team’s fans. And they didn’t stop, once, throughout the game; they got as good a workout as anyone on the field.

The stadium, an aging concrete structure visibly in need of repair, juddered and quaked with the force of their enthusiasm. We, the tourist contingent, looked at each other a little askance; just how solid was this building, and how much shaking could it take until it collapsed under the weight of all those feet pounding the concrete?  (Needless to say, since I am writing here, it didn’t choose that night to crumble. But I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility!)

It didn’t take a lot of Spanish, either, to guess what was being yelled at the referees for bad calls, or at the opposing team if they scored a goal. (“Hijo de una puta” came up a lot.) Every fan took it very, very personally if things didn’t go well for their team; a man in front of me was sobbing so hard into his hands that his shoulders heaved, after the referee missed a particularly blatant penalty by an opposing player.

In the end, Independiente lost, 3-1. The sea of red collapsed, overwrought, and was silent for the first time all night as they watched their team file off the field. Boca’s fans, on the other hand, were jubilant, and the sound of those thousands of voices raised in song probably carried back to the centre of Buenos Aires.

Riot police, fully kitted out with helmets and shields, took up positions on the field at the end of the game, and gates were kept closed in most sections (keeping the Independiente fans inside) until after all the Boca fans had departed. From the mood of that game, I think that was wise; while it would make for a good story afterwards, I have no desire to ever end up in the middle of a football riot!

Whew. It’s quite the spectacle to watch, almost primal in its intensity. I don’t know how the fans keep that up, game after game. I’m exhausted just writing about it.   So I'll take a little break and fill you in on the rest of the past few days later.

No comments:

Post a Comment