HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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10 April 2007

Love Death and Adventure in Buenos Aires, Part Three

Christopher Gaffney

Copyright 2007

July 2003.

La final

Boca Juniors took their two-nil victory in Buenos Aires to Colombia and turned it into a six-nil thrashing. This put them in the final of the Copa Libertadores against Santos of Brazil. The first leg of the final was played in Buenos Aires. Winter had hit the Southern Cone in the form of a winter gale. The temperature was in the mid-thirties, and rain lashed in from the South Atlantic. The kickoff was scheduled for 21:50. Nighttime in la Boca.

For those who know little of soccer, the names Pele and Maradona might strike a chord. The Brazilian Pele made Santos, Brazil, and the New York Cosmos famous, and Argentina’s Maradona, well, he made himself famous and brought Boca along with him. Thus, the rivalry between Santos and Boca is not only between two clubs, but between Brazil and Argentina, São Paulo and Buenos Aires, and between the legacy of the game’s two greatest players. Boca and Santos last met in the final of the Libertadores in 1963. Pelé scored two goals in the Bombonera to give Santos the title. So not only was this the most important soccer game in the Western hemisphere, with continental bragging rights at stake, but the winner would meet A.C. Milan in Japan to battle for World Club Champion. Millions of people all over the planet would be watching, and millions of Pesos, Reals, Euros, Yen, and Dollars would be won and lost.

Given all of this, it was obviously going to be difficult to get tickets. Two days before the game I made my way to the stadium to try to get a press pass. With no press credentials this was an exercise in futility. I was given a two syllable dismissal. The following day I tried to buy tickets. I was similarly rebuked. “No hay.” The following day I desperately tried to get someone, anyone, to go with me so as to have some strength in numbers. No takers. I didn’t blame them. It would be dangerous, expensive and difficult to get tickets. The weather was, as the Argentines say espantoso, insorportable; miserable, intolerable. High thirties, windy and wet. So, six hours before the match, I resigned myself to my fate, took the bus down to la Boca and began to walk towards the Bombonera.
As I walked through the neighborhood surrounding the stadium I became increasingly aware of how alone I was. Solitary people do not habitually walk these streets with a video camera slung over their shoulder. I desperately wanted to take some pictures of the houses and the Boca flags flying from every window. I stopped and tried to talk to some people gathered on a corner but was given no verbal response. I started walking faster, with each turn becoming more disorientated. There was no way, NO WAY, I was going to take out my notebook to write anything down, much less my camera. I would have been foolish to retrace my steps. I wandered for an hour before I found my way to the shadow of the stadium. I knew from the growing noise that I was close several blocks before I get there.

To my surprise there were hundreds of people queued up to get into the stadium four and a half hours before the game. Singing, jumping, chanting - all of the normal songs and rituals that go on inside the stadium were taking place I couldn’t believe it. The amount of energy that people were expending was matched by the level of their inebriation. Fans had been drinking for several days, probably weeks. After watching this for half an hour I decided to make my way to the general area of the ticket booths (the casa amarailla) to see how much I would have to cough up to get in.

As I started walking, I unconsciously started echoing the songs of the fans, and started to get the feeling of anticipation and excitement that always comes with a stadium experience. Still feeling very much alone, I made my way up to a group of five man-boys so as not to appear completely isolated from any one group. As I got closer, one of these pibes turned to me:

“Buscas entrada?” Are you looking for a ticket?

“Por su puesto.” Of course.

“Quantos tienes?” How much do you have? Son of a bitch. He was immediately sizing me up for cash. From that moment I became even more guarded, realizing that he would take me for all I was worth. This was not a friendly service he was providing.

“Cuarenta.” Forty pesos. I thought I would start low. I had 120 pesos (about US$40) in small bills in my pocket and was willing to spend most of it to get in.

“Deme el dinero.” He wanted the money. I balked.

