Saturday, 25 June 2011

Argentinos Juniors

Argentinos Juniors and the “Hand of Dan”.

Argentina has been well documented at EFW as a footballing utopia. From the great football clubs of Boca Juniors and River Plate, their stadiums of ‘La Bombonera’ and ‘El Monumental’, to players like Lionel Messi and Diego Armando Maradona. Paul Whitaker wondered what it must be like to watch regular Argentine club football, away from ‘El classico’ encounters between Boca and River. So he decided to have a chat with Daniel Schweimeler, author of the website “The hand of Dan”, an excellent blog on football and life in Argentina. Daniel has been a resident of Buenos Aires since 2006 and was formerly a BBC correspondent for South America. Today he is a freelance journalist and has been a season ticket or “socio” of first division football club Argentinos Juniors since 2009.

How long have you been watching football in Argentina? I first went to see Boca Juniors on my first visit to Argentina in 1986. My wife is Argentine...all the women in her family are Boca fans, all the males, Platense (now in their third division)

What was the first Argentinian football match you attended? I think it was Platense v Sporting Italiano, then both in the first division, with my future father-in-law and brother-in-law. What could I do?

Why do you support Argentinos Juniors ? I hit on the idea of writing a blog looking at Argentine life through the eyes of a football fan and for that I needed a club. I didn’t want to do Boca or River since they were too obvious. Argentinos Juniors’ ground lies about 20mins bus ride on the 113 from my house so I went to investigate their last game of the 2009 Apertura season. They lost and finished last but I loved the atmosphere. And the more I looked into them the more I found similarities with West Ham United. A club which nurtured young players who then moved on to better things, a club passionate about good football, that tries (but doesn’t always succeed) to play attractive football, a neighbourhood club and one always likely to be overshadowed by its big city rivals.

How much does it cost to be a ‘socio’ (season ticket holder) for Argentinos Juniors? Last season I paid 300pesos (about £50)...that got me in to all 10 home games.

What do you get for your ‘pesos’ with being a socio?. Does being a socio get you first in ticket queue for big fixtures? Being a socio got me a neat little plastic card with my photo on it. It gave me early access to tickets for the last game of the 2010 Clausura season away to Huracan which we needed to win to clinch the title. I still queued for four hours though. The club simply doesn’t expect nor is geared up for success.

How does supporter organisations operate in Argentinian football?. Do socios have a ‘positive influence’ on the running of their particular clubs? Supporters on club boards etc? The club president and board are elected by the socios so it’s in their interests to look after us. Argentinos Juniors boasts a massive and well equipped complex with tennis courts, swimming pool, basketball courts, picnic tables and more. It’s far more swanky than the ground. Depending on what kind of socio you are, you and your family get to use those facilities.

The ‘positive influence’ is reference to the one negative subject that seems almost obligatory for articles on Argentinian football: Barra Brava or hooligans. Do Argentinos Juniors suffer a Barra Brava problem? There is a barra brava at Argentinos Juniors but it’s very small and ageing. There’s a group with very loud drums who stand behind the goal. I’ve seen a couple of scuffles with the police and violence was reported during the away game at Godoy Cruz in Mendoza, western Argentina, and in the visit to Montevideo to play Nacional in the Copa Libertadores. But it’s generally very friendly at home games...grannies and babies. The away games are a little more tense but fans are well segregated and guarded.

What is a typical matchday experience at Argentinos Juniors? Do Argentinian supporters have an equivalent routine for a ‘pre-match pint in a pub near ground, get into the ground 5 minutes before kick-off and a half-time pie?’ There’s not much alcohol involved. But a ‘must’ before the game is a Choripan --- a fat, greasy sausage in bread. Argentinos fans gather outside the ground for up to an hour beforehand.

Argentinos Juniors supporters celebrating winning the 2009 Clausura championship away to Huracan.

I read you have been to quite a few Argentinos Juniors away fixtures in Primera Division. Do you always go on your own steam or through organised transport?. Is it safe enough to wear club colours travelling to away fixtures? I’ve seen the buses that take the fans to away games....little in the way of lights, seats or tread on the tyres. So I make my own way. I keep my shirt covered because most of the Buenos Aires stadiums are situated in neighbourhoods most middle-class residents have never been to and my mother-in-law tells me I’m lucky to escape from alive. It’s really not that bad but I prefer to take precautions. I’ve taken my sons (aged 11 and 13) and insist they do the same.

