As Canadians, we like to think we know a little something about being passionate sports fans. However, Canadian hockey fans are tame compared to what we experienced when we went to see a game of soccer in Argentina.
Sports aren’t a foreign concept in the WanderTooth household. Each year, as the leaves outside begin to turn gold, the days grow shorter and the nights cooler, I notice a subtle shift in my husband. He gains a sort of restlessness, simmering below the surface and barely noticeable but to those who know him well, or perhaps those who experience it themselves: anticipation and hope around the beginning of a new hockey season; a childlike innocence, and belief that maybe — just maybe — this is the year that his team of choice, The Calgary Flames, will go the distance, making it to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Most years, this feeling of hope turns to frustration before the leaves have fallen from their branches. Weekend beers with friends are dominated by hockey talk, turning everyone (but — at least among our circle of friends — mostly the guys) into armchair experts: they pass the puck too often, that coach needs to go, it’s time to trade Player X. The season continues, and hope begins to fade, except in those magical years when it doesn’t. In those years, the best and worst of hockey fandom comes out, as cities transform into a several million-person party: we alternate between holding our breath and taking another sip of beer, sitting on the edges of barstools through the seven-game series of games that makes up the Stanley Cup Finals, and all too often, getting a little too carried away in the excitement of it all. In 2004, the year the Flames last made it into the finals, Calgary was engulfed by a special kind of madness. The stretch of road between the stadium in which the Flames play and a popular bar district became known as The Red Mile, referring to the red jerseys worn by the team and its fans. Young women, carried away in the excitement of the mob, took to stripping off their shirts and underthings to chants of Flames in six, show your t$$s!
Another sort of madness overtook Vancouver in 2011, when the Vancouver Canucks made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but lost to the Boston Bruins in game seven. The world awoke to news that Vancouverites, rather than going home and licking their wounds, had chosen to tear the city limb from limb, rioting in the streets not over social inequality or oppression, but a lost hockey game. We took this video while standing right outside of our apartment building, as the riot police put on gas masks to go deal with a car that had been flipped by rioters. Later, someone set a police car on fire at the same spot, and we had tear gas wafting into our apartment all night. This, which, as a Vancouverite, is sad to me, was the second time my city had rioted over hockey, and Montreal has experienced hockey riots as well. Suffice it to say, Canadians are passionate about hockey***, and have been known to get carried away.
Before arriving in South America and experiencing the passion with which South Americans approach soccer, we thought the cliché that futbol (soccer, duh!) courses through the very veins and blood of South American people was nothing more than that: a cliché. As Canadians, surely soccer in Argentina had nothing on Canadians and hockey!
How wrong we were. Flashing breasts and a riot that was over before midnight? Compared to the vigorous passion with which South Americans approach their beloved game of soccer, these seem like child’s play. To say that Canadians are as passionate about hockey as South Americans are about soccer is like saying a Bloody Mary is comparable to a Caesar. It’s a pathetic lie, and we all know it.
Good timing meant we would be able to see some soccer in Argentina, a match between River Plate — River being one of the two most popular teams in Buenos Aires — and San Lorenzo. Approaching the stadium, we could hear singing and drumming from three blocks away. As we got closer, street vendors lined the streets, hawking knock-off jerseys and gear (almost no one pays for the real thing), and young fans began running toward the stadium in excitement. Upon entering the stadium, everyone had to go through security: you can take less into an Argentinean soccer game than the TSA will allow onto an airplane: no perfume, lipstick, deodorant, lighters, creams and lotions, or batteries; the general rule of thumb is that you can’t take anything in that could be launched as a projectile onto the field. The level of security at the match signaled the ferocity with which fans defend the honor of their team and the lengths to which they’re willing to go to humiliate the other side.
Upon entering the stands, we noticed a clear delineation in terms of which fans sat where. There was a rabid fan section for the home team, who were already on their feet, jumping up and down as if in a mosh pit, singing songs written by team fan clubs to taunt the other side and bolster the home team. Jokes about the other team’s mothers would not have been out of place. They had banners, confetti, homemade toilet paper streamers, and snare and bass drums to cheer on River Plate, and almost everyone was wearing a River jersey. The toilet paper streamers were launched from the stands, and as the game began, the crowd maintained a constant buzz and level of excitement: there were no down times among the fans.
By half-time, neither team had scored. Unlike at a hockey game in Canada, very few people left the stands at intermission: wisely, alcohol is prohibited in the stadium, meaning there was little need to get up and go to either the concession or the bathroom. Finally, with 15 minutes remaining on the clock, the home team (River Plate) scored, and the crowd went bananas. Drums, banners, signs, streamers, smoke bombs, flares — the celebrating crowd it had it all — and collective shouts of GOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL erupted among the stands. A father and his young son sitting several rows in front of us leapt to their feet, the father hoisting his son into his arms and giving him an enormous hug. Those in the rabid fan section lead the rest of the stadium through taunting songs, and the entire stadium seemed to be on its feet, jumping up and down, with drums banging wildly. The remaining 15 minutes of the match was the most intense, with the crowd jeering fans on the other side, exploding when the referees made what they considered to be a bad call, and generally using gestures and language that would have had them promptly ejected from a game in Canada.
However interesting the match was, the post-match experience was equally entertaining. When it became clear that the home team was going to win, the crowd erupted in songs of Olé, and the police made moves to control the crowd: first, they blocked the exits where the River Plate and San Lorenzo fan sections. As the clock ran out, those on the losing side became more belligerent, flashing the crowd and making lewd gestures. The police hurried them from the stadium, herding them out and checking the section to ensure it was empty. They then reinforced the exits of the River Plate fan sections, keeping us blocked in until about 20 minutes after the last San Lorenzo fan left in an attempt to minimize the shenanigans that would no doubt erupt on the street afterwards.
The next day, we were in a taxi on our way to the bus station when a police convoy momentarily shut down traffic in the middle of Buenos Aires to escort Boca Juniors fans to that evening’s match. Soccer is taken so seriously in Argentina and much of South America that violence between fans of different teams is a legitimate concern! Even though Buenos Aires is a city of more than eight million people, the matches bring the city to an almost complete halt. We have never witnessed such passion for sport before, and this was just a regular season match.
Have you ever experienced soccer in Argentina, or somewhere else in South America? Share your experience in the comments below!
***Note: In the aftermath and multiple ensuing police investigations following the most recent Vancouver hockey riots, it became pretty clear they were started by a few instigators, who weren’t really hockey fans, and who had traveled to Vancouver for the event, armed with molotov cocktails (remember Mr. Molotov?).