With two weeks in Buenos Aires, nowhere did I see the locals more alive than in the Bombonera, the stadium of the Boca Juniors, by some measures the world’s most successful football team. And nowhere have I seen more impassioned and sustained support for 90 minutes than in the game we watched them play against Atletico de Rafaela.
A confession up front. I am not a big club footie fan. My shallow allegiances flit from one team to the next more frequently than young women stop at Berlusconi’s table at a bunga bunga party. So you may come back to me and tell me that all games in the second division are like this, but I had some hardened Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven and West Ham fans with me, and they assured me this was a world apart from any European terraces.
And it was really the terraces that were so alive and different. Boca sits atop the Argentinian league right now, and although Atletico de Rafaela were just promoted to the top flight this year, they are already sitting in second place behind Boca. So the game was between the top two placed teams in the league. Despite this, the standard of the game was not exceptional, probably hampered by the departure of some of the most talented South American football players into Europe enticed by the big bucks.
As we entered the stadium, it was half time, and the chanting was in such volume that I was worried and annoyed that somehow we’d contrived to miss half the game. However, it transpired that this was the warmup match between the two reserve teams, and the quality of play soon reassured me that this was not the real thing.
After the reserves had finished, and as we waited for the first teams to take to the pitch, our stands came alive cheering for a man I assumed was a paradoxically popular politician, or a local actor who had made it big. It turns out it was actually the head of the local hooligan outfit, a man in his early fifties, who had just come out of gaol after serving four years for involvement in some gang-related killings. His tribe had broken down one of the stadium gates and charged in, clearing a pathway for themselves through the packed stands by parting the sea of supporters.
The opposite stands housed supporters of his main rival, who had taken control of the hooligan troops in his absence. So prior to the game starting, there were rival chants between factions of Boca Juniors hooligans, and the guide to our group was looking increasingly nervous. He had ensured we were all positioned in the part of the stand least likely to see trouble, but told us after the event that in six years of guiding groups in football games, he had never felt that there was a greater chance of serious violence than at this one. It turns out that even the British sports press picked up on this, but it passed us gringos by under the immense spectacle of the support.
On that note, a quick thanks to Matias, our guide. He has one of the best and worst jobs for a football fan. One of the best as he gets to go to a lot of the big games, and is paid for it. One of the worst as he’s a big fan of Boca’s major local rival, River Plate, and has to watch Boca in action (and usually winning) repeatedly as a big part of his job. Imagine being a hardened Spurs fan and having to always take tourists to the Emirates Stadium and you’ll get about a tenth of what he has to go through.
Regardless, fantastic knowledge of the game and what goes on around it, took extra care of my son Omar to ensure he was OK through the game, and a nice chap to boot. Let me know if you’re heading towards Buenos Aires, and I will put you in touch with him if you want to see a game.
So as we waited for the game to start, we got handed a couple of newspapers. Or to be precise, torn pages from a couple of newspapers. The form was for us to tear some that we would keep, and pass on the rest to our neighbours. Which we duly did. Everyone was furiously tearing the papers that they had kept into the confetti that would greet the Boca team like a blizzard when they came out. It stayed on the pitch in swirls for most of the game, there was so much of it. The sight of it pouring from all the stands as the team came out was like being inside a furiously shaken glass snow bowl. And the singing by this stage was well under way.
The singing. “Boca Boca …. Cada vez te quiero mas”. For three days after the game, the songs were to stay in my head they were repeated so often and with such devotion throughout the game. And I mean throughout the game. This was no take up of the singing when the action got going, or when the fans got bored or wanted to taunt the opposition. No. This was ALL the way through the game. At volume. With rhythm. Over twenty drummers I counted who either carried on throughout the game or in relay. Latin chants, repetitive, hypnotic, trance-like, actually nearly worth dancing to. Brainwash. Almost ecstasy inducing like whirling dervishes. They put you on a constant adrenalin high for 90 minutes. And that was aside from the more than occasional whiff of marijuana.
Like in many religions, the act of devotion often seemed almost more important than the object of that devotion. Supporting seemed at many times to be more important than the game. In fact, there were a number of supporters who spent far more of the game looking inwards to the crowd and leading them in song than watching the game, even as the goals went in. And they were all at it. Men and women, college kids like the ones right in front of me, and men in their sixties and seventies like the one pogoing as he sang on my right with his thirty something year old daughter. It was so pervasive that I had to take up the chant at one point, not because I was a Boca Juniors fan, but simply because of the physical laws of resonance.
Boca won 3-1. It kept them undefeated this season after 13 games, and at the top of the league. But that seemed almost secondary. Certainly from mine and Omar’s perspectives, I know we will remember the stands for far longer than we will remember the game. And I will certainly remember the wonder of having gone to this game with Omar, and the awe on his face in the stadium. Beautiful.