“Como? Muestrame el boleto.” Show me the ticket. I was not in the mood for a chase.

“No lo tengo. Yo voy a comprarlos ahora.” Ah. They didn’t have tickets either. They were going to buy some from the barrabrava.

The Argentine barrabrava, in addition to creating one of the most spectacular sporting environments in the world, are in the business of receiving tickets from the club which they then sell on the streets before big games for a tidy profit. They are also given jobs in the director’s companies, run drugs, battle other barrabrava, and mark the city with grafitti. They are organized, professional fans, and this is their space. There were no police.

As we walked into this space behind the south side of the stadium, I was trying to figure out what was I was going to do. I still had my money, but did not want to be in the popular section, where I had seen the cascading bodies at the Boca-Cali game. The likelihood of my camera making it through was slim. I wanted to be in the platea, where there were seats and an older, more sedate crowd.

“No quiero sentarme en el popular,’ I told him.

“Como? Quieres platea? Es mucho mas caro.” More expensive.

We approached a barrabrava and my interlocutor (let’s call him Juan) began to negotiate with him for tickets for him and his friends. I saw the barrabrava (it’s used both singularly and in the plural) pull out a stack of more than one hundred tickets. One hundred tickets to the final! My stomach tightened at the sight of it. The barrabrava wasn’t very tall, but was very solid and smartly dressed in a track suit, new trainers, and a close fitting hat. He looked severe. He never looked at me, and only glanced up when Juan gave him one hundred pesos for four tickets. Juan had dropped some names in order to lower the price. As the barrabrava turned away, I saw a scar tracking the outline of his cheekbone from eye socket to lip. My stomach loosened. Fortunately my sphincter didn’t.

“Y la platea?” And my seat?

“Cuesta mas. Cien pesos. Deme la plata.” Again, he demanded my money. I told him that I was not going to give him my money without seeing the ticket first. He replied that he couldn’t get the ticket without giving the money to the barrabrava, which made sense. I gave him the money and we started walking deeper into the zone of the barrabrava.

Juan asked several barrabrava for tickets to the platea but no one seemed to have any. After the fifth try, I asked for my money back. He refused. I tried to explain to him that I felt more comfortable with my money in hand. He refused again. It was looking less and less likely that we were going to find a ticket and more and more likely that he was going to run. I demanded my money back and he grudgingly gave in. Suddenly a large group of people started following two barrabrava. Juan hurriedly asked for my money and said that all these people were going to get tickets. I gave him my money and we followed.

We found ourselves at a gate that was opened from the inside. Several dozen people were pushing to get in. Juan pushed me forward into the mass and I started going through. I looked back to see if he was following. He wasn’t. I fought against the human tide, reached over the heads of two people and grabbed Juan by the arm, and yanked him through the gate. “Hijo de puta,” I said. “Sos loco,” he replied, “sos loco.” I might have been crazy but I wasn’t letting this son of a bitch get away with my hundred pesos.

We were now inside the training ground of Boca Juniors hurrying down a sidewalk to yet another caged area. After some milling about, a Boca official told us that they were not going to release any more tickets for the game, thereby confirming the announcement in the papers, on the television, and on the street of a sell out. I demanded my money again, but then relented as all of a sudden Juan started running in the direction of a rather large barrabrava with a face full of scars, fifteen teeth and a limp Blackbeard would have admired.

Juan asked, “Cuanto por un puesto en la platea por un extranjero?” How much for a foreigner?

“Ochenta.” Eighty pesos.

Juan gave the barrabrava the money and we started walking-limping-running towards the stadium. I had no idea where we were going but saw that my money was now in the pocket of a gangster and had to follow at all speed and closeness to keep up with the conversation to try to figure out what was going on. As we were walking, Juan began to ask for more money.

“Deme veinte pesos mas,” he said.

