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Back channels are a lucrative, yet necessary deviance from the system in place. If anything, they are an opportunity to test your wants against potential consequences. A back channel will always be some level of sketchy. It makes life interesting.
There are many teams scattered throughout Argentina’s football leagues, but none matter more than Boca Juniors and River Plate. Two peas in the most intense football rivalry pod, full stop. A rivalry so violent, a championship match was moved out of Argentina to Spain in December after River Plate fans bombarded the Boca Juniors team bus with stones, firecrackers and tear gas. Leaving Boca staff and their driver dizzy, vomiting and injured. The biggest match of the year in Argentina had to be held across the Atlantic Ocean to ensure less violence occurred, the absurdity and reality of this final solution is a testament to this phenomena coined El Superclasico.
One, very biased, Boca fan explained to me the rivalry started when the teams played to determine who would stay in the Boca neighborhood. A battle for territory always results in grudges. River Plate lost and moved to the outskirts of the city, or as some Boca fans might say, River Plate fans moved to their homes in the wealthier areas. This is a heated rivalry and after all, like many around the world, politics and social status are at play. In this case, Boca represents the working class people, whereas River Plate are the wealthier elites.
Simply put, these team’s fans have a reputation to uphold and embrace. I wanted to taste it.
Luckily, I was in Buenos Aires when Boca had a home match, although not against River Plate. Unlucky for me, you have to be a season ticket holder to have a chance at attending the match. My usual route of scalping tickets outside of the stadium by pitting my Bachelors degree in supply and demand against sellers wouldn’t work this time seeing as there was an ever-present police force regulating the entire neighborhood before a match.
I had two options. Option one – pay a large sum of money to an agency that picks me up from my home, grants me a tour of the stadium, pairs me with a translator to answer my questions and seats me in the ‘safe’ zone with all the other tourists who shelled out cash. Option two – respond to an ad on some open-market website with the help of my Airbnb host and hope for the best. I didn’t need to think twice, I went with option two.
After asking my AirBNB host for help getting tickets to the Boca Juniors match, he asked me multiple times if I was sure this is what I wanted. A polite warning. We found the ad online and he gave the number a ring. After a quick three-minute conversation, in which one detail regarding my relatively poor Spanish skills came up, my host hung up. I was set to meet the ticket guy, who claimed his name was Juan, at a street intersection in the Boca neighborhood 4 hours before the match started. My host told me to expect Juan to be wearing a blue shirt and hat.
“Don’t take anything with you. And don’t say a word.” My host said. His previous politeness had worn off as attending the game became a reality for me. “If they hear you speak then they will know you are not one of them.”
We googled the meeting point and my host acknowledged that it was a generally safer area in Boca. He offered one last tip, “It’s not entering the stadium that you should be careful about, it’s leaving.”
With his advice ringing in my ears and a slightly uneasy sensation in my stomach I set off. I was running late to meet “Juan” and needed to get cash for the ticket. I quickly avoided the exorbitant 10% ATM fee (plus card fees) by exchanging money with some guy behind a dumpster as police patrolled the street. Walked a block away and tucked half my cash into my shoes, organized my wallet so the money for the ticket was immediately handy and marched towards the meeting point.
After an hour long walk and a few breakfast empanadas I arrived ready for anything. About eight other young men were also waiting on the corner for the same person. The time set by “Juan” passed and we waited. After 30 or so minutes more, some man with a few children arrived. He moved with purpose, but he did not match the description “Juan” gave of himself. It became apparent that the group was going to move towards the stadium with our new guy taking the lead. We all followed. I threw the ‘no talking’ line of advice out the window and befriended a few people in the group.
We walked past blue police officers and their barriers as we navigated towards the stadium. We were still three hours early, so no crowds had amassed and the streets were fairly empty, but there was still at least 15 officers marking our walk into the 3 block radius of the stadium.
Our walk ended inside a barrio. We spread ourselves among the tables, blending in with the already existing crowd finishing up their lunch. I sat with my three new friends. The small, musty room was filled with bits and pieces of memorabilia. The windows generally shut out most of the beautiful sunlight. Only a glimpse out of an ajar window would notify us of the crowd thickening. We were told not to leave the barrio. Cut outs of Boca Junior players gazed upon us from every corner of the room. There was no escape now. I was in the belly of the beast.
My new-found friends and I quickly began talking to overcome the peculiarity of the situation. It was all about Boca Juniors, of course. Their favourite memories, their experiences, the recent Superclasico, and the legend, Juan Roman Riquelme. To most Boca Juniors fans, there is no better player ever than Riquelme. His statues stand tall next to Maradona’s and Lionel Messi’s statues around the stadium. Their eyes opened wide when speaking about the atmosphere of the Boca Juniors stadium – La Bombonera Stadium. Just talking about the team got them jittery and excited for the upcoming match.
