The further we walked from El Viaducto, the more determined I was to get into Arsenal vs Boca at any cost. Aware that we were on potentially hostile territory, I refrained from articulating this thought to Santi and Nico, who spoke between themselves about our options. We didn’t have many.
On the way past Sarandí’s railway-bridge-cum-residential-estate-cum-children’s-playground, we spotted something decidedly out of place coming in the other direction. Forty or fifty very loud westerners were walking towards the stadium in a mixed gender group. Many of the men were shirtless and sunburned. It seemed that the majority were drunk. For all the sense the sight made, it might as well have been a gigantic wooden horse rolling down the street.
In stark contrast to our pair of city-bred Argentines plus one Englishman, they were making no secret of their origins: even from a distance, their accents gave the game away. They were obviously a group of Australians on holiday, all set on going to the game. I stopped one as our paths met and asked if they had tickets.
“Yes, mate,” he said, holding his up by way of proof, “all taken care of.”
“Through the hostel.”
“Yeah. Can’t you get in?”
“No, they’re not selling to non-socios.”
“Not my problem, mate. Better luck next time, eh?”
With that most sensitive of remarks, he was gone.
We arrived at the pizzeria with our disappointment now supplemented with a good helping of righteous indignation. While Santi and Nico ate their slices, I stood looking at the signed classic football shirts framed on the far wall. Eventually, Santi came over and echoed my less-than-magnanimous thoughts when he whispered: “Man, I can’t believe some fucking drunk Australian girls are going to watch that game and we’re not.”
Rationally speaking, we should have left Sarandí at that moment. We should have called a cab and got back to the city in time to watch the match on television. Still, none of us could bring ourselves to make the first step of the journey home. We had so much time until the match began. Surely a solution would present itself if we searched for it.
Some Arsenal fans came in and sat at a nearby table. Sensing the possibility of salvation, Santi went over and asked if they knew anyone who could help us get tickets, either by selling to us or by buying them with their socio card. It was a long shot but we were getting desperate. After what seemed like an inordinately long discussion, Santi returned to me and Nico with a solution – albeit one that in any other circumstances we would never have considered.
As one of the Arsenal fans at the table had put it, our group had two options: number one, give up and go home; number two, find the barras bravas, wherever they were, pose as members of their group and sneak into the terrace behind the goal with them. We would not be asked for tickets, so the lack of a socio card would not be a problem. There was a pause while Nico and I waited for a punchline that never came. This really was our only way in.
“What do you think?” asked Santi.
“It’s very, very dangerous,” said Nico.
“My heart says ‘yes’ but my head screams ‘no’.”
“Well, that proves they’re both working properly.”
After taking a couple of minutes to think it over, I again gave in to my gut feeling. There was no way I was going to have travelled seven thousand miles to Buenos Aires, arrived at a ground in which Juan Román Riquelme was playing football and then walked away.
We all knew that sneaking in with a gang of known violent criminals was just about the worst idea any of us had ever had, but at the same time it felt like our only acceptable course of action. With the appropriate levels of unease, we went back to the ground and tried to find the barras.
The situation outside the ground had changed markedly in the last hour. The sun had gone down and darkness had brought the whole neighbourhood out to play. Large clusters of fans were dotted all around, almost all of them singing and jumping in unison. While it was clear that their passion was primarily for football and not for bloody anti-gringo violence, as soon as we walked among them I was aware that many sets of eyes were reflexively trained on me.
While these groups were all making a considerable level of noise, the loudest of all came from a long, dark alleyway to our right. There was loud, co-ordinated chanting on another level to that in front of us, accompanied by the shattering of glass and firecrackers going off at regular intervals. The police were flagrantly turning a blind eye to events in that area, while strictly keeping tabs on the far less incendiary sets of fans out in the open. There was no doubt about it: we were heading down that alley.
I remember feeling quite calm as our trio made its way down the narrow, dusty passage. I was deliberately placing myself in a considerable level of jeopardy but I was confident nothing would happen to us. We would somehow blend in and then I would watch Riquelme play football. All I had to do was follow Santi and Nico, be totally silent and remain inconspicuous.
When we reached the barras, my tranquillity turned to trepidation and quickly morphed into full-on terror. Arsenal de Sarandí are famously poorly supported by Argentine standards, but the crowd in that alleyway seemed fit to fill the Nou Camp. It certainly made more noise than the usual Barcelona crowd and not much of it was particularly welcoming.
It seemed that everywhere I looked there were heavily-tattooed men with their battle scars on show. Many were under the influence of drugs and not the kind that make one mellow and sociable. Most worryingly, almost everyone in the alley seemed to be on first name terms with each other. Even the assorted groups of amphetamine-brained teenagers were familiar with the guys running the show. If anyone spotted our group and asked if anyone recognised us, we were done for.