“Como?! Ya te dije veinte! Yo escuche cuanto salio mi puesto.” I had heard their conversation and was content to give him twenty pesos and be into the stadium. What did he think, that “estoy hecho de dinero?” Asking him if he thought I was made of money because I was a foreigner probably wasn’t a wise provocation, but I hadn’t forgotten his attempt to run off with my money. He was irate. Our conversation was over.

We arrived at the edge of a large crowd that was pushing at a line of metal crowd barriers. A queue of people who had paid the barrabrava to enter were gathered together in a group, and I was stuck with them. It was now three hours before the game. I was hungry, frazzled, it was cold and wet, I was alone with a 400 dollar viedo camera (which summarily broke, hecho de mierda) and a foreigner dealing with gangsters on their turf.

As the group I was with began to move into the stadium, Juan yelled to the barrabrava, pointed at me and reminded him that I had paid. The barrabrava gave me a friendly nudge in the back and told me to go through. As we started filing towards the turnstiles I began to realize that I was going to get in. A different barrabrava stuck out his hand and asked for my ticket. I made a motion of giving him one, he made the motion of taking it, nodded, said “Gracias”, and waved me through. Just then, I heard a commotion behind me. I turned to see three barrabrava yanking a skinny, scraggly looking man from the line. He had tried to jump the barricade to get in with my group. He looked like he was in for a beating

The same barrabrava who had asked for my ticket, appeared at the turnstiles. As police and ushers looked on, he bent down, pushed a button on the turnstile and told each one of us, politely, to put our right leg forward and step through the turnstile. I clumsily put my left leg forward and only seconds later understood that I was inside the stadium for the final. I was alive, wiser, cold, hungry, wet and elated. There were still three hours before kickoff.

The Bombonera is a very tall stadium. The three tiers of stands are stacked precipitously on top of each other. When the fans on the bottom are jumping, the whole structure sways and shakes. My “ticket” had given me access to the uppermost tier of the middle section of the stadium. When I looked down, I felt as if I were flying above the field. More precisely, I felt like an Albatross in the middle of a South Atlantic gale.

The bone-numbing cold I had been exposed to for the previous three hours began to pervade my sub-conscious. Forty meters in the air, there was no hiding from the wind and stinging mist. For the first five minutes, I stood holding onto a railing and fancied myself a fine Ahab, or Odysseus, for having passed through the gates. With every gust of wind and rain, the cold bit deeper into my body and mind. I made a hasty retreat for the relative calm of the external walkways. Here, perhaps two hundred others who had also entered with the barrabrava were milling about, smoking cigarettes, chatting. I was too cold to socialize and began wakling from end to end, trying to warm up.

Every so often I would walk out into the stadium to watch what was happening in the popular section. All of the fans that I had seen waiting in the streets four and a half hours before the game were now inside. The second tier of the popular was full. There were between eight and ten thousand fans. Never sitting, never stopping a chant, always moving, waving, asserting themselves. The colder it became, the more rain that lashed down, the louder they sang. The louder they sang, the more people packed the stands.

The Santos players came onto the field two and a half hours before the game to take some photos of their historic setting. They were greeted with projectiles, whistles and a murderous roar. The chant was: “Maradona fucked Pele up the arse, up the arse.” They must have been impressed, if not terrified to see such a spectacle so many hours before the game in such miserable weather. This was definitely not the beach, nor even the stadiums of Brazil.

The hours passed and the stadium filled. Fifty people carried a flag into the popular. Fifty more carried another. The songs and chanting continued, the wind quieted down to listen. I tried to find a seat to claim as my own but was continually bumped out by legitimate ticket holders. As game-time approached, the only place I could find to sit was on the stairs, sitting in a puddle, squished between two others on each side, two in front and two in back. I continually had the press of bodies on me. If I moved, at least three others had to. The entire stadium was like this. The popular section resembled the wave action of a huge, heavy jelly fish that would occasionally swing up and down in unison, and rock the entire structure of the stadium. The platea was completely overstuffed. Every space on the stairs was taken and people were still coming in. The official capacity of the stadium is 54,000, but on this night they must have had at least 70,000.

