Sunday, March 15

Argentine Soccer, Take 1

I ame behind in the analysis of which team I shall call my own here in the Torneo Clasura. That process will begin in this space shortly or longly. But in the meantime, I was finally able to check out a local match, something I wish I had done my first week in town.

Obtaining tickets to a fútbol game here in Buenos Aires is no easy task. I had the good fortune of friends who were able to help, but it meant traipsing across town on the hottest day of the year. The salt stains left on my red shirt were evidence of the effort, but more importantly the tickets in hand, three different versions for each seat, heightened the anticipation level. I was strongly cautioned about personal safety, partly because this was a rivalry game, and because it was in a lousy neighborhood, but mostly because it was an Argentine fútbol match. I left my cell phone, watch, and even wallet at home and wore a non-descript, black t-shirt. Taking the 128 to the game, there were a few guys Independiente jerseys. They hollered insults to any Racing fans we passed on the street, but generally behaved themselves. There was no commandeering of the bus or anything. Upon arrival, it was clear that I had been overly cautioned. There were thousands of police officers, and we were patted down three times before we got to the actual stadium.
Club Atletico Independiente vs Racing Club

Joining me was one of my old Michigan roommates. Chris and I had done this walk together many times before, though the last was a sloppy loss against Illinois on a miserably rainy day in 1999. This was reminiscent of the lead-up to every game I attended last season. Even though their season had so far lacked promise, the Red Devils were in high spirits. This was their Iron Bowl, their version of The Game. The hop in their step was only interrupted for pee breaks. The fans were roughly 95% men, one clear advantage college football affords. The police steered fans of each team down different streets, so there could be no risk of an altercation.

The Independiente stadium is currently under construction, so their home games are being held at the venue belonging to Huracán. To call it dilapidated would be a compliment. Harvard Stadium felt newer. Each seat was made of cement, complete with a contoured back – fixed right in as part of the structure. There are two sections available in each stadium, platea and popular. Popular is where all the most insane fans sit (really, stand and jump) and is cheaper. Again for the sake of safety, we sat in platea. But the fan in me was longing to join the hooligans. Because soccer can be rather mundane if you are not pulling one way or the other, Chris and I opted for the “home” team.

Argentines loves to brag about their fútbol. Truth be told, they love to brag about their everything, but one point of particular pride is that they have the craziest fans in the world. At an individual level, these people can go toe to toe with any college football fan. I have no idea how many were in either end, but they generated a ton of volume. Chris noted that Michigan doesn’t come close, and that’s about right. But didn't remotely match the volume I heard at Clemson or LSU. Still, when you consider there were probably only 20,000 fans for Independiente and 10,000 for Racing, they really brought it. Individual signs for each neighborhood could be found all over the populares. Generally a simple Olivos, or any other area, in the team’s colors. Right before kickoff, each of the populares unfurled a gigantic banner that covered their entire end of the stadium. They were like Paul Bunyan’s bedsheets. Tiny hands reaching up and poking the banners made them appear to come to life, moving like a ship lost at sea. As the players ran out to take the field, fans from both ends hurled enough toilet paper to drape Toomer’s Corner ten times over into the air and onto the field. It was amazing. If that kind of thing doesn’t get you excited to watch a game, you’re not human.

Both of these teams are having lousy seasons, but the loser would really have nothing left and likely be needing a new coach. Right from the start, it appeared we had made the right choice. The Independiente players just had more fire (and likely more talent). Ten minutes in, they notched a great goal on a header off a free kick, and the place went berserk. A fan to our right who appeared like he’d be more at home in popular immediately jumped up, turned to the Racing end, and aggressively grabbed his genitals while hollering in their direction.

The Racing fans, for their part, were really impressive. Though in smaller numbers, they made as much noise as their counterparts, but all of their cheers and songs were really in unison. I think they must meet and practice during the week. At halftime, they donned yellow construction helmets as a way to razz Independiente for their still-not-completed stadium. And when I say “they”, I mean thousands of them. And they all waited for halftime to do it. The thing is, their team is generally terrible, and even when Independiente scored goals, they hardly groaned. I can’t think of a college football equivalent – where a team is such a cheerful glutton for punishment. Washington probably came the closest. Notre Dame at least has all that history. This would be like if Vanderbilt had the most passionate fans in the country.
If only the team was ready to go to work

Independiente controlled most of the action, with Racing rarely creating a promising opportunity. The best player on the field was easily the Red Devils’ Rolfi Montenegro. It struck me how amazing it is to watch someone in any sport that is so talented that you feel like they don’t even belong on the same field as the rest of them. During my trip, the only ones that come to mind are Jake Locker, Justin Beaver, and, gulp, Vernon Gholston. (Tebow didn’t have his best outing in the Cocktail Party). A touchy foul in the penalty box gave Rolfi a penalty kick for a score after which he took off his shoe and sprinted around the field, displaying it above his head for everyone.
Rolfi looks a lot younger from far away

Throughout the match, fans cheered for every minute event. Again, if you take soccer too passively, it loses a lot. Whenever anyone made a mistake, the crowd whistled and shouted “Boludo!” Boludo is a local term meaning something in between asshole and moron often heard when driving or joking around with friends. A player from either team could accidentally kick the ball out of bounds, and the reaction would be the same “Boludo” --> You f*ed up! Ha-ha. or “Boludo” --> You f*ed up! You asshole! When #11, a striker for Independiente had the ball, the package man to our right consistently yelled, “Dale Negro!” (pronounced “dah-ley, neh-gro”), which basically means, “Come on, black guy!” This was probably yelled at least 30 times by crotch guy alone. Take that to mean what you will, but adding to the oddity of is the fact that the guy’s last name is Moreno, which pretty much means “dark guy”. Had he simply said, "Dale Moreno!", I would have thought the same thing anyway.

With about five minutes left in the game (it’s impossible to know exactly because there was no clock in the stadium), we decided to make an early exit. Chris had arrived on the red eye the night before and we had a heavy does of Argentine nightlife planned. They make the home team’s fans wait a half-hour to leave because, again, they don’t want any altercations. But by all accounts, it was a peaceful finish, with the Red Devils reveling in their triumph, and Racing firing their coach before we made it home. After my first game here, I’m most struck by the enthusiasm. In some ways, there’s no question that it tops anything I’ve seen in a college football stadium, and I’ve been to an LSU home opener. I can’t wait for round two.

This video is in Spanish, but is very worth watching. Note especially the paper from 22-32 seconds.

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