If you could pick one Argentinos Junior home fixture for a visiting tourist, which would have the best atmosphere? Who are Argentinos Juniors fiercest rivals or are they loved by everybody?Their fiercest rivals are Platense, nicknamed the squid, and there are plenty of songs making reference to cooking and eating seafood. But they’re currently in the third division so kind of irrelevant. Their nearest rivals are All Boys, fairly newly promoted and just 3km up the road. Also any match involving Boca and River.

Could a tourist buy a ticket in the away section on the day of a match? You buy the away section tickets from the ground of the visiting club rather than the ground where it’s being played. There’re on sale at the Argentinos Juniors ground two days before and on the day of the fixture. They’ve never asked me to prove I’m a socio or asked which team I’m supporting.

One of the main differences between English premiership and Primera Division appears to be that the Primera Division seems very unpredicatable and more exciting for supporters. You celebrated Argentinos Juniors winning Clausura 2010, but brace yourself, you will probably never see West Ham win the English premiership. The big clubs here are in decline through a combination of corruption and bad management but mostly because so many talented, young players are sold abroad. More than 1,000 Argentines play in foreign leagues. So it’s very difficult to hold a team together for more than a season – especially if they’re successful. It used to be that Boca and River won 9 titles out of 10...a bit like Celtic and Rangers. Some like the idea that things have levelled out....recent champions have been Lanus, Argentinos Juniors and Banfield. Others lament the loss of talent and complain that the standards are not what they were. After a pretty mediocre season in which Argentinos Juniors finished fifth with a poor team and only scoring 16 goals in 19 games, I tend to agree.

How would Argentina react if River Plate lose relegation play-off matches to Belgrano.? I thought their complicated promotion/relegation system was to prevent one of the big boys going down? It was and you really have to be consistently bad to end up in the River Plate situation. But they have been consistently woeful. It’s being talked about as a national tragedy – while Boca fans are rubbing their hands in glee.

(At time of going to ‘press’, River lost the first leg 2-0 and River supporters attacked their own players, after second goal was conceded)

I was always amazed in Argentina how there were more counterfeit shirts on sale (and being bought) outside the stadiums on the streets, than in the club shops. The clubs must miss out on plenty of merchandising revenue.. It’s a counterfeit country with most CDs, DVDs, running shoes and sportsware and more being sold on the counterfeit market. So football shirts simply fit into that situation.

Do you get to see many West ham matches on TV there? Not any more, I won’t. Cable TV gives us three channels that show Premiership football. Some Saturdays you can watch three at the same time. I saw plenty of the Hammers, especially when Tevez was there. The Championship is another matter though.

Did you get Argentinian pundits or was Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker dubbed into Spanish? Fox and ESPN have their Latin America offices so the pundits are a mix of Mexican, Argentine and Colombian.

Looking at the Argentinian cheerleaders and those brolly girls that pop up behind a player being interviewed on TV, Andy Gray and Richard Keys would fit right into Argentinian football scene. They’d have to improve their line in patter though. The women here expect a little more subtle than: “Woor!!! Look at the rack on that.”

What is there general opinion of English Premier League , over there? They love the Premier League. The action and excitement and the English style of play. You see a lot of English club shirts on display...probably as many Chelsea and Man United as Barcelona and AC Milan which is odd given the fact that most Argentines are of Italian and Spanish descent.

Would the locals be so keen to see a ‘Game 39 match in Buenos Aires, that was muted by Premier League a couple of years ago? It’d sell out in hours.

