Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bend It Like Batistuta

Ahhh... Gabriel Batistuta. What more can one say?
Not long after arriving in South America, I discovered my passion for football. And before anyone starts sending hate mail, it is football, not soccer—at least by my definition. We can save the debate about what “real” football is for another post, but I believe this gentlemen, Gary Archer, seems to have it pretty well summed up here.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s travel back in time to my early days in Argentina. My ever-patient friends took me to cafes to watch games on the screen and educate me as to why they were well within their right to yell at the referee who couldn’t hear them. My buddies taught me how to appreciate the skills and intricacies of the game, and I quickly fell in love with the sport, but the part that intrigued me the most was the supporters. It never failed to amuse me when my normally quiet, agreeable friends transformed into raucous, one-eyed supporters the moment their chosen team took to the field. 

When a journalist friend offered to take me to a live match, I could hardly refuse. On match day, I practically super-glued myself to him, praying I wouldn’t get lost in the rowdy mob as we made our way from the train station to the stadium. At the gate, men, women, and children were patted down, lighters were confiscated and thrown into large plastic bins, and I eventually climbed the shaky wooden steps of the terrace to get a good view of the field. 

I’d never been to a sporting match where the crowds had to be separated by team. With Australian Rules Football, supporters mingle with each other during the game. There’s some good-natured ribbing, but rarely does it come to blows. When I went to my first Argentine football match I hadn’t been brainwashed into supporting any particular team (a totally different story now), so it was a tad difficult to decide which part of the stadium I should be in. Luckily, my friend made up my mind for me, and we took our place amongst the River Plate supporters. The Racing supporters on the opposite side of the field gave us the evil eye and showed us some interesting hand gestures.

Anticipation zapped through the air and the crowd grew louder the closer it came to kick-off. Above our heads, homemade signs fluttered in the breeze, smoke that was not from legal cigarettes floated through the air, and thousands of supporters stretched their vocal chords. Scattered throughout the terraces were signs that had names of different neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires - Palermo, Belgrano, Caballito - indicating where supporters from each barrio should congregate to cheer their team on. The way people greeted each other with hugs, backslaps, and a few choice words was like witnessing a high school reunion.

A few men, who had better balance than tightrope walkers, stood on the railings, faced the crowd and encouraged everyone to join in one of the endless chants from each team’s repertoire. When the mob looked like it was losing momentum, these self-proclaimed cheerleaders would point to those not doing their bit, and berate them into singing louder and jumping higher. 

River Plate
All this before the game had even started. 

Once the teams ran onto the field, the formalities took place, and the game commenced. It was mayhem from that moment on. Thousands of sweaty bodies jumped up and down, supporters broke out into some choice chants, and they spent most of the time telling the other team how useless they were and how they liked dating the mother’s of the opposition. That’s the G rated version, anyway. There’s no such thing as personal space, and no one cared, they were all in it together. 

If a player from the other team happened to take a tumble in front of the opposition supporters, the poor guy got pelted with foam cups, rolled-up newspapers, and fruit. The policemen that stood around the perimeter with shields and truncheons eyed off the crowd, but didn’t move a muscle. A few times, I caught policemen eyeing off the supporters with looks that seemed to say, “That’s the best you can do?”

To be honest, I don’t remember a great deal about the actual match. I know River Plate won, as my friend’s bear hug at the end of the game nearly resulted in me suffering a couple of cracked ribs. 

I came away from the match breathless, in a daze, and on a high I’d never experienced from watching a sport match before. To say I was hooked was an understatement.

When I moved to Cuzco in Peru, the apartment I lived in just happened to be around the corner from one of the national football teams. But that’s a whole other story for another time. 

My love of football has never died, and I am forever grateful to my friends for introducing me to this amazing game. The people’s passion, dedication, and willingness to bare their souls for the love of their team is something I’d never quite experienced before. Football brings people together, regardless of social status. Lifelong friendships are made, and for the couple of hours during the match, one’s problems fall by the wayside and it’s a moment in time to forget about the real world and form a united front.

Supporting a football team means one belongs.

And in case you’re ever in the neighbourhood and feel the urge to go to a River Plate match, here are some chants you can practice:

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