"Maybe next time!!!"

Trip Start Oct 09, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Monday, October 20, 2008

As luck would have it, my first day in Buenos Aires coincided with the one of the world's most famous annual club football matches - the Superclįsico - between Argentina's two biggest teams: River Plate and the Boca Juniors. It is known as one of football's fiercest and most important rivalries - imagine Carolina/Duke combined with Red Sox/Yankees plus a Rage Against The Machine concert. River have the more storied history but have been struggling recently; Boca are the current defending champions. Attending this game recently topped The Observer's list of "50 Sporting Things You Must Do Before You Die".

This year it was River's turn to host the Superclįsico at their home field: El Monumental, in the neighborhood of Nunez. With a capacity of 65,645, the stadium is also used in matches for the Argentinian national team. I shared a cab there with a couple from Connecticut. Ross and Shana were in Buenos Aires partly for fun, partly because Ross is a white-collar defense attorney and has a big client here. Hmm. Judging by our conversation, I think it's safe to say they were terrified of what we were about to experience.

The streets around the stadium were packed with fans wearing red and white River jerseys. There was already a whole lot of chanting and a whole lot of riot police. The game was scheduled to start at 4:20pm; there had supposedly been talks between team officials to move the game up a few hours for security reasons. Before the game (on the same field), River's and Boca's farm league teams played a game against each other. The stadium was nearly packed for even this minor league game, partly because a win would be a small point of pride for either side of the rivalry, partly because there are no assigned seats in the stadium (your ticket tells you which section to go to, but not to a particular seat), so if you don't show up early enough you'll be stuck standing in an aisle.

I walked through several security stops and into the stadium nearly two hours before the main event. The place was already a riot of color, noise and energy. I found a seat in my section (really good location, actually) and for the first twenty minutes all I could really do was look around wide-eyed and grin. All but three upper-level sections were full of River's red and white: jerseys and banners and flags and umbrellas. One section (at the opposite end from where I was sitting) was reserved for the Boca fans (all wearing blue and gold). It was surrounded by thick fences at the front and on the sides. The two sections next to them were empty... except for maybe sixty riot police. I was told that Boca fans were upset that only 2,500 tickets had been designated for them this year.

Apparently the seats underneath the opposing fans' section are the least desirable. That's where Ross and Shana's tickets had them sitting. They told me in the cab they'd heard that Boca fans were famous for throwing lit fireworks into the home crowd below. I was told by others that it was not uncommon to be spit on or even urinated upon if you had those seats. Good luck, guys.

As kickoff approached, the crowd worked itself into more and more of a frenzy. They sang elaborate chants (more on that in the next paragraph), pumped their fists, jumped up and down in unison, and shot guns loaded with firecrackers into the air. As expected, the crowd was largely male, but there were plenty of families with young children, many decked out in face paint. Considering the language used in some of the chants, it's pretty remarkable to see a whole family sing such things in unison.

Game time. The home team takes the field and the place goes absolutely apeshit. See video. Now's a good time to mention the lyrics to some of the chants. Picture 55,000+ people at an American sporting event singing melodically: "Boca, you sons of bitches, you wash your ass with acid!" Or my favorite: "You are cowards! You are cowards! Hey Bosteros [reader's note: Boca supporters], you are all weeds! You're friends of the police!"

Friends of the police! The worst possible insult around here. By this point I had memorized some of the chants and was happily singing along. I have a feeling that with further consideration I might turn into a Boca fan ("the team of the people"), but for today I cheered with all my heart for a River win.

Which leads me to today's only letdown: River played poorly and lost. The game was scoreless at the half. Early in the second half a Boca player received a red card. River fans celebrated their luck a bit too soon. Boca soon scored an unlikely underhanded goal and promptly sucked a chunk of the energy out of the place. The River fans' enthusiasm continued at a high level but with every missed scoring opportunity (and there were many) the vibe shifted from frustration to desperation to anger. The small Boca section, for their part, sang and chanted without stopping once for the next thirty-five minutes straight; reveling in their lead.

When the game finally ended, the River fans stood in solemn disbelief. Meanwhile, the Boca fans were going bananas. And here's a hilarious twist: all of the home team's fans are locked in to the stadium until the opposing fans have left their section and boarded their buses and left the neighborhood. Knowing this, the Boca fans sang and danced and pumped their fists and waved their banners for a good 20-25 minutes before the police could get them all out. The River fans had to sit there - trapped - and watch them all celebrate, pouring salt into fresh wounds. Through the walkways across the stadium, you could see the very last Boca fans still waving their arms and jumping up and down until they disappeared from view. They took all their banners home with them except for one, that read: "Otra Vez Sera!!!" [essentially: Maybe next time!] It was another 15 minutes before the police finally let us out of the stadium (I imagined the Boca fans boarding their buses as slowly as humanly possible).

I read somewhere that there have been several deaths in recent years at this game, but to me there seemed little danger that the rowdy crowd would turn violent. There was an enormous police presence, they don't serve alcohol at the stadium, and of course they locked us in for 45 minutes after the game was over.

What an afternoon. Though I will likely have the chance to attend one or two more football matches in the next few weeks in Argentina or Brazil, I can't help but imagine the pandemonium I would have witnessed had the home team won the Superclįsico.

Maybe next time...

Note: here's a website full of YouTube links to River chants: 
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