How did Argentinos Juniors supporters and players celebrate winning Clausura 2010. Pitch invasion? Conga on the terrace? Open top bus around ‘La Paternal’ neighbourhood? Pitch invasions are difficult since fans are fenced in. Luckily our last game was away to Huracan in the west of Buenos Aires. It’s a great ground and they gave Argentinos extra tickets since they didn’t have much to play for. There was a lot of dancing and singing on the terraces then the party moved to the La Paternal neighbourhood and the Argentinos stadium. There was an open-topped bus but the terraces were too packed for a conga. Most Argentine fan bases are centred around the neighbourhood – either you live there or your dad or grandfather are from there. My father-in-law is pure Platense since he was born and brought up in Saavedra where that club is based. The only exceptions are Boca and River whose fan bases transcend their neighbourhoods.

The walls outside Argentinos Junior’s Diego Maradona Stadium feature, well, you know who....

If only Mick and Keith knew they were Bichos fans!

Apart from Argentinos Juniors winning Clausura 2010 at Huracan, what has been your most memorable match in Argentina? It has to be the previous match, at home to Independiente. We were losing 3-1 with twenty minutes to go. The Bichos Colorados (Ladybirds) brought the score level with about 5 to play. The manager, Claudio Borghi, took off two defenders and replaced them with a couple of strikers....then the winner, scored by a defender, in injury time. Rodrigo de los Rovers stuff.

How did Argentinos Juniors fare in subsequent Copa Libertadores campaign? Do Copa Libertadores fixtures tend to be more ‘commercialised’ than Primera Division fixtures, like the Champions League in Europe? Restrictions on standing, etc.. Argentinos were dumped into what inevitably was dubbed ‘the Group of Death’ along with Fluminse of Brazil, Nacional from Uruguay and America of Mexico. They then shocked even themselves by taking the group by storm. Early home wins and away draws took them top of the group...then it all fell apart. I went to the last home game against Fluminense which we needed to draw to have a chance of advancing. It was a passionate game with the away terracing filled with Brazilian fans...and we lost it 4-2. There was a huge player punch-up at the end. It wasn’t any more or less commercialised than league games. I seem to remember my socio card didn’t get me a ticket.

Reference the player punch up. Is the Argentina-Brazil rivalry that exists at international level, also played out at club level? Very much so. Like any big neighbours there’s a rivalry between these two in almost everything but especially at all levels of football.

Argentinos Juniors have a good reputation for producing players through famous youth academy. Do they rely on player sales abroad to boost the club coffers? Every year every Argentine clubs lose players abroad. It’s a case of who you can hold on to. Our defender, Juan Savio, has committed himself to next season and received a rapturous ovation from fans at the last game of the season last Saturday.

Any young players currently at Argentinos Juniors we should keep an eye out for? Argentinos Juniors, true to tradition, put a lot of effort into their youth teams and are reaping the benefits. Two that have impressed me are the goalkeeper, Luis Ojeda, who seems to have earned a regular first team place. Very confident and great authority. And Juan Ramirez, an 18-year-old left-sided front man, fast and with great control. But please keep it quiet. We don’t want to lose them just yet!

Their most famous player is of course Diego Armando Maradona. Please can I just clear up a few ‘stories’ I have heard/read about El Diego at Argentinos Juniors: Was it true that Diego Maradona was apparently sold for $20m to Barcelona, but Argentinos Juniors never saw any of the money? Probably not...since they’d already sold him to Boca Juniors and cut all ties with the player.

Is it true that Sheffield United had an opportunity to buy Diego Maradona from Argentinos Juniors? Yes – but international ties in those days were less strong and contacts were difficult. Just imagine!

Is it true Diego Maradona’s father has a seat at Estadio Diego Maradona and regularly watches Argentinos Juniors? There is only one box at the ground and it’s in the name of Diego’s dad who is a life-long fan.

What’s the best Diego Maradona ‘story’ you have heard at Argentinos Juniors? None in particular since he was there in his ‘innocent’ days. But the club is full of men of a certain age who will talk endlessly about how they were there the game the 15-year-old made his debut and in the subsequent years.

Were you lucky enough to see El Diego play? I’m old enough to have seen him twice. The first time in 1980 at Wembley in a friendly against England. We didn’t know much about him but froze every time he had the ball. Seemed like anything was possible. England were lucky to win 3-1. Then in the testimonial for Ossie Ardiles at White Hart Lane.

