Monday, December 12, 2005

Football as the Clock Ticks Down

November 11 – Buenos Aires
Here’s the scene at 9:40pm on the fifth to last night of my trip: I’m in the TV lounge of the Milhouse Hostel in Buenos Aires. Of the nearly 100 hostels I’ve stayed in this is the most raucous party-hostel and below the balcony the disco ball is spinning, the music is blaring, the hostel bar is doing good business. In an hour I’m set to grab a drink with the Norwegian girl I just met in my room, whose name I don’t yet know but whose cobalt blue eyes I’ve memorized. If I want time to shower I best write quickly…

It made sense not to come home last night because it was after 4am when the Danish girls and I got in the cab. (These are the Danish girls—Tania and Lonnie—I met in Rio when the effort to not write about girls in South America still seemed to matter). They have an apartment here in Buenos Aires now and in the morning (read: early afternoon) we would all go to the football match. So it made sense to crash at their place. Their couch is short so I put a chair at the edge of it so my legs wouldn’t dangle off. Since backpacker fantasies go only so far I needed to use my backpacking sleeping skills and make the couch work.

So now lets get to the football.

Americans call it soccer and sometimes I do too. Tania is the biggest football fan I think I’ve ever met and she explained some particulars of the Boca-Independiente match as we strolled around the stadium looking for tickets. The game was in the Argentine National league and if Boca won and some other team lost their game, Boca would be league champs.

Lonnie agreed to join Tania at the game if I came along. It wasn’t safe for foreign girls to go to the game, they were told, especially in the 14 peso general admission seats. And walking around the streets outside the stadium that was believable. “Beautiful,” guys would say as they passed us with the gravelly snarl of a bad guy in a movie. The crowd was more than 95% male and Lonnie was one of two blondes I saw in the crowd of 50,000.

“This place is great for my self confidence,” Lonnie said. “In Denmark I can hardly get looks, here its like ‘ahhhh.’” She stuck her tongue out like a dog in imitation of the flattering Argentine men.

We bargained the scalper down to $14 (40 pesos) from $35 (100 pesos) and headed in.

It took us three tries to find the right gate (three times the frisking!) and at one point we were somehow in line with the opposing fans who are channeled through twelve-foot high metal gates from the outskirts of the neighborhood to a special entrance where they sit in their special section away from the home fans.

Unfortunately for us, our seats (or at least the space we found to stand behind the south goal) was directly below the opposing Independiente fans. Before we start scaring you with soccer-riot talk lets mention the positives.

International football fans put American rooters to shame. It’s almost embarrassing to think of Fenway Park or Madison Square Garden and people saying things like “playoff atmosphere.” The level of passion and enthusiasm I saw today far exceeded any assembly I’ve witnessed for sports, music, politics, anything.

There was more singing and dancing than at any concert I’ve been to. The ability of 20,000 people to sing and bounce in unison for a half hour is something to behold. Even now as I sit here at 10pm the program on the TV is a long montage of crazed fans greeting the team as they arrived at the stadium.

The dark side of this passion is a sometimes violent antagonism between the fans. It’s clear in the barbed wire fence around the field, the water guns perched above the stadium, and the hundreds of cops in riot gear. As soon as we found a place to stand (the only sitting was during half time) we had to start scattering. The opposing fans above were throwing giant water balloons on us. A one-gallon water balloon after a 150-foot drop is a weapon and so is a broom stick (previously used to wave a flag) and a rock (previous use unknown). Spit isn’t a weapon exactly but it flowed freely from above and on a warm afternoon I worried a bit that all the spitters would suffer some dehydration.

At halftime we all scrambled to find a place to sit and then we scrambled some more when a big firecracker fell from above and exploded in the crowd. “Puto! Puto!” the crowd below yelled at the crowd above. Homo, homo. Almost every other word screamed this afternoon (at the other fans, at the referee, at the opposing team) was “puto.”

The folks in our section spent halftime looking up at the other fans, waiting for something to run from. Everyone around me suddenly sprinted away so I look up but didn’t see anything falling. “Nada,” I said coolly. Then I saw there was already a smoking cylinder on the now-empty steps. Then a young girl came walking up through the empty space. The cylinder smoked red and then…then nothing. It was just a smoke bomb in Independiente’s color.

There was a guy with a bloody towel wrapped around his head who walked past us in the second half. There was water and spit splattered liberally on all of us. There was the consideration of a fractured skull. But there was no real damage done so now we can claim it was all part of the fun.

Lets talk about what was happening down on the field for a minute because this was my first professional soccer game. Sorry, football.

Football is one of those sports—people like to say—that you have to see in person to appreciate. They say this about hockey and racecar driving too. You can’t appreciate the speed on television.

In my opinion television conveys the speed of these sports but not in the right way. Football coverage is forced to use two types of shots: extreme wide shots and close ups. In wide shots the players look like blips on a computer screen; in close up you can’t tell what’s happening in the game. (I think football and hockey would both benefit from a lower angled wide shot similar to what the NBA has adopted in recent years.)

What you see much better in person is the tidal flow of the action. Americans complain of a lack of scoring but scoring isn’t really the point. The point is an evolving series of little battles for field position. In that way it’s a faster version of American football, which is also a battle for field position. Goals—or touchdowns—are the eventual product of winning a series of small battles.

Or you can compare the ebb and flow to basketball. While the scoring in basketball is constant, games are won or lost in a series of small increments: by making a defensive stop and then scoring, by missing a free throw.

So when the uninitiated see 40 minutes without “scoring,” fans see force being exerted in one direction or another. In that way it’s like boxing, where a novice is blind to tactical advantages as they mount. But eventually the pressure reaches a breaking point and a knockdown—or a goal—results.

Watching one game in person doesn’t make me an authority on the sport but it makes clearer how entertaining the game can be regardless of balls going in the net.

What you can see too is the way play changes from casual to intense (and dirty) as the ball moves closer to the goal.

When the ball finally finds a home in the net—in the opponents net—the response can best be compared to an orgasm or friendly riot. If you’re a Yankee fan think of Brett Boone’s homer, if you’re a Sox fan think of David Ortiz’s two homers (isn’t it nice to have more to think about than Yankee fans?). That’s the level of ecstasy I witnessed this afternoon in the middle minutes of an intra-national soccer match. I’m telling you they put us to shame.

There’s so much screaming and hair pulling over every poor pass and questionable call that I couldn’t help but think about next year’s World Cup. If the sport can mean this much on this level, it’s hard to fathom the hysteria of a World Cup.

After the game there were more broomsticks and water (we’re sticking with the belief it was water). There was cheering and singing well past the final whistle and finally an announcement that the right team had lost their game and Boca was league champs. There was much to remember about the afternoon of football but now the night has come—there are just five left—and I need a name for Norway.


At 7:34 PM, Anonymous Diego said...

the word that boca fans used wasnt "punto", it was "puto" it s the same that "gay" or "homo" in a despective way.
great point of view about world s biggest sport.

At 12:20 AM, Blogger Francisco Galárraga said...

yeah, good article on how you saw the match. we are crazy bastards over here in latinamerica in that regard, but they are crazier in brazil & argentina.


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