Santos came out of their tunnel to a shower of sharpened coins, batteries, fireworks and the collective ill-wishes of Boca fans around the world. The three hundred Santos fans sitting in their cage jumped and sang and lit flares. The police calmly walked up, took the flares from their hands and extinguished them in puddles. I had a lesson in Argentine invective that comes in handy when I don’t want anyone to really understand how I feel or what I mean. Soon after, Boca were birthed onto the field and were welcomed to the world with rapture.

As the teams lined up for kickoff the sky opened up and soaked everything and everyone to the bone. If I had managed to remain dry until this point, my efforts would have been for naught. I was trying to remember why I had gone through so much trouble to put myself in this position. I felt like an ice sculpture carved in the fetal position. Just when I thought I was at my limit, both legs cramped up and I had to squirm and shuffle to relieve them, which caused freezing cold water to rush down my back and in my pants. The plastic poncho of the man squished on my right side shed his water down my right leg. The back side of my left knee was dry, and I imagined myself there.

The game was fast and tricky. The field was soaked but held up well. The conditions did not appear to have an adverse effect on the ability of the players. The tackles were not as fierce as the semi-final against America de Cali had been and both teams had several chances at goal in the first half hour. The stadium was saturated with tension, and the Boca fans insisted on a goal. The Santos fans took advantage of a momentary lull in the stadium’s noise to express themselves. They were given two seconds before seventy thousand whistles pierced their efforts. They were silenced even further in the thirty-third minute when Marcel Delgado, another “Flaco”, hammered a shot off the right post and into the back of the net. I don’t know how all the people in the stairway managed to stand at the same time, but there we were, jumping with our arms in the air, the warmth of the moment running through us. Sitting back down in my puddle was unwelcome.

The atmosphere of the Bombonera remained tense and expectant throughout the second half. Santos looked as if they were going to level the score on several occasions. A 1-1 score would have made things very difficult for Boca. I was under the impression that the Copa Libertadores follows a similar scoring system as UEFA’s Champions League where away goals effectively count twice. That is, a 1-1 tie in Buenos Aires, and a 0-0 tie in Sao Paolo would give Santos the title, whereas a 2-2 tie in Brazil would favor Boca. I later found out that this is not the case, and that the Libertadores operates solely on goal differential. Regardless, as the second half progressed, it became increasingly clear that Boca needed a second goal. Santos continued to press the attack. Boca defended uneasily, not ansting to give the Brasilian wonderkids Alex or Robinho freekicks near their goal. The noise increased. The wind whipped in from the sea, and the rain began again.

Tevez, the hero of the semi-finals, had been effectively marked out of the game. He was given no space to run, and when he found some, he was hacked down. The attention paid to Tevez was instrumental in freeing up Delgado, however, and he tormented the Santos defenders all night. It was Delgado’s bizarre free kick in the eighty third minute that precipitated the most extreme expression of emotion I have ever witnessed.

As the ball flew into the penalty area from the left, several Boca players jumped to meet it. All of them missed. The ball hit the ground three yards in front of goal, bounced wildly over the Santo’s keeper, and hit the roof of the net. The stadium was momentarily stunned. Chants stopped in mid throat. A collective breath was taken. We looked to the referee for confirmation. He started running towards midfield:

“Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooolllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll”

“Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooolllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll”

“Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooolllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll”

The ecstasy lasted for an hour. Long after the final whistle blew, the Boca fans stayed in the stadium, singing the praises of themselves and their team. They also threw in chants against River Plate, Santos, and the wind and rain.

