Love, Death and Adventure in Buenos Aires (I)
On my first full day in Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors played the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final against America de Cali. Alone, I jumped in a cab in Recoleta and made for the stadium, no ticket, no camera, but a fistful of pesos. After making speculative detours to avoid stadium traffic, the taxi driver (de Boca and very interested in getting me there), dropped me off as close as he could manage; about eight blocks away.
La Boca is one of Buenos Aires’ poorest barrios. It was here that immigrants from Italy arrived on Argentine shores in the late 19th Century. La Boca has always been associated with the working class, the industrial poor, the marginalized. La Boca is the birthplace of tango, the bittersweet dance of love and loss, tough times temporarily lifted by moments of beauty, only to be rammed home by the trident of politics, economics, and fate. Boca Juniors is a team born of the dispossessed. The immigrant, chased between continents. The worker, trapped between want and necessity. The Diego, raised from poverty to immortality, fame and infame. And now, the Red Devils of Cali de Colombia stood between the Xeneize (the name for the Genoese Italian dialect) and the finals of the Copa Libertadores, the biggest prize in South American soccer.
As I lept from the cab I saw plumes and clouds of smoke emanating from the cauldron of the stadium. The Bombonera (Boca’s stadium, the chocolate box) shook with emotion, exploded with fireworks, tensed for the match. The stadium lights cast up through the swirling smoke and created an aura of magical menace. I stopped to check myself: jacket, jeans, running shoes, cash, coins, hotel key, and a mouthful of castellano. After a deep breath and wee prayer, I started walking quickly. Soon, the singing and chanting of fifty thousand fans filled the air and I started running, hoping there would be a way into the sold-out stadium. After blocks of jumping over potholes, dodging cars, leaping outstreched legs and weaving past the glares of loitering youth, I came up to the ticket booth to see if there were any more entradas. Looking up, I saw people standing on the edge of the stadium, one hundred feet above. No hay. My heart sank. I was told to go around the corner to la casa amarilla, the ticket booths near Boca’s training ground. Moving in that direction, a line of riot police suggested a different route. The phalanx of mounted police, backed by another line of riot police confirmed my suspicion. Behind me was where I had been, to the left a dark, fence-lined street, and to the right, a stagnant mass of people in front of apartments, stores, and bars, many of them staring at me.I cast around. I was standing alone, had just been rebuked by the ticket window, the game was starting, this was the continental semi-final, at the Bombonera -the stress of it!! I had to get in!
Sometimes it is useful to act a bit confused in front of a stadium. I shook my head, turned away, stood back and looked up at the stadium walls. Fifteen seconds later, two teenage barrabrava approach me, one from either side:
“Quieres una entrada?”
“Como qué no? Donde está y cuánto es?”
“En la platea. Medio campo.”
I took a fifty note out of my wallet and handed it over. Another kid came up with the ticket, gave it to me, while the other took off with the money.
“Ché!” I yelled at him. “Mi cambio! Me dijiste cuarenta!” Walking away with ten pesos like that. The nerve!
“No. Te dije cincuenta.”
“Deme la revuelta.”
The lad was deadpan: “Dijimos cincuenta.” The roar of the fans urged on Boca above and inside me. I had my ticket, let him keep the ten pesos and strode purposefully up to the turnstile worker, who looked at my ticket and shook his head. The boys were long gone. I 'd been swindled!!
“Al otro lado.” He pointed me down the street. I ran to the next entrance. The next ticketero I presented my ticket to accepted it and waved me through. I bounded up the stairs, into the open air, gave my ticket to an usher who pointed up and said “Al fondo”. At the bloody top!
I started heading up the stairs, looking back as the crowd roared. It was a long way to the top. I spied an open seat off to the right, jumped over four people and looked around. The middle aged man to my right slapped my back and said: “Llegaste!” I had arrived. His teenage son looed over with a smile.
“Cuantos minutos ya han pasado?”
Eight minutes into the game. The atmosphere was torrid. There were a group of 350 Cali fans penned into a cage on my right. They were being assaulted with projectiles from below and above and from the side. The Cali fans were ringed by security forces that looked on passively. There was nothing they could do to stop the hail of missiles. The unfortunate police down near the front of the terracing were occasionally hit with a rock. It would take some doing for the Boca fans to scale the five meter barbed wire fence to actually get their hands on the Cali fans. It is not unusual to have local rivalries break through these industrial barriers.
