10 April 2007

Love Death and Adventure in Buenos Aires, Part Three

Christopher Gaffney

Copyright 2007

July 2003.

La final

Boca Juniors took their two-nil victory in Buenos Aires to Colombia and turned it into a six-nil thrashing. This put them in the final of the Copa Libertadores against Santos of Brazil. The first leg of the final was played in Buenos Aires. Winter had hit the Southern Cone in the form of a winter gale. The temperature was in the mid-thirties, and rain lashed in from the South Atlantic. The kickoff was scheduled for 21:50. Nighttime in la Boca.

For those who know little of soccer, the names Pele and Maradona might strike a chord. The Brazilian Pele made Santos, Brazil, and the New York Cosmos famous, and Argentina’s Maradona, well, he made himself famous and brought Boca along with him. Thus, the rivalry between Santos and Boca is not only between two clubs, but between Brazil and Argentina, São Paulo and Buenos Aires, and between the legacy of the game’s two greatest players. Boca and Santos last met in the final of the Libertadores in 1963. Pelé scored two goals in the Bombonera to give Santos the title. So not only was this the most important soccer game in the Western hemisphere, with continental bragging rights at stake, but the winner would meet A.C. Milan in Japan to battle for World Club Champion. Millions of people all over the planet would be watching, and millions of Pesos, Reals, Euros, Yen, and Dollars would be won and lost.

Given all of this, it was obviously going to be difficult to get tickets. Two days before the game I made my way to the stadium to try to get a press pass. With no press credentials this was an exercise in futility. I was given a two syllable dismissal. The following day I tried to buy tickets. I was similarly rebuked. “No hay.” The following day I desperately tried to get someone, anyone, to go with me so as to have some strength in numbers. No takers. I didn’t blame them. It would be dangerous, expensive and difficult to get tickets. The weather was, as the Argentines say espantoso, insorportable; miserable, intolerable. High thirties, windy and wet. So, six hours before the match, I resigned myself to my fate, took the bus down to la Boca and began to walk towards the Bombonera.
As I walked through the neighborhood surrounding the stadium I became increasingly aware of how alone I was. Solitary people do not habitually walk these streets with a video camera slung over their shoulder. I desperately wanted to take some pictures of the houses and the Boca flags flying from every window. I stopped and tried to talk to some people gathered on a corner but was given no verbal response. I started walking faster, with each turn becoming more disorientated. There was no way, NO WAY, I was going to take out my notebook to write anything down, much less my camera. I would have been foolish to retrace my steps. I wandered for an hour before I found my way to the shadow of the stadium. I knew from the growing noise that I was close several blocks before I get there.

To my surprise there were hundreds of people queued up to get into the stadium four and a half hours before the game. Singing, jumping, chanting - all of the normal songs and rituals that go on inside the stadium were taking place I couldn’t believe it. The amount of energy that people were expending was matched by the level of their inebriation. Fans had been drinking for several days, probably weeks. After watching this for half an hour I decided to make my way to the general area of the ticket booths (the casa amarailla) to see how much I would have to cough up to get in.

As I started walking, I unconsciously started echoing the songs of the fans, and started to get the feeling of anticipation and excitement that always comes with a stadium experience. Still feeling very much alone, I made my way up to a group of five man-boys so as not to appear completely isolated from any one group. As I got closer, one of these pibes turned to me:

“Buscas entrada?” Are you looking for a ticket?

“Por su puesto.” Of course.

“Quantos tienes?” How much do you have? Son of a bitch. He was immediately sizing me up for cash. From that moment I became even more guarded, realizing that he would take me for all I was worth. This was not a friendly service he was providing.

“Cuarenta.” Forty pesos. I thought I would start low. I had 120 pesos (about US$40) in small bills in my pocket and was willing to spend most of it to get in.

“Deme el dinero.” He wanted the money. I balked.

“Como? Muestrame el boleto.” Show me the ticket. I was not in the mood for a chase.

“No lo tengo. Yo voy a comprarlos ahora.” Ah. They didn’t have tickets either. They were going to buy some from the barrabrava.

The Argentine barrabrava, in addition to creating one of the most spectacular sporting environments in the world, are in the business of receiving tickets from the club which they then sell on the streets before big games for a tidy profit. They are also given jobs in the director’s companies, run drugs, battle other barrabrava, and mark the city with grafitti. They are organized, professional fans, and this is their space. There were no police.