As I was leaving the stadium, I had no idea of which way to turn to get to the main avenue to catch a bus. In my quest to get into the game I had become completely disoriented. Taxis were impossible, it was too far to walk, and buses just as unlikely as a taxi. It was well past midnight when I started walking in what I assumed was the right direction, or at least the safest. I soon found myself on a poorly lit street with few people and no cars. I had no idea how this was possible given the massive crowd that was spilling out of the stadium. I was tired and ready to get home. There was no one to ask, and if there had been, it might have been dangerous to do so.

I eventually turned onto a more crowded street that I assumed would be safer. As I was walking along, a young lad asked me for some money to take the bus. I told him that I only had enough for my own way home. As soon as I finished my sentence, he said,

“Oh. Sos extranejero!” Because I was a foreigner he began harassing me for money. I became indignant a bit too quickly, told him to get lost, in so many words, which quickly drew the attention of his brothers, cousins, and assorted gang of six or seven with whom he was walking. They all turned to look at me, but continued on their way. One of them tried chatting to me as I continued to walk warily forward. He continued to pester me for money, tried asking me where I was from, and eventually I had to stop dead in my tracks because I knew that if I followed them around the corner there would be problems. When I stopped, they stopped, looked at me, and started walking towards me. I crossed quickly in front of moving traffic, almost had my knees taken out by a car, and hit the other side of the road running, trying to figure out exactly where I was and where I was running. They weren’t following. They were probably having a good laugh, come to think of it. After a kilometer walkabout, I figured out where I was, walked another two and found a taxi to deposit me at my doorstep.

Boca won the return leg in Santos 3-1, with goals by Tevez, Delgado and Schiavi. They would go on to beat European champion A.C. Milan in the World Club Championship in Tokyo on penalties. The party at the obelisk following the victory in Brazil was eventually broken up by riot police after fans began to vandalize store fronts, stoplights, and roadways. Even though their fiercest rival, River Plate, won the Argentine league (apertura) last year, Boca could rightfully claim to be World Champions, which to their fans is a huge consolation in the face of continued economic, political, and social miseries.

Love Death and Adventure in Buenos Aires, Part Two

Christopher Gaffney

Copyright 2007.

June 2003.

San Telmo

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.

“Luque.”

“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.

Dock Sud

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.

Love, Death and Adventure in Buenos Aires, Part One

Christopher Gaffney

Copyright 2007.

Love, Death and Adventure in Buenos Aires (I)

Semi-Finales

June 2003.

On my first full day in Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors played the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final against America de Cali. Alone, I jumped in a cab in Recoleta and made for the stadium, no ticket, no camera, but a fistful of pesos. After making speculative detours to avoid stadium traffic, the taxi driver (de Boca and very interested in getting me there), dropped me off as close as he could manage; about eight blocks away.

La Boca is one of Buenos Aires’ poorest barrios. It was here that immigrants from Italy arrived on Argentine shores in the late 19th Century. La Boca has always been associated with the working class, the industrial poor, the marginalized. La Boca is the birthplace of tango, the bittersweet dance of love and loss, tough times temporarily lifted by moments of beauty, only to be rammed home by the trident of politics, economics, and fate. Boca Juniors is a team born of the dispossessed. The immigrant, chased between continents. The worker, trapped between want and necessity. The Diego, raised from poverty to immortality, fame and infame. And now, the Red Devils of Cali de Colombia stood between the Xeneize (the name for the Genoese Italian dialect) and the finals of the Copa Libertadores, the biggest prize in South American soccer.

