Friday, 1 October 2010

Rupert Fryer in Buenos Aires

Futbol Para Todos – The Ultimate Football Weekend

By Rupert Fryer

This used to bit my favourite bit of the show. The bit whereby I'd take a back-seat and let a professional take to the stage. That was until this landed on the desk at EFW Towers, and reduced me to a raging fit of jealousy. Rupert Fryer has been holed up in Buenos Aires for the last six weeks hobnobbing with the who's who of football journalists whilst watching the beautiful game.

Rupert is a freelance journalist and the co-founder of SouthAmericanFootball.co.uk. He's also a regular contributor to the Football Ramble and Goal.com.

In this epic article Fryer takes us through what has to be the ultimate football weekend. Weep, wince and enjoy this romp through the Argentinian capital:

Glancing down at my hands one summer afternoon this past July, I looked upon my tattered fingers - worked to the bone by countless minute-by-minute reports - with square eyes, suffered during 14 hour stints in front of a screen, and came to the conclusion that I was in the midst of my first ever World Cup hangover. Ahead of me lied nothing but an entire summer filled with one monotonous transfer story after another; each undoubtedly contradicting the last. I had to get away.

In mid 2009 AFA President Julio Grondona took the unprecedented step of tearing up the league’s television contract. With her popularity waning, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner agreed to pay the AFA some £94.5m per year to ensure all the country’s top light football would be shown on free-to-air television. “Everybody has a right to watch football,” said the administration. In the new deal, every single match would be shown live; the action would start on Friday night and take viewers right through to Sunday evening.

I had been planning my ultimate football weekend ever since. And with 16 of the 20 top flight clubs now based within an hour or so of central Buenos Aires, my time had come.

Friday

Racing 4-0 Lanus

I had been in Argentina for five weeks, taking in some 12 matches, before my weekend of ‘Futbol Para Todos’ (football for all) kicked off on Friday 17th September. It all began on the vast Avenue 9 de Julio as I fruitlessly attempted convince a Taxi driver to take me 5km over the Riachuelo River to El Cilindro - the home of Racing club. Having being kicked out of three cabs in five minutes, I came to the conclusion that I would have to brave an alternative method of travel if I was to make it in time for kick-off (I was later informed the reason for this was that Avellaneda requires their cab drivers have different licences to those in inner-city BA).

So I found myself stood waiting for the no. 100 bus to Avellaneda where I got chatting to a young man named Marcelo. Now my Spanish isn’t great, but combine it with the Italian twang and quick fire delivery of the average Porteño and I’m in real trouble. I nodded and repeated the obligatory “claro,” while desperately searching each sentence for a recognizable verb and managed to decipher that this bus would take me as close to the stadium as I could get.

I paid AR€1.25 (20p) fare, took my place at the front of the bus and spent most of the 20 minute ride trying to block out the sound of Rick Astley and figure out where to get off. “Hola, che,” I said, momentarily knocking the driver out of his Astley-inspired rhythm, “¿me podes avisar cuando pasemos por la cancha de Racing?” His blank stare seemed to say “you’re in the wrong place, gringo,” before he forced a smile and told me to get off at the next stop.

I hopped down and homed in on the first Racing shirt I saw. Explaining that I was an English football journalist trying to get to La Cancha, Paolo, a man in his late 20s with one of those Rodrigo Palacio-style plats hanging off the back of his otherwise honourable short back-and-sides, introduced himself as a Racing season ticket holder and insisted that I follow him. I arrived about 20 minutes before kick-off and met Daniel Edwards, who was waiting patiently after being kind enough to grab me a ticket. Entry to the famous Popular section -the terracing that runs around the back of the goal and holds some 20,000 fans- costs AR€70 (around £11) and tickets are usually available to purchase right up until kick-off.

Racing came into the match in desperate need of a victory. Having opened the season with back-to-back wins, including a 2-1 win over Boca Juniors at La Bombonera, the long suffering La Academia faithful had been talking up their chances of clinching their first league title in a decade. But four straight league defeats quickly restored the natural order. On my previous trip to Avellaneda, the home team had been embarrassed by a Colon side that set out a rigid back-four and repeatedly found space behind Racing’s wing-backs -much to the annoyance of myself and Jonathan Wilson who had joined me that night- to achieve a result that left coach Miguel Angel Russo favourite for the sack race.

However Racing welcomed back gangly playmaker Giovanni Moreno against Lanus and comfortably romped to four goal victory. The Colombian gave the consummate schizophrenic performance: while utterly useless for large periods, five or six moments of pure genius were more than enough to grab all three points and send us all home safe in the knowledge that we had got our money’s worth.

Upon leaving the stadium, the local the boys we had paid to watch the car showed us to our vehicle and I hopped in alongside Nico, Juan, Alexi and Luciano for the 15 minute ride back to 9 de Julio and Independencia. I made it home at around 5am after a ‘quick’ stop at the Gibraltar bar for a few stouts and an early morning Super Pancho.

