I had been in Argentina for a month before the opportunity arose to see Juan Román Riquelme in action. As I arrived halfway through the Torneo Inicial season, there were plenty of Boca Juniors games being played. There was one small but significant problem, however: I could not buy a ticket to one.
It is two years since Boca last sold tickets for home games to the general public. Instead, they are available only to the club’s socios (members). There are still ways for tourists to get into La Bombonera on a match day but, financially and ethically, they are less than appealing.
Tickets can almost always be bought from tourist offices in central Buenos Aires but, due to the fact that they have passed through several hands since they were in those of the socio that bought them, they are prohibitively expensive. What originally cost the socio 70 pesos will often remain unavailable to the tourist for less than 700.
For the more adventurous, it remains possible to go down to the ground on match-day and wait around until a tout offers his services. As one would expect, there are a number of drawbacks to that plan.
First and foremost, the chances of being sold a fake ticket are frustratingly high. Even if what one is sold is genuine, it is common for the steward at the turnstile to declare it a forgery, confiscate it as evidence and then, once the tourist is out of sight, hand it back to the tout to be sold again.
From top to bottom, the whole ticketing process stinks of corruption. It serves only to divert funds away from Boca Juniors itself and instead funnel the cash towards an omnipresent and all-powerful group to whom I would rather not be giving my money: the barras bravas.
For the uninitiated, the barras bravas are basically an Argentine club’s hardcore fans. Take Italian football’s ultras as a starting point, make them even crazier, and then throw in all the hallmarks of a serious organised crime operation. Most clubs’ barras have links to racketeering, arms-trafficking and drug-dealing, as well as a long history of violence. The number of deaths attributed to the barras bravas since the 1950s is too high to begin detailing.
Unfortunately, the barras are so fundamental to Argentine football culture that many clubs have come to depend on them, not only to organise vociferous and colourful support at home games but to protect senior management by crushing dissent in the stands by any means necessary. Troublingly, they also do their club’s dirty work. If the team is underperforming, the barras will invariably go to the home of the manager or a player and threaten to harm his family if he does not up his game.
In exchange for these services, the barras are granted certain privileges: free entry to the stadium, free travel to away games and free reign to take a share of club money whenever they feel entitled to it. In the case of Boca, it is impossible to tell where the barras’ influence ends and that of the official club hierarchy begins. The barras take cuts of all money made from merchandising, broadcasting deals and player sales. They even receive a percentage of the first team’s wages.
So long-standing and mutually beneficial is this relationship that many political organisations have muscled in on it, hiring the barras bravas to perform their duties outside of football. As recently as October 2013, the student elections at the University of Buenos Aires saw violent interference from the barras of Club Atlético Platense.
Student elections are the tip of the iceberg: the reality is that every group of barras bravas is in bed with one political organisation or another. Similarly, the police are routinely paid to turn a blind eye to their misdeeds. These links with Argentina’s political class and its crime-prevention force have added the final impenetrable layer to the barras’ armour. Simply put, although they are widely known to be murderers, gunrunners and drug-dealers, they are untouchable.
It often seems that there is almost no way to watch live football in Argentina – and certainly not at La Bombonera – without legitimising both their existence and their business methods. I arrived in Buenos Aires perfectly aware of this culture and steadfast in my refusal to co-operate with it. If I was going to see Riquelme, it was not going to happen immediately.
I focused on settling in Buenos Aires and trying to learn Spanish. At the weekends, I watched live games on TV whenever possible and paid particularly close attention to Riquelme’s performances. Like Argentine football, he was obviously a shadow of his former self – the languid stroll that characterised him at his peak was now more like a rickety stagger – and old age had brought with it an even greater level of belligerence and distrust of his teammates.
It made watching him quite uncomfortable. No matter how much one idolises their favourite player, it’s hard to enjoy watching him when he’s being a total dick. Whenever it seemed like his powers had been irretrievably lost, however, that he had gone over to the dark side once and for all, he would nonchalantly flick a sublime pass to a colleague and I would instantly forgive all of his faults.
Predictably, the itch to watch live football became too great to scratch before too long. One Friday night, my friend Chris and I were considering venturing down to Sarandí, a working-class area just south of the city border, to watch Arsenal take on All Boys. Through the magic of the internet we were put in touch with Santi, an Arsenal fan able to advise us on the best course of action.
Santi advised us that Sarandí was far from the type of neighbourhood two inexperienced westerners should be exploring on a Friday night. Displaying typical Porteño hospitality, he suggested that the two of us come over to his flat and watch the game there instead – an offer that was gratefully accepted.
A couple of weeks later, Santi extended another invite, this time to Arsenal’s next home game, which was against Boca. I was ecstatic: it may not be a world-famous cauldron of noise like La Bombonera, but what El Viaducto lacks in relative capacity and atmosphere it more than makes up for in intimacy and accessibility. Seeing Riquelme there would guarantee an unbeatable view of a genius at work, and I wouldn’t have to give Boca’s barras a penny.