As I lept from the cab I saw plumes and clouds of smoke emanating from the cauldron of the stadium. The Bombonera (Boca’s stadium, the chocolate box) shook with emotion, exploded with fireworks, tensed for the match. The stadium lights cast up through the swirling smoke and created an aura of magical menace. I stopped to check myself: jacket, jeans, running shoes, cash, coins, hotel key, and a mouthful of castellano. After a deep breath and wee prayer, I started walking quickly. Soon, the singing and chanting of fifty thousand fans filled the air and I started running, hoping there would be a way into the sold-out stadium. After blocks of jumping over potholes, dodging cars, leaping outstreched legs and weaving past the glares of loitering youth, I came up to the ticket booth to see if there were any more entradas. Looking up, I saw people standing on the edge of the stadium, one hundred feet above. No hay. My heart sank. I was told to go around the corner to la casa amarilla, the ticket booths near Boca’s training ground. Moving in that direction, a line of riot police suggested a different route. The phalanx of mounted police, backed by another line of riot police confirmed my suspicion. Behind me was where I had been, to the left a dark, fence-lined street, and to the right, a stagnant mass of people in front of apartments, stores, and bars, many of them staring at me.I cast around. I was standing alone, had just been rebuked by the ticket window, the game was starting, this was the continental semi-final, at the Bombonera -the stress of it!! I had to get in!

Sometimes it is useful to act a bit confused in front of a stadium. I shook my head, turned away, stood back and looked up at the stadium walls. Fifteen seconds later, two teenage barrabrava approach me, one from either side:

“Quieres una entrada?”

“Como qué no? Donde está y cuánto es?”

“Cuarenta.”

“Dónde?” 40?

“En la platea. Medio campo.”

I took a fifty note out of my wallet and handed it over. Another kid came up with the ticket, gave it to me, while the other took off with the money.

“Ché!” I yelled at him. “Mi cambio! Me dijiste cuarenta!” Walking away with ten pesos like that. The nerve!

“No. Te dije cincuenta.”

“Deme la revuelta.”

The lad was deadpan: “Dijimos cincuenta.” The roar of the fans urged on Boca above and inside me. I had my ticket, let him keep the ten pesos and strode purposefully up to the turnstile worker, who looked at my ticket and shook his head. The boys were long gone. I 'd been swindled!!

“Al otro lado.” He pointed me down the street. I ran to the next entrance. The next ticketero I presented my ticket to accepted it and waved me through. I bounded up the stairs, into the open air, gave my ticket to an usher who pointed up and said “Al fondo”. At the bloody top!

I started heading up the stairs, looking back as the crowd roared. It was a long way to the top. I spied an open seat off to the right, jumped over four people and looked around. The middle aged man to my right slapped my back and said: “Llegaste!” I had arrived. His teenage son looed over with a smile.

“Cuantos minutos ya han pasado?”

“Ocho.”

Eight minutes into the game. The atmosphere was torrid. There were a group of 350 Cali fans penned into a cage on my right. They were being assaulted with projectiles from below and above and from the side. The Cali fans were ringed by security forces that looked on passively. There was nothing they could do to stop the hail of missiles. The unfortunate police down near the front of the terracing were occasionally hit with a rock. It would take some doing for the Boca fans to scale the five meter barbed wire fence to actually get their hands on the Cali fans. It is not unusual to have local rivalries break through these industrial barriers.

The game itself was tricky and violent. Boca’s fluid attack was matched by Cali’s fierce defending. Boca continued to arrive at the Columbian Devils’ goal, but the Cali keeper defended his gate like a three headed dog. As halftime approached, the stadium, the crowd grew more insistent that Boca put the ball to sleep in the back of the net. In the 40th minute, the captain, Schiavi, headed home a corner. The stadium exploded: “Gooooooollllllll!!” Fifty four thousand voices screamed the same thing in the same place at the same time. Hundreds of male bodies cascaded down the terracing. The human wave rolled to the edges of the stands. Open arms and clenched fists led to spontaneous hugs and a hail of missiles into the Cali supporters. Boca formed a blue and yellow pile as Cerebus hung his heads. When people could gather their wits, they sang. The stadium was so loud, so overwhelmingly stimulating itself, that tears unconsciously flowed. My body erupted in goose bumps. It was too much. This was not an ordinary game of soccer! The voice of the stadium echoed through the continent. When the half-time whistle blew, everyone sat down, and the stadium pulled herself together.

