Gene Maddaus is a Daily Breeze staff writer. He covers politics. He tunes into soccer about once every four years, which makes him an extremely casual fan, although he has been to a few Galaxy games. He just returned from Argentina where he took in a soccer game on his honeymoon.
Being journalists, the first thing my wife and I did when we arrived for our honeymoon in Buenos Aires was to turn on the news. As we learned, the country was in the grips of two major crises. The first was economic: the government was about to take over the nation’s private pension system. The second was soccer-related: River Plate was headed for the bottom of the standings.
If anything, people seemed more worried about “La Crisis de River.” Economic disruptions were routine enough to be taken in stride, but how often was one of the country’s two great club teams so awful? We decided to see a match in an effort to plumb the Argentine psyche.
We found ourselves at “La Bombonera,” the home of Argentina’s other major club, Boca Juniors. The guidebooks recommended getting tickets for the “platea,” where seats are assigned. But on the day of the match, they were mysteriously unavailable, and no amount of inquiry in my beginner’s Spanish could make them appear. That left us to fend for ourselves in the “general” area, where fans squeeze in shoulder-to-shoulder and where, if there is to be trouble, it is most likely to start.
On the way in, I was given a pat-down search. Once inside, we found that there was literally no place to stand. Our section was surrounded by aging concrete walls and high fencing — the sort you see on international news coverage of crushing deaths during soccer riots. Many younger fans were already hanging from the metal fences to get a better view of the action. There were none of the amenities of an American sports stadium — concessions, souvenir shops, bathrooms — just a mass of Argentine soccer fans sandwiched together in the hot sun, a dense mass of blue and gold.
We squeezed into a spot near the top of the section. There were only a few inches separating us from the surrounding fans, some of whom had no inhibitions about leaning on their neighbors for support. As the match began, the crowd launched into the first of many songs of tribute to Boca, punching the air in unison. The density of the crowd amplified its fervor, and we had no choice but to be swept up in it.
Having been exposed to professional soccer mostly via the MLS, we were awed by the level of play. The players had such a fluidity with the ball and awareness of the field that scoring chances developed almost instantly, and from nothing. When Boca missed a chance, the crowd grunted “uh” in unison. At eight minutes in, Boca scored and our section exploded.
We were amazed to see a vendor parting the crowd in front of him, weaving his way with a tray of watery Cokes aloft in his right hand. Then, from behind, a man who smelled strongly of alcohol forced his way forward. Fans allowed him to pass only because he was carrying a toddler on his shoulders who might have fallen if the man’s momentum had been stopped. He plunged down into the crowd and out of sight.
At the half the section sat down, en masse, for the first time. When play resumed, they stood again and remained on their feet for the rest of the game. The opposing club, Rosario Central, scored an equalizer early in the second half. The crowd did not boo or whistle, but seemed to redouble their intensity during the songs. When the Boca star Juan Roman Riquelme made a dazzling run and nearly scored, the crowd chanted “RI-QUEL-ME.”
Boca went on to win on a goal in the 87th minute, and moved closer to first in the standings. Our taxi driver explained that with a San Lorenzo loss, Boca now had a real chance, something that seemed unthinkable a few weeks before.
River Plate, meanwhile, continued to lose, and is now dead last in the race for the Apertura championship. Like the global economic crisis, there is no end in sight.