We found a spot on the corner of the dirt track leading into the stand behind the goal and waited for events to unfold. There was definitely no turning back. The most conspicuous thing we could do, besides raising a British flag and shouting about the Falklands, was walk away. We would just have to be quiet and hope for the best. Santi smoked a few cigarettes in quick succession while pacing back and forth. Nico stood perfectly still. I tried not to involuntarily empty my bowels.
I didn’t get any more comfortable as time passed. I thought about keeping my eyes fixed on the floor but it was impossible. I was wary of failing to spot the guy who would brazenly walk up to me with a knife and tell me to hand over my dollars. I reminded myself that the people around me were here to watch football, not slaughter westerners, but the hardened, accusatory stares that I received served to continually undermine that notion.
In my mind, a BBC news item about my stupid, foolhardy death in Argentina was being read by an earnest female reporter. “His was arguably the most ill-advised gamble since Sven-Göran Eriksson took a seventeen year-old Theo Walcott to the 2006 World Cup. Six weeks after Brown’s disappearance, his body was found in a dumpster and identified using dental records,” she said. “Juan Román Riquelme was unavailable for comment.”
Suddenly, the volume went up a notch. We couldn’t see what had happened but the atmosphere had become noticeably more vitriolic and, nearby, someone was taking a lot of verbal abuse. I caught a glimpse of blue and yellow and realised that a Boca fan had somehow arrived among us wearing his team’s colours. He was, quite understandably, trying to flee.
The barras were obviously itching to lay their hands on him but something was stopping them from doing so. While never ceasing to hurl insults and denunciations his way, the mob parted and allowed him to leave, completely untouched. As he shuffled past us, I saw that he was carrying a baby. Two thoughts entered my mind in quick succession: firstly, what kind of person brings an infant to a football match and uses it as a shield? Secondly, why didn’t I think of doing that?
As if on cue, a huge, hulking skinhead walked through the crowd towards us. I prayed that he was just passing through but I strongly suspected that he had won that night’s game of Spot The Gringo and was on the way to collect his winnings. If that was the case, I wasn’t even going to fight back. While there was admittedly next to no chance of me fending off a group of drugged-up twenty-year-olds, my odds of survival against this guy were even lower: zero percent would’ve been a generous forecast in my favour.
As if reading my mind, said seven-foot-skinhead came past our group, turned on his heels and placed himself directly behind me. My blood ran cold. Despite the racket around us, it seemed like everything had gone silent. I waited for a fist the size of a fridge to take my head clean off of my body and send it bouncing down the street. Somehow, the blow never came. Eventually, he walked back around us and disappeared back into the throng.
After a few more tortuous minutes, the crowd quietened down to listen as their ringleader shouted instructions. I didn’t understand a single word he said but from the subsequent actions of those around me I gathered it was time for us to enter the stadium. With a surprisingly unquestioning level of compliance, the crowd became an orderly queue. The doors were opened and we began to file in.
Almost immediately, the queue stopped moving. Two of the barras controlling admission were conferring. I prayed that the topic of discussion wasn’t the fate of the only fair-haired, blue-eyed guy in the line. The ringleader yelled more orders to the crowd. Everyone around me reacted by putting their hands in their pockets and pulling out wads of cash.
Santi recognised my haplessness and took a big risk by whispering to me in English.
“They want 100 pesos off of everyone. No tickets so we have to pay them to get in.”
The two barras began talking again. The ringleader shouted a clarification.
“Now it’s 10 pesos.”
While wondering exactly which economics classes these barras had attended, I swapped the 100 peso bill in my hand for a 10 and waited for the line to move again. After a few sets of supporters had gone through, the line was once again stopped. The ringleader had realised that the price he had set was absurdly low. Again, he shouted a command, and again I didn’t understand.
“20 pesos,” came Santi’s prompt translation.
By this point, Santi, Nico and I must have been the fourth, fifth and sixth in line. If the barras nearest to us had heard Santi whispering or simply took note of my appearance, we would again have been finished. Thankfully, they had eyes only for the paper in our hands. We inched forward, dropped the money into their bags and passed through the cordon. I had directly paid the thugs to whom I had sworn not to give my cash, but I didn’t care: we were alive and we were in.
As soon as we entered El Viaducto, we headed right and exited the terrace behind the goal, where the chief barras would soon take their place among the rest of the gang. A small walkway between the two stands allowed us to get into the terrace along the side of the pitch. Still surrounded by people, this was far from the safest place in the world, but we had increased our chances of survival markedly. For now, we were safe.
