This article first appeared in Issue 18 of The Football Pink fanzine

DAN WILLIAMSON gets under the skin of football in the vast metropolis of Buenos Aires, where violence, passion and confrontation has shaped a nation’s psyche.

Due to its wide avenues, cosmopolitan feel, tango, cafés, and the stunning purple blossom of jacaranda trees in the spring, Buenos Aires was once dubbed the “Paris of South America”. It evokes memories of a wonderful past, its grandeur obvious in the architecture and the reverence of historic figures. However, modern Buenos Aires is also wracked with poverty, exacerbated by the 2001 financial crisis and years of neoliberal governance. The metropolitan area of Buenos Aires is home to almost 14 million people, accounting for over a third of Argentina’s population. The capital city is home to the presidential palace as well as being the main transportation gateway into the country. The 200km² city dominates the nation.  

Like the city itself, Buenos Aires’ football teams once competed with the world’s finest on the pitch. Nowadays the clubs are regularly stripped of their best talent and generally play in crumbling stadia. Fan violence is rife and the organising bodies of Argentine football are infested with corruption. Thirteen of the 28 teams taking part in the 2017/18 Superliga hail from Buenos Aires and its clubs are the most successful in the land. Los Cinco Grandes – Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing, Independiente, and San Lorenzo – boast 116 domestic championships between them, 18 Copa Libertadores’ – South America’s Champions League equivalent – and seven Intercontinental Cups.

Buenos Aires’ past and present is inextricably linked to immigration, with Europeans arriving in their droves during the nineteenth century. Argentina declared independence from the Spanish Crown in 1816 and the controversial Conquest of the Desert, originally labelled an exercise in “civilising” indigenous peoples in the south of the country, has since been described as a genocidal land grab. More than 15,000 were killed or displaced and in the process the land mass of the country grew exponentially. The government sought to populate the lands with “enlightened” peoples: in short, white Europeans. “To govern, is to populate”, said Juan Batista Alberdi, the political theorist and diplomat who helped to draft the 1853 constitution, at the time.

The largest wave of immigration occurred between 1881 and 1914 when 4.2million immigrants – mainly Spanish and Italian – arrived in Argentina, the majority through the port of Buenos Aires. In 1854, the city’s population was 90,000 but by 1895 it had mushroomed to 670,000. By 1914, new arrivals made up 30 per cent of Argentina’s inhabitants. However, even conservative estimates put that figure at 60 per cent in Buenos Aires, perhaps even as high as 80 per cent.

Immigrants arrived in Buenos Aires searching for a better life, often escaping unfavourable conditions back home. With them they brought customs, food, and language, directly influencing the society within which they assimilated. Today’s Argentine accent and accompanying hand gestures are distinctly Italian and unlike many other Spanish-speaking countries. Lunfardo, a dialect with strong Italian influence, originated in Buenos Aires amongst the lower classes during the era of mass immigration and is still evident today.

Infrastructure was required to support and sustain the expanding land mass and growing population, and thus the railway network in Argentina came to fruition. The first tracks were laid by Argentines in 1855 but later liberal economic policies would later see the network sold to private, British investors, often at a value much lower than its true worth. This anger at “selling the Crown Jewels” would spark anti-British sentiment that was exacerbated by the Malvinas/Falklands conflict a century later. By 1910, British companies all but monopolised the rail network, dominating until President Juan Domingo Perón nationalised the railways in 1948.

This British population – estimated at 45,000 in 1890 – created businesses, hospitals, newspapers and English-language educational institutions. Alexander Watson Hutton was born in Glasgow in 1853 and left for Argentina in 1882, and is considered the father of football in his adopted homeland. In 1893, the school teacher helped to establish the Argentine Association Football League, the first of its kind outside of the British Isles. In 1898, Hutton’s school, the Buenos Aires English High School, officially founded a football team called Alumni Athletic Club, one that would dominate the nascent years of the Argentine game, winning 22 honours before its dissolution in 1913.

Whilst Alexander Watson Hutton’s Alumni were sweeping all before them, the cinco grandes were in the introductory stages of their development. All five were founded in the first decade of the twentieth century and all five have immigrants to thank for their creation. The universal language of football provided an identity for the newcomers, an identity that perhaps was lost once immigrants left their home town. Now, their barrio and new football team would provide them with the identity they so desperately craved.

