Friday, June 10, 2011

River Plate 1:1 Colon de Santa Fe

At the end of last Sunday’s trip to the estancia, our bus was briefly surrounded by buses full of rowdy River Plate fans. They leaned out the windows, singing songs and waving flags and gesturing at us. River Plate was playing Colón de Santa Fe that night in a rare Sunday night fixture, it appeared. This led to the rebirth of a discussion that many of us in the program had touched on before: Should we go to a soccer game while in Buenos Aires?

The real question was actually, could we go to a soccer game in Buenos Aires (since obviously the members of the group inclined to attend clearly wanted to go to a soccer game in Buenos Aires). This was up for question because many games are sold out, tickets via resale can be expensive, etc.

Asking locals about how to get into the River Plate game yielded answers along a spectrum from “Don’t try to attend because there will be no tickets for sale save for those available from evil gouging resellers, and even if you do get in, you’ll be sliced from thorax to genitals by crazed hinchas” to “Take a cab to the stadium and buy some of the plentifully available tickets on offer there; you will have a pleasant and memorable time.”

About eight of us decided to cab over to the el Monumental to try our luck. We took two cabs and were dropped off about a half-mile from the stadium. As we approached el Monumental (capacity: 80k), we could see the lights and, much more impressively, hear the roar of the hinchada in the upper end of the stadium.

After some confusion, we managed to find our way to a ticket window, where the seller explained that great seats were on offer for the equivalent of US$60. This seemed steep, and just about cashed me out, but for a once in a lifetime chance to see one of Buenos Aires’ legendary clubs in action, it seemed well worth the outlay. We all coughed up the requisite dough and headed on in.

At this point it should be clear that between the two extremes people had predicted (certain death and a happy, pleasant time), our experience of the game was much, much closer to the latter than the former. Our seats were in a lower section of the stadium, in view of but not in the section with the hinchas, and any paranoid fantasies of unchecked mayhem were immediately put to rest. Though most of the fans were scowling men in their 20s and 30s, there were a fair number of old dudes, women, and even families including little kids. Hardly the kind of bacchanalian Mad-Max-style Thunderdome some of the tamer locals had predicted.

That said, the atmo was much less streamlined and sanitized than what one normally gets at a US sporting event. Our seats, all eight purportedly together, were all taken by the time we arrived, and we ended up sitting separately in other random empty seats. There was lots of smoking and standing to yell (even standing is banned in a lot of English stadia these days), and the whole affair reminded me of Nick Hornby’s description of his first experience of soccer back in 1960s England, before stadia had been turned into something closer to family-friendly amusement parks. There was an appealing untamed scruffiness about the experience that lent an authenticity and rawness that lacks at, say, gleaming indoor NBA arenas or luxurious, sparkling NFL super-venues. It wasn’t anything like chaos, but it was a tad more dog-off-its-leash than the contemporary, obsessively ordered sports experience one gets in the US and even Europe these days.

None of this moderate disorder compared, of course, to what was going on above and to our left in the northern (?) end of the stadium where the River hinchada stakes out its territory. What turned me from a casual observer of soccer into a much more serious fan ten (!) long years ago was the experience of attending the Amsterdam Tournament in summer 2001, which featured Ajax, AC Milan, Liverpool, and Valencia. But more than that, it featured the fans of each team, whose massed intensity made an indelible impression on me (esp my ears, which were ringing thanks to the relentless singing of F-side as though I’d been to an Ozzy concert by the time I left).

It’s said that Argentine hinchas are the most intense in the world, and I have no reason to doubt it. We’d heard them clearly (and loud) as soon as we got anywhere near the stadium (as soon we saw the lights of the Monumental, really), and throughout the game they provided a constant, roaring soundtrack to accompany the on-field action. The hinchada takes up the entire upper north part of el Monumental, and must number several thousand. What’s most impressive to me is the group organization that they manage. Despite being so numerous and rowdy (and, I suspect, drunk), the hinchas manage to coordinate their songs well enough that even I could make out some of the words. The hinchada experience always looks exhausting, as they’re constantly jumping up and down, and/or waving their arms in the air with a peculiar loose-wristed hand-flick and/or brandishing red-and-white flags and/or bobbing enormous red-and-white umbrellas (this latter striking me as kind of adorable rather than threatening).

Oh, and there was a game, too, though as you can tell the hinchada was more interesting (though sadly I don’t have pix, not wanting to tempt fate even more by taking my iPad to the stadium; for some good indications of what the River fan group is like, go here and here and here). The context: River Plate is one of Buenos Aires’ two great teams (the other being Boca Juniors), but they’ve had a bad season and needed badly to get a win to avoid relegation to the second division.

In the first half, River had more possession but very few ideas, as Colon (who is mid-table, and thus has no reason to play hard to win or lose, since they don’t have a chance at the championship but also aren’t at any risk of being relegated) more or less played a patient defensive game that succeeded in snuffing out all but one really good chance for River. When River missed this chance, what seemed like a sure goal about to happen in the waning moments of the first half, the assembled folks in my area were moved to apoplexy. One man stood for a good minute after everyone else had settled down and swore full-throatedly at the players until the people around him calmed him and made him stop.

Given the context, the mood of the fans in my area was neither excited and happy, as you’d expect for a team that was successful or promising, or indifferent, as you’ll find at many mid-summer baseball games played by average teams where people are really there just to have a baseball experience and not because they care about the result. Here, the fans resembled people who are waiting in a hospital for the outcome of life-and-death surgery on a loved one. There was much in the way of pacing, and grimacing, and tortured exhortation, and skyward gazing, and general conspicuous group suffering.

This all was, obviously, awesome. I found myself pretty strongly wanting River to win too, and when the second half started and a defensive breakdown by the home side let Colon prise their backline to score an easy goal for a 1-0 lead, I felt some share of the disappointment that the locals felt. (Interestingly, when Colon scored, my section reacted with stunned, stoic silence, while the hinchada—which was mid-song at the time—got even louder in an act of emotional defiance.)

The aforementioned hand-wringing &c got worse and worse as the game went on. I don’t know the details too well, but a loss would all but seal River’s place in the second division, while a tie would at least give them some hope. Then, about ten minutes from time, a long pass led to some chaos in the Colon area, and River forward Ruben Caruso (I learned later) lasered a loose ball high into the roof of the goal to knot matters at one-all. The reaction was more relief than unadulterated joy. Caruso’s goal had turned a pending humiliating home defeat into a slightly less gutting result that kept alive, if barely, their chances for staying in the first division.

Caruso’s goal ignited something in the River eleven, and for the first time that night, they began to play with creativity and purpose. In the remaining ten or so minutes (including a very generous allotment of extra time from the ref) they carved out a number of chances, including two consecutive chances that flashed in opposite directions diagonally across the face of goal, each seeming to miss by inches, and whipping the crowd into a frenzy of frustration and denied-joy.

Then, it was all over. The River players tromped off the field right in front of us, and there were more whistles (the Arg equivalent of boos) than cheers, though Caruso himself walked separately from the main group (because he was being interviewed by a news reporter) and received more or less unadulterated, if not particularly thunderous applause.

We had to wait about twenty minutes while they ushered out the Colon fans (presumably to avoid any aggro), and then we all streamed out of the stadium and into the cool Bonaerense night.

Goals and highlights of the game here.