“Fuck, man, that was intense,” said Santi.
“Sí,” was all I could say in response. My nerves were too shredded for my brain to recall any more Spanish vocabulary.
We soon spotted the Australian group across from us in the main stand, a group of fifty blond heads in a fenced-off section of seats, segregated from the locals at all costs. They must have been waiting in the stadium for an hour already and there was still over another hour to go until kick-off. They looked extremely bored and I felt glad.
It took a while for me to get past the fact that we had just played with fire and escaped without the slightest burn – at least externally – and remember what had made us risk everything in the first place. When I realised how close we were to the pitch on which Riquelme would shortly be nonchalantly playing flair-soaked killer passes, I knew it had all been worth it.
In the Hollywood version of this story, we will be treated to a Riquelme masterclass. Boca will win 5-0 playing the kind of football that would turn Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets green with envy. With five minutes to go, Riquelme will spot me in the crowd and tell Carlos Bianchi to sub me on, before setting me up for a glorious final goal. Real life wasn’t quite so satisfying.
The match itself was very entertaining: Arsenal’s 3-2 victory was a rollercoaster ride which went from the sublime to the ludicrous and back again via the barely believable. Each Arsenal goal was a work of art, while Boca’s were perfectly timed to ensure that the hosts never felt safe. When, in the dying minutes, Boca twice hit the woodwork, I thought Santi was going to pass out due to the tension.
Sadly, there was no denying that Boca’s number ten was at least partly responsible for his side’s defeat. When his teammates needed his encouragement, he responded by berating them. Whenever he was dispossessed, he put his hands on his hips and turned his back on the game. When he gave the ball away very cheaply, allowing Arsenal to counter and score their decisive third goal, he singled out a colleague and scolded him instead of holding his hands up and apologising.
I was not exactly surprised: these are hardly new additions to Riquelme’s inexhaustible repertoire of strops. It was more that these flaws were highlighted because, when once he would have been the game’s central figure, he was now unable to be anything more than supplementary.
It seemed to me illogical that Boca depended on a player who was so obviously over the hill. While they put the ball through him constantly, his body obviously couldn’t keep up with his mind. He was fine at retaining possession in midfield but when it came to creating chances, he was ineffectual.
It was, to coin a phrase, King Of Limbs-era Riquelme: all the hallmarks of the brilliance that made him my hero were there to see but they were accompanied by such obvious flaws that it was impossible to give anything but qualified praise. Given that he had once been greatness personified, it was hard to be moved seeing him as merely good.
I tried to ignore the drawbacks and focus on the intelligence and languid flair that were still present in abundance. Every time he received the ball in midfield, played a perfectly-weighted pass to a teammate and showed for the return, I was giddy with delight. Some of his first touches were so obscenely good that I was surprised that the referee didn’t stop the game and book him for making everyone else look inadequate. When he effortlessly pulled off a low, swerving, crossfield switch with the outside of his boot, it was all I could do not to burst out laughing.
By the end I desperately wanted a Riquelme goal, but whenever he carried the ball forward and the opportunity arose for him to shoot, I found myself suddenly ambivalent: on one hand, it would’ve fulfilled a lifelong dream to see him score an absolute screamer; on the other, I would inevitably have celebrated and found myself in all kinds of trouble. The best case scenario would probably have been waking up in hospital with no memory of the goal. Thankfully, he never threatened to find the net.
As soon as the final whistle went, we left the stadium and went back out into the alley. It was already heaving – a far greater number of people were there than there had been before the game. Thankfully, the barras bravas were still in the stadium, celebrating their victory. We passed through safely, returning to Sarandí’s main road and waiting for the taxi home.
Santi had phoned the cab company at half-time and made the necessary arrangements: we were to wait outside the pizzeria for a brand new black Fiat. The driver was on his way, they said. Ninety nervy minutes and several phone calls later, a battered blue non-Fiat with no wing mirrors arrived and picked us up. Half an hour later we were back in central Buenos Aires and, mercifully, it was all over.
I returned the Arsenal shirt to Santi and thanked him for organising the adventure and realising my dream. I did a quick mental calculation and realised that we had done so at an incredible price: the two cab fares combined with the pay-off to Arsenal’s barras amounted to a total of roughly £4.34. What I saved in pocket change I will undoubtedly lose in years of my life, but it was worth it.
I will never be able to say that I saw Juan Román Riquelme at his best, but I definitely saw the real thing: an inimitable paradox of irresistible footballing class and infuriating personal classlessness. While I was sad to find the latter so evident, I will always forgive him and be glad that such an artist worked in the medium of football to begin with. For all his flaws, he’s still the only player I’d have considered risking everything to see – and, given the chance, I’d do it all over again.