The following weekend I decided to attend something less dramatic, a game at the stadium of F.C. San Telmo, who play in the equivalent of the Argentine 3rd division. San Telmo's stadium is just south of the federal capital on the other side of the Riachuelo. I had never met anyone who had been there, but had my interest piqued by a brief television expose. I didn’t know that this part of town is frequented by nobody, no how, no way. I suppose I should have asked.
There is no easy way to cross on foot from the City of Buenos Aires into the southern zone of Avallenda which lies in the Province of Buenos Aires. The Riochuelo that defines the border of the two zones reminded me of the rivers I saw when living in Taiwan. Black and syrupy, clogged with industrial, human, and other waste, the stink could choke a goat at fifty meters. After getting off the bus in Boca, I walked around, looking for a discreet place to pull out my map and get out of the howling wind. I bunkered myself in the playground of a school, and discovered that the only option was to cross a four lane bridge. I found the road that led to the bridge and started walking up. An ancient motorcycle with a trailer laden with corrugated tin sheets crept by me. This gave me a bit of confidence. If that thing could make it over, I could certainly do it on foot. Three hundred yards up the incline, I realized there was no sidewalk, no shoulder, and that the motorcycle was in danger of being run off the road by speeding cars and semi-trucks. I turned around.
In this part of town, taxis are rare. The drivers know that there aren’t many people who can afford them so they stay away. I walked around for fifteen minutes and saw no cars, no buses, no taxis, and only a couple of people. Winter winds whipped in from Antarctica picking up a South Atlantic dampness that made my knees hurt. I was thinking about abandoning the quest when an empty taxi pulled up to a stop light. I ran over, jumped in the front seat and put my hands on the vents to warm them up. The taxista had no idea where the Estadio de San Telmo was, but I had it marked on my map and directed him over the bridge.
Once over the bridge, we took our first right. We were now about four hundred yards from the school where I had checked the map, but in a completely different world. We took another right. I looked in vain for street signs. We slowed, and heads began to peer out of barred windows with no glass. We looked again for street signs, more heads looked out of windows. The motorcycle that had passed me on the bridge was unloading corrugated tin on an empty lot: a house under construction. Villa miseria, favela, shanty town, call it what you will. I had been in them before in Nicaragua, Vietnam, Honduras, Mexico. This was as bad as any. I had the sense that it would be as difficult to get out as it was to get in. Buses did not come here. Cars were rarer, and taxis were apparently a reason for sticking your head out a window. The taxista rolled down his window, got directions, and drove three more blocks to the stadium. He wasn’t as anxious as I, but he clearly wasn’t staying either. I paid him, got out, and walked into Estadio Dr. Osvaldo F. Baletto, nickname, the fortress of Isla Maciel, capacity, 9,000, address Las Heras y Vieytes. Isla Maciel. Pcia. de Buenos Aires.
The stadium didn’t look much like a fortress, but I was hoping that it would be true to its name while I was there. The problem with some stadiums in Buenos Aires is that there are too many people, the problem with San Telmo was that there weren’t enough. There was no game. I was alone. There would be no bus and no taxi to get me out.
The gates to the stadium were open and I hurried in. A man in his early twenties was cleaning up and was clearly surprised to see me. He was accompanied by two girls in their mid-teens, whose various chores were interrupted by the presence of a gringo. They immediately hid behind a corner, one behind the other, blushing and giggling.
“Hay un partido?” I asked. Is there a game?
He shook his head. I couldn’t believe it. I had gotten my information from the Argentine Football Association website, and from yesterday’s newspaper. I was sure that there was a game.
“Seguro?” Are you sure?
He nodded his head. “Si. Lo cancelaron.” They cancelled it. I needed time to think about how to escape the neighborhood and get back to the center of Buenos Aires. I asked him if he would mind showing me around, which he kindly agreed to do. Though this lad told me he was twenty-two, he looked much older. His face was heavily creased and his skin did not have the shine of youth. He only had four teeth, one big one in front. He was gaunt and ill clad.
“Como se llama Usted?” I offered.
“Me llamo Joel.” I shook his hand. “Puedo tomar unas photos?”
“Si. Por su puesto.”
I felt guilty as I pulled out my camera, worth a year’s wages to him, and snapped some photos. As we walked around the stadium, he told me some of the history of the club.
