Guest columnist Cameron here.
Along with wine and tango, Argentina is synonimous with passionate futbol (or soccer) fans. Many places in Europe and the rest of the world have crazed fans, but very few places in the world have both stark-raving mad fans and extremely talented players. Simply put Argentina has both. Having won the World Cup two of the last nine times, Argentina is always a favorite to win any international competition.
Throughout this trip, we’ve been to games in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. While the fans have been entertaining to say the least, the quality of play on the field has been marginal at best. I hate to say it, but Peru and Bolivia aren’t going to be challenging the likes of Brazil or Spain to win the World Cup any time soon. Let’s be honest, it’s just not going to happen.
Since we landed in South America last summer, one of my goals of this trip was to make it to Argentina and see at least one professional futbol match. Needless to say, the minute we crossed the border from Boliva to Argentina, I have been chomping at the bit to get my hands on a ticket and watch a live match. For Corinna, her goal was to get to Mendoza and try as many different kinds of wine as her liver will possibly tolerate. For me, it has been to watch live futbol.
Unfortunately, 16 of the 20 pro teams are located in Buenos Aires. This is great if you live in Buenos Aires, but isn’t the most optimal situation for any fan that lives outside of the capital. Since we weren’t planning to actually make it down to the capital for at least 2 months, I’d just have to sit and wait.
Finally, I got my chance.
I traveled to BA for a weekend with two objectives, one: visiting two of my friends from SF who were in town on vacation and two: finally getting to see world-class futbol in Argentina. After doing some research, I finally decided to go watch a match between Velez and San Lorenzo. I chose this game because the stadium was relatively easy to get to (two subways and a train), the tickets were still for sale and moderately cheap ($10 compared to $100 with an organized tour group), and the stadium was known for having relatively calm fans.
My 9 months of waiting are over and the day has finally arrived. I race to the stadium two hours before kickoff to try to get a good seat. I buy my ticket in the home team section and make sure to wear their colors. Before entering, I noticed that EVERY SINGLE FAN was wearing a jersey or at least some article of clothing that was associated with the home team, Velez. My white t-shirt just wasn’t going to cut it. I get my hands on a Velez jersey to blend in with the rest of the crowd. The last thing you want to do while sitting in the home team supporters section is to come across as cheering for the other team. I wasn’t going to make that mistake.
I enter the stadium and it’s already packed to the gills. People are singing and jumping up and down all in unison. I notice that there are already two teams battling it out on the field. Wait a second? Did I show up late for the game? What is going on? Apparently, the two reserve or substitute teams were playing each other before the match. A huge wave of relief rushed over me. Thank goodness. I climb 30 rows and find a good seat behind the goal next to a group of a middle-aged, mild-mannered women who I hope won’t give me much trouble for not knowing the words to every chart nor having a visible Velez tattoo on my body.
Ten minutes before kickoff, team employees start tossing giant rolls of toilet paper into the crowd. I know that toilet paper is hard to come by in South America, but I thought throwing copious amounts to ravenous futbol fans was a little extreme. As the players came out onto the field, I discovered what the TP was for. The fans threw roll after roll after roll onto the field apparently as a way to welcome the players onto the field. Honestly, it did look pretty impressive. Unfortunately, it took ages to clean up off the field and delayed the game for 30 minutes after fans continued to throw more and more rolls onto the field after staff had already picked up the first onslaught. In theory, the TP was a great idea, in reality, it was a horrible delay and distraction.
The field was cleared, the players were lined up, and the game that I had been waiting for over the last 9 months and 30 minutes finally started, finally. The referee blew his whistle and both home and away fans got to their feet and started singing, dancing, and playing music. It was sheer madness. Both groups of fans were taking turns taunting each other in extremely choreographed and well-organized chants that were shockingly easy to hear from the other side of the stadium.
One minute into the game, the ref blows on his whistle once again and stops play. The visiting team’s goalie (who is on our side of the field) has just been hit with a dozen rolls of toilet paper. He races to the referee with TP in his hand and starts to complain while visibly pointing back to our section that had pelted him with TP. The ref warns the home team coach and captain to control their fans. The TP gets cleaned up and game, the singing and the dancing once again resume.