Saturday

San Lorenzo 3-1 Olimpo

Saturday began with a hazy, but swift, Subte ride from Indepedencia to Bodea to meet FourFourTwo’s Joel Richards where we hopped into another cab to Estadio Pedro Bidegain to see San Lorenzo take on newly promoted Olimpo. Travel in Buenos Aires is extremely cheap; the underground is a great way to get around and costs just AR$ 1.10 (17p) per ride. Sitting in the Barrio of the working class neighbourhood of Bodeo, directly opposite the infamous Villa-1-11-14, I had been warned to ‘stay vigilant’ if I decided to see venture out to see how a man close to my heart was getting on in his new role as El Ciclon’s DT. Coach Roman Diaz had spent a short but thrilling stint with my very own Oxford United in 2004 and his new club had made a good start to the season. Unbeaten for their first seven games, they had already recorded impressive victories at Racing and Boca.

However the home side made a poor start and found themselves a goal down after 12 minutes when David Vega sent the away fans -all 79 of them- wild after Damián Albil failed to deal with an in-swinging free-kick. Diaz hauled off centre-back Fernando Meza after 30 minutes and abandoned his 3-5-2, moving to a more fluid 4-2-3-1. With a new found natural width, the home side made good use of two-on-one situations on the flanks and were level within two minutes. At the break Joel and I scuttled away for some free sandwiches and fizzy drinks, offering a nod of greeting to injured’ goalkeeper Pablo Migliore en route. Diaz’s side dominated the second period and cruised to victory thanks to strikes from Jonathan Bottinelli and Diego Rivero.

With around five minutes remaining, a friend of Joel’s, Diego, offered us a lift home. I never leave matches early but given the surroundings it seemed like a sensible idea and Diego ushered us into a chuffer driven Ford Fiesta alongside none other than Daniel Filmes - formerly Minister of Education, Science and Technology in former President Néstor Kirchner’s cabinet. After being dropped off in the more upmarket area of Nunez, my Saturday drew to a close with a trip around the River Plate museum and a tour of El monumental, which included a rather unnerving trip in the newly installed ‘time machine’ and a stroll down the club timeline. Well worth the AR$ 50 (£8).

Sunday

All Boys 2-1 Estudiantes

My Super Sunday kicked off with coffee and Medialunas with Daniel, Dan and Sam before it was on to All Boys for the first of a double bill that would bring my weekend to a close. The Primera Division newcomers were hosting Juan Veron’s Estudiantes and their rather boisterous set of travelling supporters. Jumping out of another taxi, the three block walk to the stadium was rather eventful. 20 minutes before kick-off, a fleet of Estu supporters’ buses rolled obstreperously behind us; the All Boys barra raced right for us. Well, right for them, and all hell broke loose. Pictures in Ole the following day confirmed we were right to make a sharp exit.

All Boys’ Islas Malvinas Stadium, in the Floresta district of Western Buenos Aires has a feel reminiscent of English League One grounds before they were made all-seaters. With terracing on three sides, and a ‘Platea’ seating section running down the other, it was the closest I got to the action during my time in BA. Relegation in Argentina is settled by a points average acquired over the last three years and All Boys, as one of the newly promoted teams, have it all to do if they hope to escape the drop. Estudiantes, meanwhile, have their sights set on the title and an away victory would have seen them return to the top with a game in hand.

But a shock was on the cards when Eduardo Dominguez prodded home to give the home side a deserved lead after 28 minutes and they should have been two up before Estu equalised on half-time. Amidst a barrage of abuse, Veron lead a master-class in the midfield and misplaced just once pass in 45 minutes. Sitting deep, marshalled by the indefatigable Rodrigo Baña, he orchestrated his team’s play, repeatedly releasing Enzo Perez and Juan Pablo Pereyra. But with his forwards in wasteful mood, the veteran decided to take it upon himself and made his one foray forward on 45 minutes to inspire his team’s superb equaliser.

Despite the country’s continuing problems with football violence, I found a real family atmosphere inside Argentine stadia. As Veron hobbled off following a meaty challenge, one youngster of around six-years-old stood on his seat and screamed “Puta!!” As everyone turned to chuckle at the youngster’s declaration, the boy’s father put his arm around his young son’s shoulders and affirmed: “see, he’s learning.” Football seems to unite those who attend La Cancha every weekend and five minutes after the break, as Sebastian Grazzini chipped a sublime winner, I turned to see a portly 70-year-old man embrace his young granddaughter in celebration – one which I quickly became an impromptu part of: “fucking Golazo!” the man screamed, before grabbing my head, puckering his lips, and planting an almighty smacker on my right cheek.

Boca Juniors 3-1 Colon

With three games down, there was only ever going to be one place to end a football weekend in Buenos Aires. The best supported club in the country, getting tickets to watch Boca Juniors is nigh on impossible unless you a) pay three times face value through a tour company; or b) risk buying a dud from a tout outside the ground. I opted for option c and secured press accreditation with a little help from the Football Historian Ezequiel Fernandez Moores, who was kind enough to inform the club of my presence.

La Bombonera is situated in the La Boca district of Buenos Aires and was just a ten minute cab ride from my base in San Telmo. The club had made quite an effort for their international visitor and I must extend a huge thank you to Chief Press Officer, Laura Costa; no sooner had I taken my seat was I showered with refreshments, including a mouth watering selection of sandwiches and pastries.

