This travel piece was written about two and a half years ago – having come back to Buenos Aires with fresh eyes I would probably make a few changes, but this gives a good idea of my perception of the city back then, and honestly, soccer here hasn’t changed all that much. If anything, it’s gotten even madder than before (see here and here). Unfortunately no soccer matches have made it onto this trip’s itinerary, but I still occasionally see a busload of crazed fans zipping through traffic, and am treated each Sunday afternoon to the joyful/anguished screams of my neighbors watching a game.
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I. Fútbol is War
I’m living now on the corner of calles Defensa and Finochietto, about two blocks north of La Boca, a rowdy neighborhood the guidebooks warn gringos to stay away from. At the turn of the century this is where immigrants from the squalid tenements of industrial Italian cities and the overcrowded ghettos of Eastern Europe came in droves; too poor to afford the American Dream, they opted for the Argentine one instead. This is where my mother’s Neapolitan family could have ended up if not for a last minute, dockside change of mind all those years ago. These immigrants’ children never upgraded to nice houses in the suburbs like mine did, however; the Argentine Dream proved a little more elusive, if not illusory, and their descendents still inhabit the brightly colored apartments of corrugated iron just walking distance from the port where they disembarked.
Boca Juniors are playing today, the self-proclaimed Working Class Heroes of Argentine soccer, and possibly the most important team in Latin America. Blue and yellow flags fly from every available balcony, themselves a symbol of Argentina’s former promise: the club’s founders, kicking a ball around on the docks back in 1906, saw the flags flying from the Swedish freighter Drottning Sophia, loaded with hopeful immigrants, and appropriated the colors as their own. To this day, fans ecstatically wave Swedish flags at all of Boca’s games.
Walking back to my apartment from the weekly street fair in San Telmo, I see the team’s fans out in full force. Most wear jerseys, some are shirtless, displaying the Boca insignias they’ve had tattooed over their hearts. All are clearly excited. They saunter down the broken streets arm in arm, chanting incomprehensible songs and shouting vulgarities about the other team member’s mothers. These aren’t soccer fans, I think, they’re foot soldiers, a revolutionary vanguard, headed for the barricades. I see three buses painted blue and yellow on the overpass ahead of me, filled with screaming fans – olive skinned, beer-bellied hooligans, careening off wildly like some inebriated Roman legion. As the buses pass overhead, they let forth a volley of firecrackers, aimed no doubt at the numerous tourists lining the barrio’s cobbled streets. This elicits screams of pleasure from the locals and tears from a few unsuspecting toddlers. Could such adrenaline-fueled displays of vulgarity and mischief really be taking place in the Paris of the South?
Indeed, they are. Beneath the city’s veneer of old world charm and European refinement, there lies the ever-present prospect of soccer-induced madness. From the roof of my apartment I am constantly reminded of this reality: out over the treetops of the Parque Lezama, directly across the street from my new home, I can see the ubiquitous golden arches of the Boca McDonalds. Two weeks earlier, as he was leaving that McDonalds, a man was gunned down for the crime of wearing a rival team’s colors. The incident barely made the news – these things just happen in La Boca, where fútbol is taken very, very seriously.
II. Fútbol is Religion
Two weeks later I’m shuffling past riot police at the entrance of la Bombonera, or “the Chocolate Box,” Boca Juniors’ home stadium. They’re playing a friendly, or amistoso, against San Martín de Tucumán, a no-name team from Argentina’s desert, indigenous north.
“Un club muuy chiquitito,” said Santiago, the porteño of Galician descent who sold me the tickets. “We’ll crush them easily.”
You’d never guess the games’ relative unimportance from the crowd, though: their passion and palpable excitement would put the most diehard Super Bowl fans to shame.
As we’re herded up the stairs and into our section of the stadium (already shaking, by the way, from the collective jumping up and down of thousands of fans), I stop and notice something a bit out of the ordinary. Did I just see that correctly? Did that guy really just kneel down and…and cross himself? As if he were entering a church?
He did, and he’s not the only one. Dozens of fans, upon entering the stadium, solemnly make the sign of the cross and kiss their Boca scarves, like a priest kisses his stole before mass. I don’t know whether to laugh or do the same.
III. Fútbol is Love
We’re seated on the concrete steps behind San Martín de Tucumán’s goal, surrounded by Argentine families and other curious tourists like ourselves. This is clearly the tamer part of the stadium, and I can understand why Santiago was so adamant that my friends and I sit here, safely behind high barbed wire fences. Directly across from us on the other side of the stadium, taking up nearly a quarter of la Bombonera, is la Doce, or “The Twelfth Player,” Boca Juniors’ private army of fanatic, drugged-up hooligans. They’ve brought their own brass band and drum line, which have not stopped playing since they entered the stadium like a conquering army. With each goal, they let out an earthshaking, uncoordinated blast of music, accompanied by the frantic waving of Swedish flags and blue and yellow umbrellas.
The Argentines around me, wishing to be a part of the action, happily join in with each hurled insult and memorized chant. A young boy at my side leans out eagerly over the railing and screams condescendingly at San Martín’s goalie: La concha! La concha! La concha de tu madre! The boy’s mother is right there beside him, fist in the air and letting forth the same stream of vulgarities. I can only imagine what it must be like over in la Doce’s section, where even the police, watching warily from the sidelines, are reluctant to enter.
But for all the violence, the obscenities and insanity, there is a stronger undercurrent that I’m just becoming aware of, and that is la pasión boquense – the intense love these people feel for their team. Residents of La Boca are some of the poorer members of Buenos Aires society. The only upper hand they’ve got in this soccer-mad country? Their team is better than everyone else’s. And for that reason I can understand why this stadium is at once their church, their public forum and even, for some, their final resting place (the spreading of cremated remains within the stadium became such a problem that the club’s managers eventually decided to create a Boca-themed cemetery, 18 miles south of the city).
The second half is coming to a close, and Boca is ahead by two points. San Martín de Tucumán’s fans have given up and, out of spite, begun urinating over the railing and onto our section. This is an inexcusable offense in such a hallowed establishment of soccer greatness, and can’t go unpunished. As if to remind these upstart campesinos just whose turf they’re on, striker Martín Palermo sends one last ball flying into Tucumán’s goal, and the fans surrounding me practically burst into tears of joy. La Doce begins setting off fireworks from the other side of the stadium, and everyone joins in one last song. No vulgarities, this time – no insults or references to anyone’s mother. I strain to hear over the noise of the drums and the fireworks, and pick out the lyrics line by line: Boca, Boca of my life / You are the happiness of my heart / You know all that I feel / Because I carry you here inside my heart.
We can still hear them singing, more than an hour after the game has ended, as we shuffle out of the stadium and down the street, towards home.