As we walked into this space behind the south side of the stadium, I was trying to figure out what was I was going to do. I still had my money, but did not want to be in the popular section, where I had seen the cascading bodies at the Boca-Cali game. The likelihood of my camera making it through was slim. I wanted to be in the platea, where there were seats and an older, more sedate crowd.

“No quiero sentarme en el popular,’ I told him.

“Como? Quieres platea? Es mucho mas caro.” More expensive.

We approached a barrabrava and my interlocutor (let’s call him Juan) began to negotiate with him for tickets for him and his friends. I saw the barrabrava (it’s used both singularly and in the plural) pull out a stack of more than one hundred tickets. One hundred tickets to the final! My stomach tightened at the sight of it. The barrabrava wasn’t very tall, but was very solid and smartly dressed in a track suit, new trainers, and a close fitting hat. He looked severe. He never looked at me, and only glanced up when Juan gave him one hundred pesos for four tickets. Juan had dropped some names in order to lower the price. As the barrabrava turned away, I saw a scar tracking the outline of his cheekbone from eye socket to lip. My stomach loosened. Fortunately my sphincter didn’t.

“Y la platea?” And my seat?

“Cuesta mas. Cien pesos. Deme la plata.” Again, he demanded my money. I told him that I was not going to give him my money without seeing the ticket first. He replied that he couldn’t get the ticket without giving the money to the barrabrava, which made sense. I gave him the money and we started walking deeper into the zone of the barrabrava.

Juan asked several barrabrava for tickets to the platea but no one seemed to have any. After the fifth try, I asked for my money back. He refused. I tried to explain to him that I felt more comfortable with my money in hand. He refused again. It was looking less and less likely that we were going to find a ticket and more and more likely that he was going to run. I demanded my money back and he grudgingly gave in. Suddenly a large group of people started following two barrabrava. Juan hurriedly asked for my money and said that all these people were going to get tickets. I gave him my money and we followed.

We found ourselves at a gate that was opened from the inside. Several dozen people were pushing to get in. Juan pushed me forward into the mass and I started going through. I looked back to see if he was following. He wasn’t. I fought against the human tide, reached over the heads of two people and grabbed Juan by the arm, and yanked him through the gate. “Hijo de puta,” I said. “Sos loco,” he replied, “sos loco.” I might have been crazy but I wasn’t letting this son of a bitch get away with my hundred pesos.

We were now inside the training ground of Boca Juniors hurrying down a sidewalk to yet another caged area. After some milling about, a Boca official told us that they were not going to release any more tickets for the game, thereby confirming the announcement in the papers, on the television, and on the street of a sell out. I demanded my money again, but then relented as all of a sudden Juan started running in the direction of a rather large barrabrava with a face full of scars, fifteen teeth and a limp Blackbeard would have admired.

Juan asked, “Cuanto por un puesto en la platea por un extranjero?” How much for a foreigner?

“Ochenta.” Eighty pesos.

Juan gave the barrabrava the money and we started walking-limping-running towards the stadium. I had no idea where we were going but saw that my money was now in the pocket of a gangster and had to follow at all speed and closeness to keep up with the conversation to try to figure out what was going on. As we were walking, Juan began to ask for more money.

“Deme veinte pesos mas,” he said.

“Como?! Ya te dije veinte! Yo escuche cuanto salio mi puesto.” I had heard their conversation and was content to give him twenty pesos and be into the stadium. What did he think, that “estoy hecho de dinero?” Asking him if he thought I was made of money because I was a foreigner probably wasn’t a wise provocation, but I hadn’t forgotten his attempt to run off with my money. He was irate. Our conversation was over.

We arrived at the edge of a large crowd that was pushing at a line of metal crowd barriers. A queue of people who had paid the barrabrava to enter were gathered together in a group, and I was stuck with them. It was now three hours before the game. I was hungry, frazzled, it was cold and wet, I was alone with a 400 dollar viedo camera (which summarily broke, hecho de mierda) and a foreigner dealing with gangsters on their turf.