F.C. San Telmo was founded in 1904 by immigrants from Uruguay and Brazil, who were the descendants of immigrants from somewhere else. They settled near the port, and as their neighborhood grew, they founded a soccer team which they named after their neighborhood. After moving their stadium and social center half a dozen times in the first half of the century, they finally settled here, on the Isla Maciel, which is not an island, but an odd promontory into the Riochuelo. Despite the smell, San Telmo has won the third division on two occasions. The most famous moment for F.C. San Telmo was losing to Boca Juniors in the Bombonera in 1976. The stadium was in better condition than the neighborhood. The main concrete stands looked solid enough, there was some grass on the field, and the locker rooms were clean. There was a fifteen foot barbed wire fence surrounding the field, and a holding pen for the visiting fans. Near where I had walked in was a large open area for team buses to pull in. I imagined that if they were to be left outside the gates during a game, the away team would find themselves in the same situation I was now in.
As Luque walked me around the ground I asked him about what he did. He worked there every day, repairing the bleachers, tidying the locker room, filling potholes in the field. The real problem for my guide on this day was the players’ tunnel. It was completely flooded and the pump was broken. They wouldn’t be able to play here again until the tunnel was drained. The tunnel wasn’t for the safety of the players, as much as it was for the referees. He explained that the referees had to have police escorts to and from the stadium, as well as to and from the field. The spectators spit and threw things at them when decisions hadn’t gone their way.
I was introduced to the general manager of the team in his small, cluttered office. On the wall was a framed and fading photo of the 1976 San Telmo team that played in the Bombonera. There were yellowed newspaper accounts of Boca’s narrow 3-2 victory. In the main hallway under the stands was a mural that depicted the origins of the team. A line of Africans mixed with immigrants from Spain and Italy dancing Candomble, the rhythmical music of southern Brazil and Uruguay. They don’t play the music at the stadium anymore, but one gets the impression that they used to.
When I asked about famous San Telmo players, I was given a long list of names that I couldn’t recognize. In looking at their roster today, it appears that the team is comprised of players from marginalized neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, the far provinces of Argentina, and Paraguay. The names must be an announcer’s delight: Leguizamon Arce Cesar, Izco Mariano, Briozzo Pedro, Poggi Federico, Castellanos Damian Jorge, Negro Luqui Bernardo. There are a couple of flacos, a chino, and an indio. I chatted with the head groundskeeper and the stadium manager about violence at the stadium. They told me it wasn’t much of a problem, but that the team was losing money because the Argentine Football Association was demanding a minimum police presence at all matches. That’s just like the USA, I said, steal from the poor to give to the rich!
fter my tour I felt much more at ease, but I still had to get out. Luque had twice told me that if I left the stadium walking down the street I would be lucky to leave the barrio with my clothes. Losing my wallet, backpack, camera, and teeth was a foregone conclusion. We walked into the open air of the stadium. I was told to wait as Luque went in search of a car to take me to another stadium where I was told there was a game. As Luque closed and locked the gate behind him, I made small talk with the girls who giggled and blushed when I said I would put them in my luggage and take them back to the USA with me. Luque came walking back in five minutes later, and told me he had managed to find a car that would take me to Dock Sud to go for three pesos.
As Luque escorted me to the car, I could feel dozens of eyes on me. The car belonged in that neighborhood. Prematurely old, held together by wires and tape, with flaking plastic bits that nibbled one’s bum in the seat. We bounced slowly through the streets, avoiding potholes that looked like they were created by mortars. This wasn’t the narrowest of escapes, but had the potential to be much worse. Unfortunately, I had to repeat it within 15 minutes.
After my escape from San Telmo, I was unceremoniously dropped at el Estadio de los Inmigrantes de Club Atletico Dock Sud (Immigrant’s Stadium of the Southern Dock Athletic Club). Scores of people milled about in the streets. Dozens of tough-looking locals dressed in the yellow and black of Dock Sud sat on parked cars, smoking joints and drinking beer. Several dozen police also stood around, smoking cigarettes, looking utterly disinterested. The zone around the stadium resembled a scene from Bladerunner. There was a huge apartment block looming over the field. No one stood on the balconies. On the other side of the stadium were rows of derelict housing units and a vast complex of decaying buildings, rusting machinery, and factories that long ago blew their final whistle. Terrible living conditions on all sides, but not quite as bad nor as temporary as the conditions I had just left in Isla Maciel.
Buying a ticket for the game was out of the question. It wasn’t sold out but I had a strong sense that I would not be a welcome guest. I was afraid to enter the stadium as anything but a member of the media. There were only locals here, and to mix sporting metaphors, looked a sticky wicket I asked for the press officer at the first gate I could find. I followed the ticketeros finger down a badly damaged sidewalk, pounded on a corrugated metal door, and spoke to someone through one of those metal slats I have only seen in movies about speakeasies.