Seven minutes into the game, the same goalie who had complained to the ref and was the ire of the entire stadium falls to the ground. He’s rolling around back and forth covering his face and appears to be in horrible pain as if he was hit with a giant brick instead of a roll of toilet paper. Immediately after this happens, the visiting fan section on the opposite end of the stadium races down to the chain link fence protecting the field. Some of the fans start to climb the fence, some of the fans start to tear the fence down. All in all, utter chaos has broken loose in the visitor’s section on the opposite side of the field.
The referee quickly stops play and the players are corralled back into the locker room. The riot squad proceeds to get in between the fence and the stadium and appear to be trying to get the fans away from and off the fence with their shields and riot batons. Another riot squad enters the field walking in a straight line carrying a giant tube in their hands. “What is that? It sure looks like a huge hose or something,” I ask myself. Seconds later, I notice the entire visitor’s section being pelted with a high pressure water hose. Let me repeat this. The entire section was being not just showered, but pummeled with a hose that probably could have knocked over a group of rhinos.
The majority of the somewhat sane fans quickly disperse from the fence, while a handful of angry and persistent fans somehow manage to hang on to the fence. Enter another set of riot police equipped with canisters of tear gas. They proceed to chuck the tear gas over the fence to get the fans off the fence. Needless to say, the fans got off the fence. Instead of retreating to the back of the section, a small group of fans race over to the side of the fence that is separating the fans from another section and manage to rip it down in one fell swoop. Fortunately, this section was empty in hopes of keeping the home and visiting fan groups separate. Fans from both groups hurled insults and empty plastic water bottles at one another, but that seemed to be the extent of the violence.
While all of this chaos was taking place on the opposite side of the stadium, my section was calm, cool, and collected. Everyone had their cell phones out and were either snapping pictures or calling their friends to tell them what was going on. Their was absolutely no cause for alarm in my section. Eventually, the police made the entire visiting section leave the stadium. I was under the impression that the game was going to resume once they left. So I waited and waited and waited along with everyone else that was still left standing.
I waited for 45 minutes and then finally the gates opened and we were allowed to leave the stadium? Leave the stadium!?! What? I thought the game was going to start up and they were going to play the remaining 83 minutes. Nope, it was flat out cancelled. Apparently, the home team fans have to wait 45 minutes after the visiting fans have left the stadium. And this is commonplace and happens after every single Argentinean soccer game, riot or no riot. What surprised me (other than the random acts of violence) was how relaxed and non-chalant the Velez fans were. I can’t imagine a single successful scenario at a sporting event in the US where 1.) the game was cancelled after 7 minutes and 2.) the majority of the fans had to stay within the stadium for 45 minutes before they were allowed to leave. Strange.
Time to leave apparently. I finally exit the stadium flanked by riot squads and tanks. Walking down the steps to the train station to get back to downtown Buenos Aires, I notice yet another group of police officers. They quickly notice me in my Velez jersey and tell me that I have to go to one end of the station. Being the nervous person that I am, I immediately think that I’ve done something wrong and they’re going to send me to jail with the rest of the evil-doers. No, they were just trying to keep the fans in separate trains. Velez fans in one set of cars, San Lorenzo fans in another sets of cars, and the car in the middle filled with police officers.
Waiting with the rest of the Velez fans in one end of the train station, I quickly discover that I’m the only one still wearing a Velez jersey. I then remembered that most Velez fans live near the stadium and have no need to commute back to Buenos Aires where most of the San Lorenzo fans live. Crap. I rip my jersey off and try to stuff it as best as I can in one of the pockets of my cargo shorts. I board the train, feeling like a spy straight out of a James Bond film and eventually make it back to my hostel with nothing eventful to report.
Watching the news that night, the soccer game (or lack thereof) was the top story. Once it was all said and done a handful of fans were hospitalized, four police officers were injured and one San Lorenzo fan died. Google Velez, San Lorenzo, soccer, 2011 and you’ll inevitably find the story. The story was so noteworthy that you can even find a few articles in English. Out of the 70 games that had taken place that season, I managed to pick the only one that had been cancelled.
Was it worth the excruciatingly long wait of countless bus, train, and subway rides to witness only seven minutes of action? Most definitely.