Seeing a country from its football stands

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How do you like to recover from your hangovers? The answer probably isn’t to go to Sunderland on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon to watch them trounce your team 3 goals to 1. By the time this thought had crossed my mind, I was already way up in the nosebleeds of the Stadium of Light, 80 minutes had gone, and Norwich had just given away a penalty after some horrendous play at the back.  

 Already 2-1 down, disconsolate Norwich fans began to head for the exit, though of the ones to stay, one made the seemingly harmless decision to record the penalty on their phone. Perhaps the goalie would pull off a miraculous save, spark a counter-attack and create the goal that would draw Norwich level. This unfortunately was not what happened. The penalty was rifled in, and one Norwich fan, near apoplectic with rage, approached his fellow Norwich fan recording and angrily proposed to meet in the car park afterwards.  

This unfettered passion for football is not something unique to England. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to matches outside of Sunderland, including in Jordan and Argentina. In the latter, the passion knows no bounds. Some of my friends were there when Gonzalo Montiel tucked away the winning penalty to give Argentina its first World Cup victory in almost 40 years.   

This unfettered passion for football is not something unique to England

Estimates vary, though anywhere between 2 and 5 million people were said to have been out in the streets of Buenos Aires celebrating. That’s as much as the entire population of Scotland (or Wales if you go for a more conservative estimate). By the time I arrived in March, 3 months later, it was still all anyone could talk about. The passion for the game is remarkable, though, in Argentina, passion can turn into violence in an instant.  

2023 marks a decade since the banning of away fans at Argentina league games. Between 2000 and 2013, 70 football fans were killed. The breaking point came when Lanús supporter Javier Gerez was shot by a police-fired rubber bullet. He’d been caught up in a pre-match melee with the opposing team’s fans, which had quickly dissolved into chaos. To try and restore some order, the police began shooting at the fans. Gerez died before making it to the hospital.   

The consequences of the ban have done little to stem the flow of match-related deaths.  

According to Salvemos al Futbol, a website dedicated to raising awareness around violence in football, almost 80 football fans have died since the new regulations came into force. The ban does, however, create a totally unique experience. Whilst there I was able to go watch one of Argentina’s biggest teams Boca Juniors play at their home ground, the Bombonera. Built in the 1940s, and largely untouched since, you can feel the stadium rock beneath your feet all game long. This may have something to do with it being 80 years old, yet the more likely explanation is that the 40,000 fans there watching spend almost every moment in motion.   

The ban does, however, create a totally unique experience

As well as this, they all support the same team, and so each decision made by the referee is either met with rapturous applause, or whistles, cries of outrage and a selection of mother-related insults. The 40,000 make themselves heard the entire game, the only moment of respite being when the other team, Lanús, scored the first goal. For a good couple of seconds, not a single sound could be heard. Complete silence, broken mere moments later by roars louder than before, as the fans remembered their roles.   

The noise reached its peak in the final minute of extra time when a dubious penalty was awarded to Boca. Like at Sunderland, the penalty was slotted in, though unlike at Sunderland, when he did, the stadium nearly exploded.   

It’s an experience unlike any other, and something I wholly recommend doing if you ever find yourself in that corner of the world. If however, you’re stuck in Durham, a weekend game at the Stadium of Light is no bad alternative.  

Images by: Henry Robinson, Professor roger Penn, Thomas M. M. Hemy and Javid Nikpour via Wikimedia Commons

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