This originally appeared in Playground Buenos Aires magazine.
Watching football in Buenos Aires is unique. No other city can match the sheer number of teams here or the passion of the Porteño fans. There are twenty-four clubs within the Capital and goodness knows how many more in the Greater Buenos Aires area and the locals’ knowledge of and love for the game goes above and beyond anything I’ve seen anywhere else.
Each of Buenos Aires’ ‘Big Five’ clubs – Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing, Independiente and current champions San Lorenzo – has a long and storied history, full of impressive achievements and events that would seem unbelievable were they to have taken place anywhere else. It goes without saying that if the chance comes up to see any of them for a reasonable price, you have to take it.
When a big match is coming up, it seems like nothing else matters. The build-up goes on for days and as the match gets closer it often gets so intense it becomes ridiculous. By the time the game finally kicks off, it is almost impossible to think of it as anything other than the most important event in human history.
The Superclásico between Boca and River remains the most widely-covered match of every season and every guidebook will tell you to head to either Boca’s Bombonera or River’s Monumental, but it is well worth expanding your horizons and looking for matches away from the typical tourist spots.
It is a widely accepted fact that the fans provide the beauty in Argentine football and while the noise made by the Bombonera crowd can admittedly reach deafening levels, it is not worth the outrageous price most tourists will have to pay to get in. The reality is that it is possible to find something similar at every reasonably-sized ground and for a much better price.
One of the first matches I went to was at Independiente’s Estadio Libertadores de América. It was a strange experience for three reasons. Firstly, because the stadium itself remains unfinished – there were signs of ongoing building work everywhere I looked. Secondly, because from my vantage point I could see a distant explosion and fire in the Boca which left a plume of smoke trailing across the sky.
Thirdly, and most importantly, I had been told by unimpressed locals that Independiente’s fans are famously quiet. After spending ninety minutes in their company, I can honestly say that they would consistently rank among the loudest crowds in Europe.
Even more impressive was San Lorenzo’s Nuevo Gasómetro. When we arrived two hours early for their potential title decider against Estudiantes de la Plata, we found the stadium already packed to the rafters and in full voice. It seemed next to impossible at the time, but the chants continued to get progressively louder until kick-off, culminating in a spectacular din the likes of which I have never heard before or since.
The best overall experience so far was probably at Lanús, for the Copa Sudamericana final second leg against Ponte Preta of Brazil. As we now expected, the stadium was more or less full hours before kick-off. When the teams came out, huge firework displays immediately outside the ground made the already electric atmosphere exponentially more impressive. Returning to the sedate and refined surroundings of English stadia is decidedly unappealing.
While I would recommend a Buenos Aires football odyssey to any interested party, it would be dishonest to say that everything here is hunky-dory. Antisocial behaviour and violence in and around stadiums is endemic and safety remains the number one concern of every visitor on match-day.
The vast majority of the time I have felt perfectly safe, but I have on occasion suffered xenophobic abuse, had objects thrown at me due to my appearance and been caught in a mad crush that instantly brought the word ‘Hillsborough’ to mind.
Additionally, the standard of play has dropped in recent years. Argentina’s footballers have left in unprecedented numbers to take advantage of higher wages on offer around the world and the players that remain tend to be has-beens and never-will-bes. There remain an ample number of promising youngsters who may catch your eye but the first to show the slightest bit of real quality will most probably be whisked out of the country on a lucrative contract within a few months.
Despite these problems, watching football in Buenos Aires is an incredible amount of fun. It is possible and even affordable to take in two or three matches every weekend and the more I go, the more I appreciate everything about it, from the chants, which range from puerile jokes at the opposition’s expense to epic poems about unity and the joy of suffering together, to the genuine connection between fans and players, to the unique variety of swearing that I hear in the stands.
The best aspect of football here is that it brings people together. On one occasion, I journeyed out of the city to watch Banfield, none the wiser as to the route the bus would take to get to the barrio. Having driven past and through areas that are most politely described as ‘low income’, I was dreading having to exit alone and on foot to find my way to and from the game. It is not always easy to feel safe when one is very clearly a Westerner in Greater Buenos Aires.
I entered Banfield’s stadium planning on remaining inconspicuous and not even opening my mouth, lest my heavily-accented Spanish land me in life-threatening trouble. Imagine my surprise, then, when the nearest locals began speaking to me as though I had been coming to watch Banfield all my life, jovially discussing the match as it happened and asking with genuine interest how it happens that an Englishman ends up coming to watch their team. It was a brilliant evening and one typical of my experience in this city.
Cheap tickets, great atmospheres and welcoming locals: if you love football, then Buenos Aires is paradise.