It is towards the end of my first experience of Argentine football that I realise people live the game differently here. Huracán, the team I have come to support, are drawing 0-0 against their bitter rivals San Lorenzo in the first round of the Copa Superliga. The home side have just won a penalty in the dying minutes, sending the stadium into delirium. Lucas Barrios steps up to take it and… misses.
The mood in the Estadio Tomás Adolfo Ducó switches in an instant as the referee blows his whistle, signalling the match will go to penalties. My friend has his head in his hands and looks as if he is about to cry. He looks upwards at the sky and grabs his shirt. “Por Dios, ¿porqué?” he shouts. For the love of God, why? Then he unleashes a string of swear words.
But things are about to get worse for Huracán. Barrios (who else?) balloons his effort off the crossbar and into the crowd, and then San Lorenzo’s goalkeeper saves one. Huracán keeper Fernando Pellegrino replies with a stop of his own, but Andrés Rentería keeps his nerve for the deciding penalty. He and his teammates run to the corner to celebrate, and the whistle blows to a backdrop of total silence.
Even with the ban on away fans in Argentina, it was strange to see a stadium which had been bouncing moments earlier stunned into silence like that. It was just one of the ways Argentine football surprised me during the five months I spent in Buenos Aires.
There was the time a group of Argentinos Juniors fans gathered in front of Boca Juniors players to hurl abuse at them as they warmed up before a ball had even been kicked, when one man landed a ball of spit on Darío Benedetto’s head. Or the time Independiente supporters streamed forward and threw missiles at the referee as he consulted the VAR monitor by the side of the pitch. Football here is a game of extremes.
Then there was the deafening sound of the Bombonera at kick-off, with 49,000 people stuffed inside the blue-and-yellow cauldron singing at the top of their voices in unison. Visiting Boca’s famous stadium is a pilgrimage for any football fan, and I doubt I will ever experience an atmosphere like it again. It is hard to believe any side could lose with that kind of support behind them.
With over 20 professional teams in the city and its suburbs, Buenos Aires can legitimately claim to be the football capital of the world. Going to any match is a unique experience; the chants are constant, the lyrics almost as colourful as the sea of shirts on display in the stands. The old-school stadia are historical relics themselves, and it is not uncommon to feel the ground shake beneath you when a goal is scored.
Every stadium has its own story, its own piece of Argentina’s footballing past. Take Huracán’s Tomás Ducó with its art-deco tower, fondly known as El Palacio, which my friends were only too happy to explain was the first Argentine stadium to feature in an Oscar-winning movie, El secreto de sus ojos . Or Argentinos’ ground, where a 15-year old Diego Maradona once juggled a ball for the delight of thousands of spectators at half-time of every match. These days, the stadium is named after El Diego and players make their way onto a pitch through an inflatable tunnel in his likeness. This is Argentina, after all.
Of course, Argentine football has its problems. Almost all the games I saw were cagey affairs where teams seemed more interested in keeping a clean sheet than scoring. There was little in the way of stylish play, and players seemed to lack fitness. That is only natural in a league where the most promising players make their way to Europe early in their careers, leaving behind a strange mix of journeymen and youngsters who are not quite good enough.
The more serious issue is fan violence, which led to the Argentine FA banning all away fans at matches after the death of a supporter in 2013. The radical groups of fans known as the barra bravas still exercise a huge amount of power at the top clubs, and are often the ones tasked with maintaining atmosphere in the stadia. In return, they decide who benefits from the club’s success.
The farce of the Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate last year showcased these problems on a global scale, but in truth it could have been far worse. It was a group of River barras who allegedly attacked Boca’s team bus as it made its way to the Monumental stadium for the second leg of the final in November, with Boca players hit by tear gas entering through the bus’s broken windows. There were ugly scenes outside the ground as supporters clashed with security forces, and questions asked of policing after the bus was redirected down the same street where River fans usually assemble. The match was called off and moved to Madrid due to security concerns, the irony of the trophy named after South America’s Liberators being awarded in the Spanish capital seemingly lost on Conmebol.
The difficulty lies in the way football and politics are so closely intertwined in Argentina. Current President Mauricio Macri was the president of Boca for over a decade, Independiente president Hugo Moyano is one of the country’s most powerful trade unionists, while San Lorenzo vice-president Marcelo Tinelli is a TV magnate said to have political aspirations. Football is often a platform to government, and barras are invaluable to politicians.
A lobby group called Salvemos al Fútbol – Let’s Save Football– keeps an up-to-date list of all football-related deaths in Argentina. There are 332 names on the list dating back to 1922, the latest fatality a 21-year old River fan called Exequiel Neris who was stabbed to death on 9 December 2018 by a group of Boca fans after celebrating his side’s triumph in that Superclásico final. This month the two giants of Argentine football meet again in the semi-finals of the same competition.
It is right, then, to ask whether all this passion is worth it. I never witnessed any football-related violence, but it was easy to see how the vitriol in the stands could translate into physical aggression. Can you have the sound and colour of Argentine football without the violence it causes?
That is a question for someone who has spent more time studying Argentina, but it would be wrong to tar all fans with the same brush. The vast majority of Argentine fans are ordinary people who let their emotions out on a Saturday afternoon. The supporters I spoke to were overwhelmingly welcoming and always wanted to hear more about English football culture. They are hugely passionate, but that is what makes Argentine football so special.
There are also plenty of ways football is still a force for good. The rise of the women’s game, for instance, is intrinsically linked to the burgeoning #NiUnaMenos feminist movement. In March Boca took apart Lanús in the first women’s match to be held at the Bombonera, a landmark moment for the game in Argentina. Then in the summer the women’s national team recorded their first ever World Cup point in France against 2015 finalists Japan and came close to making the last 16. For a team who had been systematically neglected by their own federation for years and had not played at all between 2015 and 2017, it was a huge achievement.
But the most remarkable story I heard during my time in Buenos Aires was that of Fulham fan Henry May, who fell in love with Huracán when he was living there in 2008. On his return to the UK, he founded a Sunday league team called Huracán FC London who made national headlines when they started gaining fans from the ‘real’ Huracán on Facebook. The club invited May and his friends to the Tomás Ducó for a game against their reserves, and fans treated them like celebrities. May has since set up The Huracán Foundation which funds projects that use football to improve education, and even now you will find Huracán London shirts dotted around the stadium on matchdays.
That is why, for all its flaws, I will miss the Argentine game. This is a country which loves its football, where there is a passion for the sport which does not exist elsewhere. As my favourite football shirt seller Lito put it, “Everyone is fanatical here”. And that is something which is hard to get out of your system.
Photographs: Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero