BY DAN WILLIAMSON
Why do football fans wish to ground-hop and tick experiences and stadiums off their bucket list? Some people just wish to experience as much as possible whilst they are physically and financially able, or whilst the credit card still has some life in it. Others may be looking elsewhere upon becoming disillusioned with the state of football in their country. For me, it was a little of both. What I found in South America, and Argentina in particular, was that whilst there are fascinating aspects to their game, it is not the utopia it appears to be and is not without its problems. A little like in England. What makes the game great in one country may also be the source of its problems, and vice-versa.
Despite having an admiration, and a preference for, the blue and yellow of Boca Juniors, my greatest experiences of Argentine football have been provided by their bitter rivals, River Plate. In June 2008, on my first visit to the country, I unwittingly happened to be in the stadium the day that River won the league by beating Club Olimpo 2-1. Captained by legendary playmaker Ariel Ortega, River opened the scoring in the sixteenth minute when a well-worked free-kick routine was converted by pint-size wonder kid Diego Buonanotte. The youngster wouldn’t go on to have the career I anticipated, ruining my visions of “discovering” him, but that day he was inspired. The visitors, from Bahia Blanca, equalised in the 65th minute before Buonanotte sealed the victory with twelve minutes to spare, finishing neatly from inside the box after latching on to an ingenious pass from “El Burrito” Ortega. The scenes at the end of the game were pure carnage. Diego Simeone, now manager of Atletico Madrid in Spain, running around the pitch at the final whistle holding his crotch in celebration is a memory that is seared on my mind. The Estadio Monumental is one of the iconic venues of world football and despite the running track, and lack of roof, can still create an incredible atmosphere. I can still recall the wooden seats, the goosebumps as men, women and children of all ages sang their hearts out and roared on their team. Till and toilet rolls rained through the sky and by kick off it was almost knee-deep. It was an incredible day.
In 2012 I visited Argentina for the second time, spending a prolonged eight months in the country as part of a university degree. Shortly before returning home, in April 2013, I headed over to Avellaneda to see Racing Club host River Plate. As two members of Argentina’s “big five” I was keenly anticipating the clash between La Academia and Los Millionarios. Avellaneda, Greater Buenos Aires, is a city in its own right and connected to the capital by bridges over the Riachuelo river. Going to the game with Racing fans including expat “English Dan”, I experienced a more authentic experience than most tourists could hope for. Rather than the expensive seats, I’d be stood behind the goal in the popular, where the most raucous and dangerous fans in Argentina usually congregate on row after row of concrete steps. To keep yourself upright you held onto the shoulders of the person in front, whilst you returned the favour for the person behind you. The corners of the stand acted as makeshift toilets, so the smell of urine was only masked by the constant whiff of marijuana. Lighters rained down on police and opposition players daring to take corners or venture near the by line. Goals in each half, including one for Manuel Lanzini, now of West Ham, gave River Plate a 2-0 win. The game was fairly forgettable but the experience most certainly was not.
It’s become somewhat of a cliche to describe the noise and passion of South American football but it must be said, it is streets ahead of England in this regard. Ticket prices help, as football is much more affordable in South America with many fans in England priced out of football in their own country. Standing is still allowed in Argentina stadia, usually behind the goals, and this helps foster incredible atmospheres. As has been well-documented, the Taylor Report, commissioned after the Hillsborough Disaster, decreed that English football stadia should be all-seater, at least at the top level. What this meant was that football stadiums became more family friendly and expensive. The knock-on effect was driving out many young people and genuine fans, those most likely to create genuine atmosphere. It did, however, make “going to the match” a little more pleasant for the majority of folk, and now we see top-flight English football as a preserve of the middle classes. A by-product of the years following the Taylor Report was also the eradication of the violence that had plagued English football in the 1970s and 1980s. In a nutshell English football became sanitised.
With their standing sections and colourful raucous atmospheres, Argentine football matches may feel similar to English games of the 1970s and 1980s. Another thing Argentine football has in common with that era is the violence which is often driven by the Barra Brava, a more organised and criminal version of the English hooligan firms. Following high-profile deaths of supporters at Argentine football matches, the measure was taken to ban away supporters. Even the most ardent fan will say that away fans are a necessity. They are, in most cases, the best fans a club has to offer and their back-and-forth chants with the home fans do much to increase the atmosphere in stadiums. Banning away fans from travelling won’t address deep-rooted structural problems within society as a whole, but clearly the authorities felt it was a necessary measure. There were signs that the stance on away fans was softening this season, but it is far from being a solved problem. Perhaps the biggest black eye on Argentine football occurred during the Copa Libertadores match between Boca and River. As the River players were emerging from the Bombonera tunnel at half-time, a Boca “fan” sprayed a homemade concoction in their direction, hospitalising several players and forcing his team’s removal from the competition.
In England, match-going fans are constantly unhappy with the Premier League’s kowtowing to Sky, BT Sports and other television companies, for ignoring them and changing kick-off times to suit the armchair supporters. It’s a gift and a curse, however, as the money pumped into the game by these companies is what makes the “product” of English football so appealing worldwide. There is no such thing as the sacred 3pm kick-off in Argentina, as almost every game is shown live, with kick-offs staggered at two hour intervals over the weekend. In a move that would make Sky chiefs tremble in their expensive boots, outgoing president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner nationalised football TV rights and put the matches on free-to-air channels. She was merely following the great Argentine tradition of rousing the people with two things: The Falklands/Malvinas dispute, and football. Opponents saw it as a somewhat populist move to boost her fluctuating popularity and cover economic deficiencies, yet the general public and the ardent football fan no doubt saw it differently.
Administratively, it could be argued that both nation’s FAs are run by old suits to protect the interests of the biggest clubs. The comically absurd Argentine Football Association (AFA) recently outdid itself when voting for a new president took place to replace the late Julio Grondona. Despite only 75 participants in the vote, somehow a 38-38 stalemate was arrived at. In their wisdom the incompetent AFA somehow decided that a 30-team Primera Division was also a good idea. And you thought Richard Scudamore’s “Game 39” idea for the English Premier League was bad! In Argentina clubs are relegated based on a “promedio” system, meaning that the clubs with the lowest point average (based on three seasons) are sent down. This system means teams effectively have three bites at the cherry. Sceptics will say that the promedios, and the 30-team league, are measures implemented to protect the big boys. However, in recent years both River Plate and Independiente, two of Argentina’s “big five”, have found themselves in the “B”.
It’s important not to appear Eurocentric because what happens in European football isn’t always the right way. The game in England is the richest on the planet, and can afford shiny stadia and the world’s elite footballers. Our way of living is affluent compared to the rest of the world and our football reflects that. By South American standards, the majority of Argentinians have a decent standard of living, yet the economy is weak and this is reflected in the societal problem of violence as well as in the football. The best players are constantly plucked by bigger clubs abroad able to throw their financial muscle around, meaning it is difficult for Argentine clubs to plan long-term and build teams around their best players. The more successful the clubs are the more likely it is their team will be ripped apart.
Football in each country, and each level, has its peculiarities and its uniqueness that makes it what it is. It also has its downsides. Premier League fans may look abroad to far-flung reaches of the globe where the game is perceived to be more passionate. They will find fascinating clubs, atmospheres, players and people, and should be experienced by every fan of football. But it isn’t the utopia the tourist guides will lead you to believe. The grass isn’t always greener on the other pitch.