Boca were hosting Colon, and with the mercurial Juan Roman Riquelme yet to make an appearance this season after undergoing knee surgery, new coach Claudio Borghi was struggling to fill the ‘1’ in his preferred 3-4-1-2 formation. He opted for Cristian Chavez that night, pushing new signing Damian Escudero to left wing-back. With Clemente Rodriguez on the right, Boca dominated the opening exchanges as both full-backs pushed on to create a front-four. Fifteen minutes in, by which time Lucas Viatri had fired wide and Rodriguez had missed a sitter, Colon coach Antonio Mohamed instructed his own full-backs to push on. They did, and as Boca’s retreated to cover,the pressure was alleviated. Colon got back into the game and took the lead when Ivan Moreno y Fabianesi capitalised on a defensive blunder from Gary Medel.

While Boca may not have Roman to steer them through their times of need, they can still rely on ‘Saint’ Martin Palermo and the veteran equalised with a sublime finish in first-half stoppage time. The second-half was quite probably the best 45 minutes of my entire stay in the city. Palermo put Boca ahead four minutes in and sent the home crowd delirious. All hell broke loose. “Dale Dale Dale Boca,” chanted the Popular. Within minutes the entire stadium had joined in. Then came the dancing. And then came the flares. First one. Then another. And before I knew it, around 200 had illuminated the Chocolate Box. Smoke quickly filled the entire stadium and play was brought to a halt. As the referee pleaded with the fans to extinguish their pyrotechnics, I glanced at Boca Medical Director Guillermo Bortman, who had taken his place beside me. “I’ve been here for twenty years and this still gives me goosebumps,” he said, lifting his sleeve and pointing at his pimpled arm.

In Argentina, there is a running joke that God is directing his own movie and that Martin Palermo is the star. How else can you explain this man’s remarkable career? Coming on as a substitute with fifteen minutes remaining against River Plate in the Libertadores, after six months out with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, to score the winner – on one leg; missing three penalties in one match against Colombia; the leg break in 2001 when a wall collapsed on top of him as he celebrated a goal for Villarreal; taking to the field, and scoring, just days after the death of his new-born son Stefano in 2006; the 2010 national team recall; the last minute winner against Peru to keep his country’s qualification hopes alive; and scoring against Greece to make him the oldest Argentine to ever score in the World Cup.

So as he stood, hands on hips, about to take a penalty that would secure all three points and his hat-trick, it was all a little predictable. As the ball flew high into the stands behind the goal, Bortman, hands on head, turned to me with a familiar sense of disbelief. “He’ll still get his hat-trick,” I said. “Of course,” he replied, “that’s, well, that’s just…Palermo!” It is. And it was. He completed the inevitable with five minutes remaining.

Eager to hear what they all had to say for themselves, I took my seat in Boca’s press room only for the post-match press conference to be cancelled five minutes before it was supposed to start; and so after twenty chaotic minutes in the mixed zone, and a rather nervy late night stroll through La Boca, I hopped into the final taxi of the weekend and headed home.

So my weekend had come to and end. My post-World Cup hangover has gone, though it’s been replaced by its post-Argentine sister. Football all seems a little flat back in the UK since I returned a little over a week ago.

With an unrivalled passion for football, good old-fashioned terracing, matchday tickets and travel around the city available at a fraction of what you would pay in many European cities, and with the possibility of attending up to five matches in three days, Buenos Aires is surely home to the ultimate world football weekend. And one I will remember for quite some time.

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Catch up with more of Rupert's work at South American Football, the Football Ramble and Goal.com.

EFW interview with the makers of Futbol Fanatico - A 3hr long DVD on South American fan culture.

- Feel free to comment below -

2 comments:

David said...

This has got me reminiscing about a trip I did to Argentina a couple of years back. I got to see 20 matches in 18 match days across the country which took some planning...and luck. Like in Spain the televised match schedule isn't confirmed until the week before the games so a match could be on the Friday night, Saturday or Sunday afternoon or evening. There is such a high concentration of clubs in and around BsAs that it's a real ground-hoppers paradise. Going to matches is liking entering 'Life on Mars' for football: terraces, passion, noise and that edgey atmosphere provided by the possibility of violence.

Interested to read about the San Lorenzo experience. That was definitely the roughest area I visited. The ground is bordered by low-rise slums and there's rubbish strewn in the streets. After the game I tried hailing a cab back into the centre of BsAs but none would stop. A local drunken lad started hassling me for money as he watched me fail to get a cab to stop. As it started to get dark he told me that "cabs don't stop here because they're afraid of getting robbed". Needless to say, I was rather relieved when a cab did eventually pick me up. The driver told me that the area has serious problems with drugs and prostitution so it's best to arrange a lift with someone rather than chance getting a cab.

Incidentally, it's well worth learning Spanish before going. "Sos un hincha de fútbol" is the ultimate ice-breaker wherever you go.

Christopher said...

In Argentina, everybody loves soccer!
There are many men and women who are fans of different teams.
Near my Buenos Aires apartments there was a soccer stadium and I went every week to watch a soccer match!