As the group I was with began to move into the stadium, Juan yelled to the barrabrava, pointed at me and reminded him that I had paid. The barrabrava gave me a friendly nudge in the back and told me to go through. As we started filing towards the turnstiles I began to realize that I was going to get in. A different barrabrava stuck out his hand and asked for my ticket. I made a motion of giving him one, he made the motion of taking it, nodded, said “Gracias”, and waved me through. Just then, I heard a commotion behind me. I turned to see three barrabrava yanking a skinny, scraggly looking man from the line. He had tried to jump the barricade to get in with my group. He looked like he was in for a beating

The same barrabrava who had asked for my ticket, appeared at the turnstiles. As police and ushers looked on, he bent down, pushed a button on the turnstile and told each one of us, politely, to put our right leg forward and step through the turnstile. I clumsily put my left leg forward and only seconds later understood that I was inside the stadium for the final. I was alive, wiser, cold, hungry, wet and elated. There were still three hours before kickoff.

The Bombonera is a very tall stadium. The three tiers of stands are stacked precipitously on top of each other. When the fans on the bottom are jumping, the whole structure sways and shakes. My “ticket” had given me access to the uppermost tier of the middle section of the stadium. When I looked down, I felt as if I were flying above the field. More precisely, I felt like an Albatross in the middle of a South Atlantic gale.

The bone-numbing cold I had been exposed to for the previous three hours began to pervade my sub-conscious. Forty meters in the air, there was no hiding from the wind and stinging mist. For the first five minutes, I stood holding onto a railing and fancied myself a fine Ahab, or Odysseus, for having passed through the gates. With every gust of wind and rain, the cold bit deeper into my body and mind. I made a hasty retreat for the relative calm of the external walkways. Here, perhaps two hundred others who had also entered with the barrabrava were milling about, smoking cigarettes, chatting. I was too cold to socialize and began wakling from end to end, trying to warm up.

Every so often I would walk out into the stadium to watch what was happening in the popular section. All of the fans that I had seen waiting in the streets four and a half hours before the game were now inside. The second tier of the popular was full. There were between eight and ten thousand fans. Never sitting, never stopping a chant, always moving, waving, asserting themselves. The colder it became, the more rain that lashed down, the louder they sang. The louder they sang, the more people packed the stands.

The Santos players came onto the field two and a half hours before the game to take some photos of their historic setting. They were greeted with projectiles, whistles and a murderous roar. The chant was: “Maradona fucked Pele up the arse, up the arse.” They must have been impressed, if not terrified to see such a spectacle so many hours before the game in such miserable weather. This was definitely not the beach, nor even the stadiums of Brazil.

The hours passed and the stadium filled. Fifty people carried a flag into the popular. Fifty more carried another. The songs and chanting continued, the wind quieted down to listen. I tried to find a seat to claim as my own but was continually bumped out by legitimate ticket holders. As game-time approached, the only place I could find to sit was on the stairs, sitting in a puddle, squished between two others on each side, two in front and two in back. I continually had the press of bodies on me. If I moved, at least three others had to. The entire stadium was like this. The popular section resembled the wave action of a huge, heavy jelly fish that would occasionally swing up and down in unison, and rock the entire structure of the stadium. The platea was completely overstuffed. Every space on the stairs was taken and people were still coming in. The official capacity of the stadium is 54,000, but on this night they must have had at least 70,000.

Santos came out of their tunnel to a shower of sharpened coins, batteries, fireworks and the collective ill-wishes of Boca fans around the world. The three hundred Santos fans sitting in their cage jumped and sang and lit flares. The police calmly walked up, took the flares from their hands and extinguished them in puddles. I had a lesson in Argentine invective that comes in handy when I don’t want anyone to really understand how I feel or what I mean. Soon after, Boca were birthed onto the field and were welcomed to the world with rapture.

As the teams lined up for kickoff the sky opened up and soaked everything and everyone to the bone. If I had managed to remain dry until this point, my efforts would have been for naught. I was trying to remember why I had gone through so much trouble to put myself in this position. I felt like an ice sculpture carved in the fetal position. Just when I thought I was at my limit, both legs cramped up and I had to squirm and shuffle to relieve them, which caused freezing cold water to rush down my back and in my pants. The plastic poncho of the man squished on my right side shed his water down my right leg. The back side of my left knee was dry, and I imagined myself there.