During half-time, I chatted with the people around me. To my right, an unemployed engineer was with his son. He ran a newspaper kiosk while he waited on an Italian visa. He was with his son, who in his early-twenties was living at home, college educated, also looking for work. This game was a luxury for both of them. To my left were three friends who lived in the middle-class barrio of Caballito. They weren’t huge Boca fans, but wanted to come for ‘the show” and for the soccer. They had recently graduated from high school, and had no idea what they were going to do with their lives.

I asked them what they thought of the barrabrava. “Son locos, violentos”. I asked if they had ever been in the popular section, where the Doce (Boca Junior’s notorious barrabrava) were. All three had gone there together one time. They said that they had spent three hours trying to stay on their feet. One had been pushed down ten stairs after Boca had scored and another had been kicked in the back for not jumping with the rest of the crowd. They had gone home exhausted and wiser and had no idea why anyone would want to be in that section for a match like this.

There was no half-time show. There is no scoreboard in the stadium, there were no game day programs. There were almost no women in the stadium. There were at least twelve sons of bitches: whoever was on the field for America de Cali, and the referee.

The quality and quantity of fireworks that were launched by fans from the stands and by the club from the field during the night, awed but did not shock. During the run of play, the explosions once chased the Cali keeper 30 meters from his goal. Talk about a potent attack! These hand held fireworks drew tracers in the air, and exploded over the field. There were times when the smoke mostly obscured the field. Even during half-time, the crowd never ceased to writhe and chant. Huge flags waved, little flags danced, and blue and gold umbrellas twirled and bounced.

The only way we knew that the second half was getting ready to begin was by watching the player tunnels inflate. Like fallopian tubes delivering their eggs, the white tunnels spilled the players onto the field of green. The crowd stood. As the Boca players ran out, a white rain of toilet paper and confetti descended and the crowd began to sing. The papering of the field was so complete that a crew of ten boys with rakes had to come and clean off the penalty area. There was no point in trying to clean it all off, people would have just thrown more. Having sullied the sacred green of the field and claimed it as their own, the fans, conducted by la Doce, began to jump and the chocolate box shook its sixty-five year old bones.

The referee toco su pita, and the second half began. The game resumed its torrid pace. Amidst the kind of tackling that makes veterans wince, and mothers sigh, there were lightning quick counter attacks, sustained buildups and half a dozen chances at goal for Boca. Cali had their moments but were hoping to take a one-nil loss back to Colombia. A second goal for Boca would make the Devils’ a doubly difficult task. They were willing to fight for it. In the 70th minute Castillo and Ibarra had had enough of each other, and both were sent off for their mutual distaste. With ten men on either side, the game opened, this increased the ferocity but diminished the frequency of the tackles. Cali’s Bustos violated Tevez for the second time and was given a second yellow card. The crowd roared, “Fuera!” and began to insist that Boca finish the Red Devils off now, at home, in the mouth of the Riochuelo, ten against nine, surely they would reach the finals.

Tevez, the tough looking, tough playing, and nineteen year old Boca forward had been battling the Cali defense all night. He had been tireless, creative, and incisive while being hacked, punched, and chopped at by the Cali defenders. With nineteen players on the field, Tevez was finally free from shirt pulling and kidney punches. Tevez received the ball on the right, beat his defender, cut back at the top of the box, looked up, picked his spot and curled his shot into the top left corner. My arms were in the air before the keeper hit the ground. “Gooooooooolllllllllllllllllll!. Gooooooooollllllllllllll!!! Gooooooooooooollllllllllll!”

The referee blew the final whistle. The “Voz del Estadio” (PA announcer) informed us that the home fans would have to wait fifteen minutes before being let out of the stadium. It used to be that the home fans would get out fifteen minutes before the visiting fans. After several catastrophic Sundays, the police realized that this gave the home fans a fifteen minute head start to organize an attack. This way, the Cali fans at least had a chance of making it to their hotel or the airport. I took my seat, looked around, and shook my head in disbelief.

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