Maracana before the game
Soccer deserves its own entry in this blog. I was in search for a soccer team to adopt in South America. These decisions cannot be taken lightly. They involve careful consideration of stadiums, traditions, uniform colors, supporters, riots, and some measure of on-field performance. But to be clear, once I choose a team, I will not waiver from that choice. If they get relegated to 2nd division (as my Spanish team of choice Real Betis has done before and will do again), I will not throw my jersey away and buy one from their arch-rival. People who do such things should be locked up in Guantanamo Bay with Al Qaeda.
My first try was at Maracana in Rio, in a match between Botafogo vs. Fluminense. I bought a fake Botafogo jersey, learned their song, cheered for their team, and they promptly rewarded me by losing 2 nil in an absolutely gutless performance.
Despite the cheap tickets, the stadium was only half full. For a Rio derby on a Sunday evening in perfect weather? Huh? This indicates to me that 1) Brazilians don't care about soccer as much as everyone thinks, 2) the games are dangerous, or 3) ticket prices are out of reach for most Brazilians. I'm leaning toward #3. On the way back on the Metro, we were taunted mercilessly by Fluminense fans who at least were showing some passion. Then again, when I looked closely, they were all white, privileged, college kids using their daddy's season passes. That suspicion was confirmed when they all hopped the same bus with me back toward Ipanema. The whole experience was a bit disappointing with the exception of the $1 beers sold by vendors that climb all over the stands to sell them.
Luxury boxes at La Bombonera
But I like the 'Fogo uniforms, and their song was catchy. I wasn't voting them off the island yet.
Next stop was La Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors. We took a guided tour of the stadium, and what a place it was. The stadium holds almost 60,000 but occupies only one city block. That means the spectators are packed tightly into the stands which are literally only four feet from the pitch. Other than those four feet, a 10 foot high steel fence separates the spectators from the players. Boca fans have been known to scale those as well, so a layer of barbed wire separates them from the visiting fans. The neighborhood itself is infamous for its odor, resulting in some visiting fans wearing surgical masks to the games. Hence the barbed wire fence. The entire stadium shakes during games, and the stands even move a few inches.
The fence that keeps the Boca fans off the field
Despite that, the tour guide assured us it was ISO certified (whatever).
We toured the stands, the press area, and even the home locker room. I would say the locker room was as bad as my high school gym locker room, except that it was actually worse. The surroundings were not what you'd expect for well paid, pampered footballers. It had only very simple benches, a chalk board, whirlpool, and statue of the Virgin Mary. The locker room was consistent with the rest of the stadium though. It's a no-nonsense place, where players are expected to play at a high level, or literally run for their lives. The best part of the tour was when they brought out the Copa Libertadores (currently held by Boca) and let us all take a picture with it (for a couple bucks). We were the only gringos on the tour, and of course, the only ones to take a picture.
The lasting impression of La Bombonera is how small the place is, taking up only one city block. But between the crazies they pack in there, and the barbed wire fences, it feels a lot like watching a football match in a prison. But in a good way. Too bad we weren't able to see a game there. I have a feeling it would be quite an experience. Advantage Boca.
Last stop was Estadio Monumental, home of River Plate, also in Buenos Aires
. Gustavo (Boca supporter and sworn enemy of River Plate) warned us that soccer games in Argentina can get, shall we say "testy". Supporters threaten the lives of their team's players, policemen number into the thousands yet still get overpowered, and stadium restroom facilities are reminiscent of the prison in the movie Midnight Express.
El Estadio Monumental
Worst of all these animals, according to Gustavo, were River Plate supporters. Several people have even been killed recently at River games. So what did we do? Bought 3 tickets to the River Plate game of course and made Gustavo take us.
The stadium is in a relatively upscale area of Buenos Aires called Nunez. The police presence there was immense. We had to clear security about 3 different times just to get into our seats. As the River supporters filed in, you could tell that the 900+ cops on hand still wouldn't be enough. We sat down in the safe section and let the drama unfold. It was a Copa Sudamericana match against, you guessed it, Botafogo? I've got to be the only gringo that has ever watched 2 Botafogo games in one week in two different countries.
The Terminator himself
River Plate needed to win by two goals in order to advance. Botafogo got out to an early lead thanks largely to the atrocious play of River defender Federico Lussenhoff. It's hard to miss the guy on the field, given his flowing red locks, horrible challenges, and blatant giveaways to the other team. The next day in the soccer newspaper, he was granted "The Terminator" award. Is there a more perfect name for a German-Argentine defender playing lousy football though? Seriously, the guy looked and played the part. He eventually got sent off, which actually helped his team. If you aren't familiar with his work, here is a sample: http://youtube.com/watch?v=fFa8Cvx-gMg
River equalized, then fell behind again, resulting in an already agitated crown turning around and directing their frustration toward the owners box.
The chants they were shouting at the general manager ranged from "we're going to kill you" to "we're going to stab you" to "you should be killed". Rob and I enjoyed every minute of it, while Gustavo (already humiliated by being forced to attend the game) quietly prayed for the game to end. Just about that time, River started a comeback for the ages. They equalized again, got the lead (still needing to win by two), then headed in a fourth goal in what seemed like the 20th minute of injury time. A hat trick for Falcao Garcia, and a legendary comeback by River, playing with only 9 men! Some supporters were still angry for having been made to wait that long for a victory, but most actually did crack a smile. Just a great win by River and a colossal choke by Botafogo. This match is all over Youtube.
Monumental getting ugly
Here are a couple clips:
So to recap, I've got Botafogo with nice uniforms and nice songs, but two absolutely disgraceful performances that I paid money to watch.
You can see the visitor section of La Bombonera above
Get lost 'Fogo. Then I've got Boca Juniors, who we never actually saw play. But they've got a great stadium, great colors (same as Michigan's of course Go Blue), crazy supporters, a cool sounding name, and are the preferred club team of El Diez himself Diego Maradona. And lastly we've got River Plate. If a team were ever to campaign for my support, it would have been River in the game that we saw. You simply could not ask for a better audition. But a couple things here. The stadium is horrible. It's got a track around it. Hell, it's got a freakin' moat around it to keep the supporters off the field. But why? This is Argentina, who cares about track and field? Lose the track and let the fans closer to the action. Next, they wear Ohio State colors, or at least one of Ohio State's colors.
Side view of La Bombonera
Not gonna look good in my wardrobe. But most importantly, the name River Plate. Are you kidding me? Has there ever been a more horrible name for a soccer team? And this is in a country bad team names. Seriously, listen to these: Newell's Old Boys, Nueva Chicago, Velez Sarsfield (sounds like a tax bill in congress), and Deportivo Moron (not kidding, Moron is a place). But none of them are as uninspiring as River Plate. For a country that swears a hatred for England, why did they take the English name for Rio de la Plata? Sorry, no can do River Plate. I'm a Boca fan. I bought a sweatshirt, El Diez t-shirt, and watch all their games now on Fox Soccer Channel. Now I just need to see one in person.