After several anxious moments of milling about in the street, I was shown inside, and spoke with the press officer who graciously gave me a press pass for the match. He pointed me in the direction of ten or so men who were busily writing down the lineups that had recently been posted on the wall. Very timidly, I took out my camera and started filming the scene, if only to consecrate my luck with a photo or two. I was very glad to be amongst the privileged press corps, but couldn’t quite figure out why we were all hanging out next to the locker rooms. After striking up a conversation with Diego, a writer for the sport daily Ole, I realized that we had to cross to the other side of the stadium in some sort of caravan to avoid contact with the notorious Dock Sud fans. Great. More, it was bitingly cold. Misty, with a wind and humidity that cut to the bone.
As the players began to warm up in a three by thirty meter concrete pen, the press gathered at the gate that would open to a passageway that fronted the popular. Diego tapped me on the shoulder and game me a flick of the head. Fifteen of us hustled past the gathering home fans and made our way to the other side of the stadium.
The game was an important one. In Argentina, the top team in the lower divisions is automatically promoted to the next division. The second through ninth place finishers play round robin home and away games to advance. This was the second leg of the second of those series. Dock Sud had been in the third division three years ago but had been relegated to the fourth after one year. If Dock Sud tied the game, they would move on to the finals against Argentina de Merlo. This was their chance to start the long Sisiphan climb back to the second division, the highest they had ever achieved. Gaining promotion means many things to these teams and their fans: more money, more prestige, maybe even some lights for the field, a hope for better things to come in the absence of education, employment, or social services. For the players, it might have meant even more: a signing for a bigger club, a bonus from the team, their name and picture in the newspapers.
The game itself wasn’t pretty. It was played with the same ferocity that I had seen the week before at Boca. Players were hacked down prejudicially, and the referee turned a blind eye. Every loose ball was contested with bone crushing tackles. The condition of the field was deplorable. I looked for grass, but wasn’t sure I saw any. The ball bounced like it was hitting concrete. The players didn’t bounce quite so high. It was the middle of winter, in the middle of nowhere (to me), and I had no idea how I was going to get back to my hotel.
Near the middle of the first half, the Barracas Central fans arrived in a caravan of mini-buses. They entered the stadium under police escort and immediately started singing and taunting the Dock Sud fans. The atmosphere of the stadium was infused with energy and hostility. The appearance of the Barracas fans spurred the Dock Sud fans to greater invective and chanting. Flares erupted in the wooden stands, and hundreds of people began to jump in unison. I couldn’t believe that the bleachers held firm. In the 45th minute, Barracas Central had a free kick on the edge of the area. It bounced under the hapless keeper, and the Barracas fans went wild(er). Disconsolate for a moment, the Dock Sud fans regained their voice, only to be silenced by the half-time whistle. One-nil to Barracas. If the result stood, Barracas were through, and Dock Sud would spend at least another year in the 4th Division.
Sometime during the second half two things happened that I won’t soon forget. One was that the Dock Sud fans started fighting each other in a manner so ostentatiously violent that I could scarcely believe it. The rivalries within a barrabrava are frequently as violent as the rivalries between barrabrava of different teams. Diego explained to me that this fight wasn’t very severe, but it was a message to the visiting Barracas Central fans: if this is what we do to ourselves, imagine how much worse it will be for you. Incredible. Frightening because of the reality, and doubly so because I had to get through this neighborhood when the game was over. I asked Diego what the Dock Sud fans were chanting. A rough translation is “We’re going to fuck you up the ass.”
The second thing that I’ll remember is giving my bag of peanuts to a group of kids sitting to my left. It was clear that any amount of caloric intake was welcome, but this wasn’t the most disturbing. The faces of these kids were timeless, etched in poverty, never changing. These kids had learned life’s worst lessons early and often. They had the aspect of grizzled old men. When the fight started, they ran to join in the spectacle.
All ended well for Dock Sud on this day. Their best player “El Negro”, Omar Gauna, leveled the score in the 75th minute. Dock Sud substituted attackers for defenders and rode out the final ten minutes. They were through to the final. As the stadium began to empty, I walked with Diego and the other reporters to the other side of the field to take some photos and to search out the best way to leave the stadium. After milling about the locker rooms, watching the entire post game obsession, and taking some photos and notes, I ended up chatting with the press officer, Alejandro. I explained at length what I had gone through to get there. He assured me that it was not safe to find a bus and that there were no taxis in the area. I couldn’t afford one anyway, I offered. He thought about this for a minute and invited me to talk with his father, who was the president of the club.
As the stadium emptied, I was introduced to el presidente and he took me around to the caretaker’s office where a group of Dock Sud old timers were drinking mate and chatting. I was presented all around, made some new friends, got more information that I ever wanted about the history of the club and stadium, and ended up leaving in the company of Diego, Alejandro and his padre, the president. He dropped us off at a bus station, and I rode a bus up through la Boca, and back to the middle class safety of Recoleta.