As the days before the match vanished one by one, I often had to remind myself that I really was going to see Juan Román Riquelme in a live game in Argentina. After more than a decade spent dreaming of doing exactly that, the notion seemed so utterly ridiculous that I just assumed it wouldn’t happen. Generally speaking, if something seems too good to be true, it is.
Therefore, I was not at all surprised when, on the day of the game, I received a message from Santi saying that we could no longer go to the match. The guy who was supposed to be driving us could no longer make it, so we had no guaranteed way of getting there and back. While at the time this felt like the end of our story, it was actually the beginning.
I tried to be philosophical about the news. The situation as it stood was spelled out: Sarandí becomes a different place when the sun goes down. Waiting around for a late bus home is less than advisable, particularly if you look like a Westerner or a relatively affluent Argentine. Such is the frequency with which taxi drivers have been robbed by passengers picked up in the barrio, they no longer stop there. Basically, if one has no way out, it’s best not to go there to begin with.
That was that, then. It wasn’t even worth getting angry over: the driver had a perfectly valid reason for dropping out and if going to Arsenal vs Boca was as good as smearing oneself in fresh blood and jumping into a shark tank, then it was by all means the right thing to do to give the match a wide berth. Logically, I could not argue. My gut feeling, however, told me to do everything possible to get to the game regardless of all of this. Somehow, it would all work out.
Thankfully, it didn’t take much to convince Santi to take the plunge. We agreed to take the Subte into the centre of town and then share a taxi from San Telmo to Sarandí. This would get us there and keep costs relatively low. As far as getting back went, we would take our chances with a pre-booked cab and hope that it showed up. If not, we were on our own.
It was a dangerous plan. While it would be cheap, the stakes would definitely be high. As a Caucasian with fair hair, I would apparently be a target, so preventative measures were needed. Santi would bring an Arsenal shirt for me to wear over my hoodie and a hat to hide my hair. We would arrive in the area with a couple hours to kill so as to avoid the potentially dangerous crowds nearer to kick-off. I was to dress down and leave all valuables at home.
Most importantly of all, it was forbidden to speak English once we reached our destination. For someone who had very little Spanish before arriving in the country and had only been taking lessons for a few weeks, this was as good as agreeing to remain silent for the entire evening. These were the conditions and we were only going to the game if they could be met.
So it was that a couple of hours later, I left the flat with only my keys, my SUBE and 300 pesos in my pocket. I walked to the corner of the street and met Santi. In town, we were joined by a Boca-supporting friend of Santi’s named Nico. We hailed a cab and, with that, there was no going back. We were going to Sarandí and I was going to see Riquelme.
As we sped out of the city, Santi passed me the Arsenal shirt. Once I had put it on, I asked him to pass me the hat as well.
“Shit, man. I forgot it,” he said.
It was a sign of things to come.
When we arrived in Sarandí, I decided it really isn’t that bad. It’s an enchanting barrio if you’re into the Kabul-circa-2004 aesthetic. We got out of the cab on the decaying main road and turned left down a dusty one-lane track which led to the ticket office. On our left, there was a modest and densely-populated low-rise residential area, typical of southern Buenos Aires. To our right, a railway bridge, under which several families lived in shacks of corrugated iron and wood.
Nearby, scores of children played in what was once a green space, long before their constant footfalls had turned the fertile ground to dust. Several groups of adults chatted among themselves and watched over their young. Two horses stood idly by, taking in the whole scene, their purpose to me unclear. They could have been family pets, tools of someone’s trade or tomorrow’s dinner for twenty. I was wary of thinking anything judgemental but nothing seemed out of the question.
As we passed this crowd, I was extremely aware that at any given moment I was being stared at by several locals. Despite the Arsenal shirt, it was patently obvious that I was a gringo on their turf, and while some seemed more bemused than anything else by my presence, there were others to whom it looked like my arrival was some kind of insult. I tried not to make eye contact, lest that be received as actual provocation.
The area in front of the ticket office was reassuringly full of police. If harm was to come to us anywhere, it would not be here. Given the level of security, we briefly lapsed into speaking English, albeit very quietly, to discuss our plan of action: we would buy the tickets, go to a nearby pizzeria on the theoretically safe main road, get some food and drink down us and come back just before kick-off.
As soon as we reached the front of the queue, that plan fell apart. Arsenal were not selling tickets to non-socios at any price. With Boca fans likely to show up in huge numbers for a game that was no distance for them to travel to, the home club’s president had, for one day only, adopted the ticketing policy of the visitors in order to maintain safety in and around the ground.
We pleaded with them to turn a blind eye and sell us – an Arsenal fan and two neutrals – three tickets at the regular admission price for non-socios, but their position was immovable: no socio card, no entry. We weighed up our options and found that we had none to speak of. Santi apologised and we began the walk back to the main road with heavy hearts.
I had gotten this far and fallen at the final hurdle. That was the reality and yet I couldn’t believe it. At no point during that day did I stop thinking that we would get into the ground and that I would see Riquelme. I didn’t have the first idea how we would do it, but where there is a will there is always a way – and there was indeed a way.