There was still a substantial amount of time before the match, and we had nowhere else to go, so we ordered some food and Coca-Cola. The food was all you could need in beautiful simplicity – bread and meat. They all got cow shoulder meat with bread and I got Choripan, a favourite classic of Argentina. Chorizo on bread, hence the Chori-pan name. With food on our plates the barrio was starting to feel more like home. The smoke from the huge grill outside drifted in. The crowd waxed and waned and the player cutouts were seemingly starting to smile. Through our little window we could see more and more people dressed in Boca’s colours of blue and yellow meander by. As legend has it, the founders of Boca Juniors chose these colours because they saw a Swedish flag on a boat docked in Boca bay.
Tension for the match was rising and the reality of our shady ‘Juan” pulling through to get us tickets was still uncertain. We were all nervously bouncing our knees. One of the guys asked if I was nervous. I shrugged, too which he responded by putting his hands out as if he was getting handcuffed, half a joke and half a warning. All I could muster was a hopelessly confident smile. We joked, or developed a backup plan, that if I got caught I would act as if I was a mute.
We couldn’t sit still so we started pacing around the room. The four litres of Coke we consumed did not help calm our nerves. Any attempt to step outside resulted in our original guide telling us to go back inside. Our window looking onto the street was closed completely with 20 minutes until the match started.
Finally, ‘Juan’ arrived sweating and looking decently paranoid – our fearless plug. He sat down and the original crew of people crowded around him. He checked all the windows, making sure they were properly closed and the door was closed. The barrio was empty except for us.
From his sock he pulled a large stack of identification cards – Boca Juniors season tickets. To buy a season ticket, the only type of ticket largely available, you have to prove you are Argentinian and a true fan of Boca Juniors (supposedly). The restriction is done for everyone’s safety and due to the extremely high demand. Each card had a different dark haired Argentinian man’s face. We were given instructions: hold the card with your thumb over the face and when the turnstile turns green enter quickly.
‘Juan’ looked at everyone and matched them with a card. He was speaking in a flurry of Spanish to which I understood most of it. At least enough to get by.
He turned to me, ‘English?”
“Si.” Much to his distress.
He turned to the group and asked if I was ‘cool’. My friends from earlier vouched for me, god bless them, and ‘Juan’ handed me my ticket card. In return I handed over my cash and an ID card (my least important one) as reassurance I’d return the ticket afterwards.
We left the barrio in groups of four. In a blink, I was at the gate shuffling through my pocket for the ticket card. I’d planned to hold it in my hand the entire time, but it all happened so quickly, leaving me a bit flustered. Luckily, I pulled out my card with my thumb over the photo and buzzed in. We scampered up the stairs to become overwhelmed by the roar of the Boca Juniors crowd. We moved as a unit, blending into the rambunctious standing supporters zone. It felt like a music festival crowd – the group swaying and singing together with the smell of weed wafting about.
The shock of leaving the dimly lit barrio to the bright La Bombonera Stadium took my breath away. It’s known as one of the most intense stadiums to play in because of the passionate and intense fans. What truly makes La Bombonera into such a force is its design. It feels like an enormous cage wrestling ring. Fences line the entire pitch going up about 30 feet, to which fans love to climb up to top before the barb wire stops them from hopping over. To my right was what looked like an apartment building crafted into luxury seating booths. The building’s base encompasses the teams’ benches and coaches zones. It looms over the field. A structural obelisk. This building causes the cheers to double in volume as they reverberate off its concrete walls.
As the fans began cheering, I threw out my ‘no talking’ rule, again, and joined in. Although I could only pick out a few words, especially ‘corazon’, I could still try to blend in. Standing with the true local fans showcases the fearsome mob-mentality that arises in sporting matches, in some ways it’s the most desirable aspect of attending a match with the crowd. The energy is infectious. A rush of adrenaline. You are instantly part of a community, one you never would imagine yourself part of, and all you have to do is show love to the players on the pitch and care for your fellow supporters.
The match started thunderously. An early penalty kick for Juniors saw them steadily take control. Children tied their sweatshirt sleeves on the fence creating a makeshift swing-seats. Fans sang and sang. A swirl of energy rounded the stadium at different points as the whole stadium found one common tune to sing.
The second half slowed down and the opponents began to pick up their intensity. One of the children slipped out of their tied seat and fell to the cement. The smack of a head hitting the cement quieted the entire fan zone to ensure the child was cared for, the father ran to rescue and people waited patiently to ensure he found help. Quickly after the fans resumed their cheers. To see out the match, the Boca Juniors coach made a choice substitute in Mauro Zárate, who slotted in a 90th minute free kick to seal the win.
Me and my newfound friends waited for the majority of the fans to leave at the end. After the entire experience I was not feeling threatened or in danger at all. The match was passionate and peaceful. The fans were kind and joyous. I can understand how some matches could boil over into violence and riots at the end, or result in targeting an outsider like me, but not today.
One last task remained, returning the ticket cards and getting my ID card back from Juan. I stuck with the crew of friends to find Juan again. This time we walked far from the stadium to meet him at a certain intersection. He looked a lot happier and much less paranoid. We exchanged cards and spoke about the match. The transaction was over. On my walk to the match I had my hosts advice ringing in my ears, this time I had the fans cheer, or at least the lyrics that I could understand.
“duh duh duh… Corazon.. duh duh duh”