The game was fast and tricky. The field was soaked but held up well. The conditions did not appear to have an adverse effect on the ability of the players. The tackles were not as fierce as the semi-final against America de Cali had been and both teams had several chances at goal in the first half hour. The stadium was saturated with tension, and the Boca fans insisted on a goal. The Santos fans took advantage of a momentary lull in the stadium’s noise to express themselves. They were given two seconds before seventy thousand whistles pierced their efforts. They were silenced even further in the thirty-third minute when Marcel Delgado, another “Flaco”, hammered a shot off the right post and into the back of the net. I don’t know how all the people in the stairway managed to stand at the same time, but there we were, jumping with our arms in the air, the warmth of the moment running through us. Sitting back down in my puddle was unwelcome.

The atmosphere of the Bombonera remained tense and expectant throughout the second half. Santos looked as if they were going to level the score on several occasions. A 1-1 score would have made things very difficult for Boca. I was under the impression that the Copa Libertadores follows a similar scoring system as UEFA’s Champions League where away goals effectively count twice. That is, a 1-1 tie in Buenos Aires, and a 0-0 tie in Sao Paolo would give Santos the title, whereas a 2-2 tie in Brazil would favor Boca. I later found out that this is not the case, and that the Libertadores operates solely on goal differential. Regardless, as the second half progressed, it became increasingly clear that Boca needed a second goal. Santos continued to press the attack. Boca defended uneasily, not ansting to give the Brasilian wonderkids Alex or Robinho freekicks near their goal. The noise increased. The wind whipped in from the sea, and the rain began again.

Tevez, the hero of the semi-finals, had been effectively marked out of the game. He was given no space to run, and when he found some, he was hacked down. The attention paid to Tevez was instrumental in freeing up Delgado, however, and he tormented the Santos defenders all night. It was Delgado’s bizarre free kick in the eighty third minute that precipitated the most extreme expression of emotion I have ever witnessed.

As the ball flew into the penalty area from the left, several Boca players jumped to meet it. All of them missed. The ball hit the ground three yards in front of goal, bounced wildly over the Santo’s keeper, and hit the roof of the net. The stadium was momentarily stunned. Chants stopped in mid throat. A collective breath was taken. We looked to the referee for confirmation. He started running towards midfield:

“Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooolllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll”

“Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooolllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll”

“Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooolllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll”

The ecstasy lasted for an hour. Long after the final whistle blew, the Boca fans stayed in the stadium, singing the praises of themselves and their team. They also threw in chants against River Plate, Santos, and the wind and rain.

As I was leaving the stadium, I had no idea of which way to turn to get to the main avenue to catch a bus. In my quest to get into the game I had become completely disoriented. Taxis were impossible, it was too far to walk, and buses just as unlikely as a taxi. It was well past midnight when I started walking in what I assumed was the right direction, or at least the safest. I soon found myself on a poorly lit street with few people and no cars. I had no idea how this was possible given the massive crowd that was spilling out of the stadium. I was tired and ready to get home. There was no one to ask, and if there had been, it might have been dangerous to do so.

I eventually turned onto a more crowded street that I assumed would be safer. As I was walking along, a young lad asked me for some money to take the bus. I told him that I only had enough for my own way home. As soon as I finished my sentence, he said,

“Oh. Sos extranejero!” Because I was a foreigner he began harassing me for money. I became indignant a bit too quickly, told him to get lost, in so many words, which quickly drew the attention of his brothers, cousins, and assorted gang of six or seven with whom he was walking. They all turned to look at me, but continued on their way. One of them tried chatting to me as I continued to walk warily forward. He continued to pester me for money, tried asking me where I was from, and eventually I had to stop dead in my tracks because I knew that if I followed them around the corner there would be problems. When I stopped, they stopped, looked at me, and started walking towards me. I crossed quickly in front of moving traffic, almost had my knees taken out by a car, and hit the other side of the road running, trying to figure out exactly where I was and where I was running. They weren’t following. They were probably having a good laugh, come to think of it. After a kilometer walkabout, I figured out where I was, walked another two and found a taxi to deposit me at my doorstep.

Boca won the return leg in Santos 3-1, with goals by Tevez, Delgado and Schiavi. They would go on to beat European champion A.C. Milan in the World Club Championship in Tokyo on penalties. The party at the obelisk following the victory in Brazil was eventually broken up by riot police after fans began to vandalize store fronts, stoplights, and roadways. Even though their fiercest rival, River Plate, won the Argentine league (apertura) last year, Boca could rightfully claim to be World Champions, which to their fans is a huge consolation in the face of continued economic, political, and social miseries.

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