Both River and Boca, by a country mile the most popular teams in the country, were founded in La Boca, a working-class neighbourhood in the south-east of the city by the docks and the Matanza River, or Riachuelo. Nowadays, La Boca’s centre – the streets surrounding El Caminito – is somewhat of a tourist trap with visitors lured in by the colourfully painted houses, memorabilia shops, restaurants, and street performers including tango dancers and even a Diego Maradona lookalike. Turning the clock back 100 years, La Boca was primarily inhabited by immigrants, the majority of whom were of Italian descent.

Boca were founded in 1905 by five young men from Genoa, hence their nickname of Los Xeneize (The Genoese). River Plate owe their anglicised name to English dockers working in Duque 3 of Puerto Madero. One of River’s founders saw a box with River Plate – the anglicised version of Rio de la Plata, the name of the estuary that separates Argentina and Uruguay – written on the side and proposed this as a name for the new club.

Today, the La Boca neighbourhood is synonymous with Boca Juniors, and is home to the stunning La Bombonera stadium, a crumbling blue and yellow temple of football that literally shakes when the fans are in full flow. River eventually moved out of La Boca, and now call the Estadio Monumental their home. The stadium, in between the relatively affluent Belgrano and Nuñez neighbourhoods in the north of the city, hosted the 1978 World Cup final and is now the semi-permanent home of the national team.

A naive, simplified attitude exists that River fans are rich and their Boca counterparts are less affluent. River fans are often guilty of perpetuating this myth, making tasteless remarks about Boca’s Bolivian and Paraguayan immigrant fan base. “How horrible it is to be a Bolivian bostero / he has to live in a shantytown / his old woman walks the streets / his sister sucks cocks round about / bostero bostero bostero / bostero don’t give it so much thought / go and live in Bolivia / all your family’s there,” goes one of the songs. “Boca’s in mourning, everybody knows, ’cause they’re all black, they’re all homos, kill the shit-kickers, they aren’t straight, throw the bumpkins in the River Plate”, goes another.

Racing and Independiente contest the El Clásico de Avellaneda and their home stadia are literally a stone’s throw apart. Avellaneda is technically a city in its own right, bordering Buenos Aires and connected to it by a series of bridges spanning the Riachuelo. However, it is almost classed as an industrial suburb having been swallowed up by its large and powerful neighbour. Independiente were founded in 1905 by Spanish-speaking workers from an English department store, and their red kit owes thanks to Nottingham Forest, showing a keen English influence. Their bitter rivals, Racing, on the other hand were named after a French car racing magazine, due to one of the founders being of French ancestry.

San Lorenzo, the final grande to make up the list, were founded in 1908 by Lorenzo Massa, a Catholic priest born in Argentina to Italian parents. The priest wanted to give the local kids a safe place to play football so offered the church yard in return that they attend mass on a Sunday morning. Their biggest rivals are Huracán, although it’s always an occasion when any of the Big Five meet, due to their success and the fact that they’ve traditionally contested the championships.

The barra brava, organised fan groups similar to European Ultras or English hooligans of the 1970s and 1980s, began to receive financial backing from the clubs – in the form of free tickets and travel – in order to travel to away matches and support their teams in the 1950s. Inevitably, violent clashes between rival fans followed, and the barra later stretched their operations to control all facets of illegal match day activity around the stadia, such as car parking, drug dealing, and extortion. Where there is money and power there is division, and splinter groups within fan bases sprung up, with rival barra fighting each other in the streets and stands over control of the lucrative illegal revenue streams at their respective clubs. According to Jonathan Wilson, author of Angels with Dirty Faces, the rise of the barra is inextricably linked to the neoliberal policies that the country suffered under President Carlos Menem’s tenure. Jorge Valdano, the Argentine who played for and managed Real Madrid between 1984 and 1996, remarked that violence grew in direct proportion to social injustice and frustration faced by people in their daily lives, and that gangs of hooligans emerged due to a shortage of jobs and lack of hope. The result was that arrests at football matches increased five-fold between 1986 and 1990. Between 2000 and 2013 there were reportedly more than 70 deaths in and around football stadia on match days; the government’s response was to ban away fans.