The game itself was tricky and violent. Boca’s fluid attack was matched by Cali’s fierce defending. Boca continued to arrive at the Columbian Devils’ goal, but the Cali keeper defended his gate like a three headed dog. As halftime approached, the stadium, the crowd grew more insistent that Boca put the ball to sleep in the back of the net. In the 40th minute, the captain, Schiavi, headed home a corner. The stadium exploded: “Gooooooollllllll!!” Fifty four thousand voices screamed the same thing in the same place at the same time. Hundreds of male bodies cascaded down the terracing. The human wave rolled to the edges of the stands. Open arms and clenched fists led to spontaneous hugs and a hail of missiles into the Cali supporters. Boca formed a blue and yellow pile as Cerebus hung his heads. When people could gather their wits, they sang. The stadium was so loud, so overwhelmingly stimulating itself, that tears unconsciously flowed. My body erupted in goose bumps. It was too much. This was not an ordinary game of soccer! The voice of the stadium echoed through the continent. When the half-time whistle blew, everyone sat down, and the stadium pulled herself together.
During half-time, I chatted with the people around me. To my right, an unemployed engineer was with his son. He ran a newspaper kiosk while he waited on an Italian visa. He was with his son, who in his early-twenties was living at home, college educated, also looking for work. This game was a luxury for both of them. To my left were three friends who lived in the middle-class barrio of Caballito. They weren’t huge Boca fans, but wanted to come for ‘the show” and for the soccer. They had recently graduated from high school, and had no idea what they were going to do with their lives.
I asked them what they thought of the barrabrava. “Son locos, violentos”. I asked if they had ever been in the popular section, where the Doce (Boca Junior’s notorious barrabrava) were. All three had gone there together one time. They said that they had spent three hours trying to stay on their feet. One had been pushed down ten stairs after Boca had scored and another had been kicked in the back for not jumping with the rest of the crowd. They had gone home exhausted and wiser and had no idea why anyone would want to be in that section for a match like this.
There was no half-time show. There is no scoreboard in the stadium, there were no game day programs. There were almost no women in the stadium. There were at least twelve sons of bitches: whoever was on the field for America de Cali, and the referee.
The quality and quantity of fireworks that were launched by fans from the stands and by the club from the field during the night, awed but did not shock. During the run of play, the explosions once chased the Cali keeper 30 meters from his goal. Talk about a potent attack! These hand held fireworks drew tracers in the air, and exploded over the field. There were times when the smoke mostly obscured the field. Even during half-time, the crowd never ceased to writhe and chant. Huge flags waved, little flags danced, and blue and gold umbrellas twirled and bounced.
The only way we knew that the second half was getting ready to begin was by watching the player tunnels inflate. Like fallopian tubes delivering their eggs, the white tunnels spilled the players onto the field of green. The crowd stood. As the Boca players ran out, a white rain of toilet paper and confetti descended and the crowd began to sing. The papering of the field was so complete that a crew of ten boys with rakes had to come and clean off the penalty area. There was no point in trying to clean it all off, people would have just thrown more. Having sullied the sacred green of the field and claimed it as their own, the fans, conducted by la Doce, began to jump and the chocolate box shook its sixty-five year old bones.
The referee toco su pita, and the second half began. The game resumed its torrid pace. Amidst the kind of tackling that makes veterans wince, and mothers sigh, there were lightning quick counter attacks, sustained buildups and half a dozen chances at goal for Boca. Cali had their moments but were hoping to take a one-nil loss back to Colombia. A second goal for Boca would make the Devils’ a doubly difficult task. They were willing to fight for it. In the 70th minute Castillo and Ibarra had had enough of each other, and both were sent off for their mutual distaste. With ten men on either side, the game opened, this increased the ferocity but diminished the frequency of the tackles. Cali’s Bustos violated Tevez for the second time and was given a second yellow card. The crowd roared, “Fuera!” and began to insist that Boca finish the Red Devils off now, at home, in the mouth of the Riochuelo, ten against nine, surely they would reach the finals.
Tevez, the tough looking, tough playing, and nineteen year old Boca forward had been battling the Cali defense all night. He had been tireless, creative, and incisive while being hacked, punched, and chopped at by the Cali defenders. With nineteen players on the field, Tevez was finally free from shirt pulling and kidney punches. Tevez received the ball on the right, beat his defender, cut back at the top of the box, looked up, picked his spot and curled his shot into the top left corner. My arms were in the air before the keeper hit the ground. “Gooooooooolllllllllllllllllll!. Gooooooooollllllllllllll!!! Gooooooooooooollllllllllll!”
The referee blew the final whistle. The “Voz del Estadio” (PA announcer) informed us that the home fans would have to wait fifteen minutes before being let out of the stadium. It used to be that the home fans would get out fifteen minutes before the visiting fans. After several catastrophic Sundays, the police realized that this gave the home fans a fifteen minute head start to organize an attack. This way, the Cali fans at least had a chance of making it to their hotel or the airport. I took my seat, looked around, and shook my head in disbelief.