BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — So we thought it would be a good idea to see a soccer game here in Argentina. It is, after all, the birthplace of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, both of whom are painted like saints everywhere in this city, from office buildings to restaurants. You know how Italian churches have frescos on their churches? Here, you’re just walking along and boom — there’s a water color of Messi kissing the World Cup, next to a sign for empanadas.
So the idea of watching an actual game here was appealing, even for a longtime sportswriter who uses vacations to get away from sports. We were told the local team was in action and they were called the Boca Juniors, the most decorated club team in all of Argentina. The Boca boys, I learned, have won 74 titles. Take that, Boston Celtics.
“Great!” we said. “Where can we get tickets?”
“Ahahaha!” came the reply.
“Ahahaha” is my way of writing a Spanish laugh, which, if translated, would be: “You have a better chance of getting front row for Taylor Swift.”
Apparently, locals wait on lists for years just to purchase season tickets for Boca. So the only way we could get in was the old fashioned American way — overpay dramatically.
Which we did.
We found resale tickets through an agency. And in a country where the average monthly salary is equivalent to 200 U.S. dollars, we paid $160 per seat.
At least we thought they were seats.
More on that in a momento.
Proceed with caution
Now to go to your first soccer game in Buenos Aires is to hear many warnings about passionate acts by other fans, by which I mean, getting hit in the face. The more people we spoke with, the more warnings we got about violence.
“Do not wear the wrong shirt.”
“Do not wear the wrong colors.”
“Do not take the wrong entrance.”
“Try to sing along when the others sing.”
That was going to be tough, since we don’t speak any Spanish. But singing would not be an issue until we actually reached the stadium. And we were a long way from that.
After purchasing the proper blue and gold Boca shirts and hats, we set out for the stadium, which we were told would normally take half an hour, but on this night, Tuesday, because of the game, we should allow three times that.
Which we did.
And we still had to get out of the cab half a mile from the stadium.
Did I mention the game didn’t start until 9 p.m.? And it’s late autumn down here, so the sun had long since set. We walked for a long time through the darkened streets of a neighborhood that, as we got deeper into it, resembled a cross between a zombie apocalypse and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
The alleys were deep with people drinking or screaming song lyrics, hawking fried sandwiches, and laying out on bedsheets every piece of Boca paraphernalia you could imagine. You could buy hats, caps, shirts, shorts, pennants, balloons or banners.
Or you could get hit in the face.
We had a school-aged guide with us named Santino, ostensibly there for our protection, but he had never been to a game before either and looked about as nervous as we did. He translated things people were telling him as we passed, most of which could be boiled down to “Don’t go near the Chileans. They’re setting fires.”
Safety first, and second and third …
I forgot to mention a Chilean team was the opponent in the match. They were called Colo Colo. So we had Boca versus Colo, playing in something called the Copa Libertadores. Don’t ask me what that means. The only Copa I know is “Cabana.”
But apparently, the Chilean fans were angry because they couldn’t get tickets. And they weren’t going to pay $160. Only fools like us do that. So they were setting things on fire.
“We should stay away from those streets,” our guide said.
No problem, we said.
Besides, we were preoccupied with the singing, which was everywhere, loud, coordinated, and as tight as Prince’s horn section. What were they cheering? Something about “Boca” or “Roca” or things that rhyme with Boca and Roca, like Mocha and Smoka?
And then came the police.
A sudden wall of them, from sidewalk to sidewalk. We had to present tickets and IDs to pass. We got through OK, walked about 20 yards and hit …
Another wall of police.
Same routine. Same checks. Another 20 or 30 yards, another wall, this time security guards. Same routine. Past them, keep walking, then another wall of…
All told, we were checked five different times before we even saw the stadium. And then we got checked at the stadium. You’d have thought we were trying to get into the President’s suite.
Good luck finding an usher
When we finally entered the stadium — massive concrete, yellow-and-blue painted — we went up steps, more steps, another set of steps, more steps, and finally to our seats which were…
Not seats. The entire section was packed with standing people. We couldn’t even reach an aisle. We wedged between the back wall of the stadium, the overhang from the upper level, and a massive cluster of fans gripping a single railing, singing and screaming and smoking and screaming some more. The only way to see anything was if somebody moved his head, which happened, in my case, only when the guy in front of me went for another cigarette.
So there, between the teeming masses, the tobacco smoke, and our standing room slice of space for which we paid $160, we saw the game start.
Boca moved the ball downfield and …
I couldn’t see what happened next.
Or much of anything the rest of the way. You’ve heard of obstructed view? We just had obstructed. (And in case you’re saying ‘Why didn’t you find an usher?’ Please. Our section was going to see an usher when the Vatican sees bikinis.)
So in the end, we mostly we listened to the action from behind an army of bodies. Whenever Boca came within 30 yards of the goal, the crowd burst into song, which sounded like “Oohh, alley-alley ooh, alley ooh, alley ooh … Boca! Something like that. It was deafening! It was joyous! It was passionate! It was inebriated!
And neither team scored the entire first half.
At which point, having inhaled half a carton of other folks’ cigarettes, and not being able to see anyhow, we decided to do the American thing: beat the traffic.
Down the steps. And more steps. And more steps. Into the streets, past the zombie apocalypse, pushing through several burly men who yelled animated warnings at our guide.
“We don’t go down that street,” he said quickly.
An hour later, we were back at the Airbnb, safe and sound, our authentic Argentinian soccer experience now in the books. It really wasn’t bad. The home team, it turns out. scored a goal in the second half, the match ended 1-0 — Boco over Colo in the Copa — and everyone was extremely happy in Buenos Aires, which literally means “fair winds,” or, as we tourists say it, “nobody gets hit in the face.”
Viva la standing room!