Speaking of El Diego, what’s next for former national coach. Boca manager or Argentinian presidential candidate, perhaps? Diego is probably still the most loved footballer in Argentina. But while Julio Grondona – the most hated man in football here but the most powerful – remains in the top job, the Number 10 wouldn’t get a job in the car park at the AFA headquarters.

Is the Argentine FA held in as such high esteem there as the English FA here? Pretty much. I suspect that everything Sepp Blatter knows, he learnt from Julio Grondona.

I read that the English FA put a lot of noses out of joint around the world with their crusade against FIFA corruption?. What was Argentinian reaction to all going on at FIFA and the World Cup bid? The Argentines are used to corruption in football. What they saw in FIFA, with the involvement of their own Julio Grondona, was pretty much business as usual.

As difficult as it is for me (being an England supporter) to talk about international football, I have at least to terms with England being just tournament quarter-finalists at best. How did Argentinians take unexpected early elimination at 2006 and 2010 World Cups? I was in Buenos Aires for both tournaments. I wasn’t surprised by the passion, some might call it obsession, with Argentina winning. Life ground to a standstill, schools put screens up in the hall and cancelled lessons, you had to wear blue and white. But they know their football here and were surprisingly philosophical about defeat. I was surprised they took the walloping by Germany as well as they did. I thought they were the best team in 2006 but a lack of self-belief let them down. I found few Argentines who agreed with me.

Do Argentinians think Messi will ever emulate El Diego and lead Argentina to World Cup victory, say in Brazil 2014? They know how good he is. They hope he does but I’d say that Messi doesn’t inspire quite the same passion in most Argentines as Diego did. Maybe because he’s from Rosario, not Buenos Aires, but more likely because he left Argentina so young.

How do Argentinians feel that a lot of their home friendlies are played in Europe? Was the recent home match v Spain a sign that more friendlies will be played in Argentina? They beat Albania 4-0 in Buenos Aires with goals from Messi, Tevez and Aguero over the weekend. What more do they want?

Do you think we will ever see England national team play in Buenos Aires again? I hope so. It would be tense but the rivalry, for most, is much more about the football than it is about the islands.

Argentina are due to host 2011 Copa America this month. Will you be going to any matches? I won’t, simply because the only match being played in Buenos Aires is the final – and tickets for that sold out months ago. The rest are dotted around the country – a deal done between Senor Grondona and the regional football associations to ensure they get a piece of the action which generally takes place in Buenos Aires.

How did Argentina get to host the tournament, bearing in mind how antiquated many of their stadiums are? Apart from a paint job, El Monumental seems to have not changed since the 1978 World Cup. Will terraces be open to supporters or have they picked all seater stadia only? They’ve not hosted it since the 1980s. You’re right about the Monumental and the same is true of Boca’s ground, the Bombonera. But a fair bit of investment has gone into other grounds. The La Plata stadium is said to be a dream.

Will you get many foreign supporters visiting Argentina for the tournament? I imagine a few will come over from Uruguay. Do any other South American countries supporters travel in numbers to Argentina for Copa America or Copa Libertadores matches? There will be plenty. Both Nacional of Uruguay and Fluminense of Brazil brought their full contingent of fans for the games against Argentinos Juniors. It ain’t cheap and distances are ridiculous. Uruguay, Brazil and Chile will bring thousands for the Copa America. Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay all boast huge populations in Argentina....possibily as many as a million Bolivians and a million Paraguayans live here.

Are Copa America tournaments as commercialized as European Championships? Are ticket prices affordable for ordinary Argentinians? Tickets for the Argentina games sold out in a flash. There are Argentine with a lot of money and plenty with very little.

Who is your tip for Copa America? Will the hosts handle the pressure? Argentina to beat Brazil in the final. Messi will finally come good for his national team. The outside bets are Uruguay and Paraguay.

…and finally. Will Argentinos Juniors ever build a 4th stand behind that goal? I was told last season that they would and was surprised at the start of this season to see no progress. I hope so. It must be very lonely for those goalkeepers.

Many thanks to Daniel for interview. Catch up with him and lots more on the Argentinos Juniors at Their next campaign starts in August.

The 2011 Copa America kicks off on 1st July and the final is on 24th July at El Monumental, Buenos Aires.

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