Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Fútbol fanatics

It is said that Buenos Aires is home to more sports stadiums than any other city in the world.

To my surprise, I came across an academic study that not only confirms this statement but also presents some impressive figures: "If we only count stadiums within the Federal District of Buenos Aires there are 18, but if we expand the range into the province of Buenos Aires just ten kilometres the number quickly increases to 35. Six of these stadiums (Boca Juniors, River Plate, San Lorenzo, Velez Sarsfield, Racing Club, and Independiente) have capacities of more than 50,000...."

The author of this study also asserts “that one cannot fully understand the culture of Buenos Aires and Argentina without having at least some understanding of what happens in the stadiums.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a fairly devoted fan of North America’s major sports. Unfortunately, the concept of professional soccer in Canada is an oxymoron. Being an Argentine by birth has carried with it the obligation of being a life long soccer aficionado.

As the most widely played and watched sport in the world, soccer reaches a level of fanaticism that is absent in North American sports. One only needs to attend a soccer game to understand that fútbol means much more to Argentina than hockey does to Canada, and much more than Baseball and Football do to the US. Probably only Brazil has a similar, if not greater, obsession.

I come from a relatively non-religious family - unless you consider fútbol to be God. In line with two generations of Filmus males, I was baptised a Club Atlético de San Lorenzo de Almagro fan before conception.

My family, like most fútbol fans, can be considered moderate followers (I’ll address the fundamentalists in a bit). My father has recounted stories of going to the stadium with an umbrella to avoid being urinated on when walking below the stands. Recently, my great uncle’s ashes were buried behind the net on the field belonging to his beloved Argentinos Juniors fútbol club. These and other stories are all too common in the world of fútbol loyalty.

Since arriving in Buenos Aires, I’ve attended almost every San Lorenzo home game in what has been one of their worst seasons in history. Last weekend I witnessed a shocking San Lorenzo victory over River Plate that ended a 15-game winless streak.

While I enjoyed the euphoria that came with beating one of the best, and thus most hated, teams, I will admit that I didn’t mind going to the stadium to watch my team lose. The creativity, passion, and vulgarity expressed in the heckling and hissing was an event in and of itself. During the 15-game winless streak, I watched passionate San Lorenzo fans get progressively angrier and louder, bringing them to the brink of violence.

San Lorenzo’s once popular coach was forced to resign after the 14th winless game. It is said he would have resigned earlier had he not been paying off the barra bravas (hooligans) to support him. During this alleged agreement which lasted a few games, most of the stadium's heckling was directed at the players themselves, the opposing team, the referee, and at times, the team’s president. However, the coach’s decision to finally leave demonstrates that money can buy you very little impunity when you are losing in the crazed world of Argentine fútbol.

In the days leading up to this last game, it was rumoured that if the team extended their streak to a 16th game, violence would be deployed to get the attention of executive board. Out of precaution, I sat with my uncle and grandfather in the upper deck seats – far removed from the box office seats belonging to the team’s directors. Luckily, San Lorenzo pulled off an incredible upset and violence was averted.

When a team is performing poorly or is playing against a hated adversary, the prospect of violence is greatly elevated. The barra bravas (hooligans) are often led by fanatics who are essentially mob bosses that are involved in the many lucrative branches of organized crime. Extortion is often used against one’s own players and coaches in order to extract bribes in exchange for ‘protection’. These hooligans widely consider violence to be an appropriate way to demonstrate support for one’s team. They often see games as battlefields, and target the opposing team’s fans as if there was an irreconcilable personal hatred between them.

This fanatical “us-versus-them” mentality is most blatantly expressed in the Boca Juniors and River Plate rivalry. Probably more than half of the country’s fútbol fans pledge allegiance to either of these teams who have dominated the league for about a century.

From a sociological perspective, these adversaries represent much more than just fútbol hostility inside a stadium. These opponents also symbolize the important divide between the haves and have-nots in Argentine society.

Boca Juniors, located in the working class south of Buenos Aires, has typically been known as the ‘team of the people’. River Plate, located in the wealthy north of the city, has been nicknamed los millonarios, and is generally supported by upper class porteños. Although the class line is not firmly drawn among the fan base, the hatred is.

A Boca-River game, known as a
superclásico, places the country at a standstill as the stadium literally trembles. Some label it the greatest rivalry in sports – in an elite category of derbies with Madrid/Barcelona (Spanish soccer), Inter Milan/AC Milan (Italian soccer), Yankees/Red Sox (Baseball), Maple Leafs/Canadiens (Hockey) Michigan/Ohio State (US College Football), etc. Undoubtedly, Argentines will refute these comparisons and label this confrontation as the most important sporting event in the universe (outside of Argentina playing in the World Cup, of course)

Two weekends from now is the date of the next superclásico. If I can manage to land a ticket I will have the opportunity to get severe goose bumps from what will undoubtedly be a passionate and profanity laced event - and hopefully a peaceful one as well.


Blogger Juanson said...

I hear you benefited tremendously from the San Lorenzo win. It must have been really draining for you.

8:51 PM  
Blogger eduardo said...

I went to a Boca Juniors match and it was one of the most incredible atmoshperes that I have ever experienced (and that was just a regular match against Lanus).

A family friend who is a Boca socio has a card that allows him to attend any match he wants. He hadn't attended in person for three years because of fan behavior and out of precaution.

I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog. I did a similar "roots" thing from 2000-2003 to your neighbor to the north, Bolivia.



9:31 PM  
Blogger Diego said...

Christian and JPV:

The San Lorenzo victory was definitely an uplifting experience after such a long drought (no "eufomism" intended).


I just checked out your site and liked what I saw. I'll definitely be reading your posts to see how the situation in Bolivia transpires.



12:11 AM  
Blogger Roberto Iza Valdes said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Alsina said...

If Boca are for the have-nots and River for the haves, who are the other clubs for? I would have thought that San Lorenzo are also for the have-nots, as Bajo Flores (in which San Lorenzo's stadium is located) is a poor barrio, as far as I can gather.

9:58 AM  
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3:17 AM  
Blogger Roberto said...

I agree with you dude, but there is now way any north american sports can compre to a clascio. The only way in north america they even get people in to the stands in major cities is by having a capatlist spectacle. No one thinks baseball is anything more than an excuse to drink and I say this being born in the US. It is good though that US futbol is improving and they are now sponsering friendilies between Mexican teams. As a native son of "New Mexico" I often wish we were not captured by the US because it made us miss out on so much futbol through the years. It is coming back though and in a way the western states were allways Mexico in the first place fuck centalized government.Getting ready now to watch Argentina V. Mexico in the Copa America. I personally have no favorites but it will be a great match. Cheers and beers y'all.

7:20 PM  
Blogger Iza Firewall said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:47 PM  
Blogger robbie3600 said...

My girlfriend and I are traveling to Buenos Aires next week. The day after we get there Boca is playing River. I haven't found any great options online for purchasing tickets. Can you give any tips for purchasing tickets? Do you know what a reasonable price would be? Are we crazy for wanting to go to this game as tourists? i.e. Will it be too dangerous? Any information you could give about purchasing tickets and attending the game would be greatly appreciated.

2:51 AM  

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