Mauricio Pellegrino, manager of Estudiantes when the away fan ban was introduced in 2013, said that the violence is a “social problem” and that “football reflects the violence in society”. There have been more than 40 deaths since the inception of the ban so you have to wonder how successful the initiative has been. Argentina was borne out of violence, gaining independence following a bloody secession from the Spanish Empire. Violence followed and the 1900s were seemingly characterised by an endless, vicious, cycle of military coups and civilian governments, a process that was rinsed and repeated. Buenos Aires itself became an official autonomous district in the late 1800s after decades of political infighting. It should therefore be no surprise that violence is so prevalent in Argentine society, and as an extension, football.

Despite the ban on away fans the match day experience in the big Buenos Aires stadia is still superb, and any tourists visiting will no doubt be blown away, especially those used to the sanitised world of the English Premier League. Outside the ground the informal economy thrives, with hawkers peddling memorabilia, drinks, and the Argentine street food classic, the choripán. Inside the stadium the colour and noise is spectacular and goose bump-inducing with flags and umbrellas in the club’s colours waved, fans bouncing up and down and singing songs in support of their team. Flares are set off, trumpets are blown and drums are banged. Most of the action comes from the populares, the cheaper areas behind the goals which can often be lawless and self-policed, with drugs dealt underneath huge flags, and marijuana smoked by the bucket load. For visitors in particular, the implicit danger and the rough-around-the-edge feel is what makes it so appealing.

El Obelisco is a national monument and an unmissable, iconic landmark of the Buenos Aires skyline. Lying on the ginormous Avenida 9 de Julio, with its mind-boggling 18 lanes of traffic, the needle-like structure is an important focal point and a traditional spot for political protests and national celebrations alike. This also extends to football and many a success has seen thousands of fans congregate there in order to celebrate.

As is often the case when tensions are running high and alcohol is involved, festivities can turn unruly. Following Argentina’s defeat to Germany in the World Cup final of 2014, riot police were deployed when a group of 15 football fans climbed onto a TV news van and ripped off the antenna. Stores were trashed in the city centre, and elsewhere in the city, disgruntled fans set fire to trash cans and blocked roads with makeshift barricades. More than 30 people were detained with 20 injured – including 15 police. In 2015, 30,000 Boca fans gathered to celebrate the league championship, only to be greeted by 200 police, water cannons and a helicopter. Traffic lights were scaled, shops were destroyed, and at least seven police officers suffered injuries.

When it comes to football, no individual represents Argentina and Buenos Aires quite like Diego Armando Maradona. The widely regarded greatest player of all time is a direct reflection of his surroundings, having been born in 1960 and raised in Villa Fiorito, a cripplingly poor neighbourhood in Buenos Aires province, approximately 15 kilometres from the city’s Microcentro. It was here where Maradona learned his craft on the potrero, an unforgiving, hard, dusty and uneven surface where you’re forced to adapt and develop ways of problem solving. “There was no grass, synthetic or otherwise, but to us it was wonderful,” said Maradona in his 2004 autobiography El Diego. “The pitches were made of earth, really hard earth,” he added. Maradona played under the blazing sun and even in the dark: “If our parents were looking for us, they knew where to find us. We would always be there in the potrero, running after the ball.” Famed Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano likened football to another Argentine institution: the tango. “Like the tango, soccer blossomed in the slums” wrote Galeano. “It required no money and could be played with nothing more than sheer desire,” he continued.

This wasteland football was the antithesis of the conditions in which the British in Argentina honed their game. Playing on lawns akin to bowling greens, the British style was very methodical and mechanical. They prided themselves on gentlemanly conduct and fair play, whereas the Argentina-based players based their game on passion, bravery, fury, trickery and deception, literally anything that would give you an edge out on the hard potrero. The most notable example of this is Maradona’s Hand of God, which helped knock England out of the 1986 World Cup. El Diego didn’t care, as his country eventually lifted the trophy, and he talked of “pickpocketing” the English.

Buenos Aires is a city defined by bloody revolution and immigration. The former grandeur of the city is there for all to see but if it wasn’t for the crippling poverty endured by many of its inhabitants, would Argentine football be what it is today? Would Diego Maradona have become the player he did without endless hours on the potrero? Without immigration and those young men establishing today’s giant clubs where would Argentine football be? Without the institutional violence and neoliberal policies of various governments would the spectacle and match day experience be what it is? The city and its football is full of contradictions and question marks and that is what ultimately makes it so alluring. Football is a mirror image of the society in which it operates, not the other way around, and this is certainly true for Buenos Aires.

DAN WILLIAMSON – @winkveron

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