After clubbing on Thursday and tango on Friday, Saturday brought another serious Argentine passion: football. Many would argue that Argentina can lay claim to the two greatest footballers to play the game, Maradona and Messi. Brazilians would no doubt argue the case for Pele but regardless Argentina has a proud, footballing heritage and alongside it a deep rooted, fanatical passion for the game (90% of Argentines claim allegiance to an Argentine football club). As a Leicester City fan I can not claim to have had the likes of Maradona and Messi grace my club (more Lineker and Heskey – two greats in their own right of course) but I do have a shared passion for the sport and so an opportunity to see a game while in Buenos Aires was too good to miss.
World renowned in their own right the two biggest domestic football clubs in Argentina are Boca Juniors and River Plate. However they are just 2 of the 30 teams that make up the Argentine Primera Division with many of those teams based in Buenos Aires. Of those 30 a small subset are known as the “big five” – Boca, River Plate, Independiente, Racing and San Lorenzo – all based in Buenos Aires province and all with large stadia, proud histories and very, very passionate fans.
From doing some research it was clear that getting tickets for a Boca or River Plate match would be incredibly difficult – all tickets are sold to members and in the case of Boca there are over 60,000 of them with only 47,000 seats in the stadium. That means going to the black market or paying hundreds of dollars to a tour company who have access to some of the members tickets. As such it was far more realistic to target one of the other “big five” clubs and after further research we decided Independiente would fit the bill quite nicely.
For a reasonable fee a tour company would transport us to the ground for some pre-match beers and food with the rest of the fans. Then, with the company of a guide, take us into the stadium to watch the game and get us home again after. This seemed a good deal, particularly as much of our research into the games included large health warnings about going to football in Argentina as a tourist. Violence and thefts are almost endemic around many of the grounds, and people have been killed while in the stadia themselves (we were told that even now no away fans are allowed to travel to any Primera Division games following a death in 2013). I consider myself a reasonably seasoned away fan having seen Leicester play around the UK including in some of the “livelier” grounds such as The Den and Upton Park but I thought playing it safe was probably the best bet while in the unfamiliar surroundings of Argentina.
As part of the “big five” Independiente has a large trophy cabinet, albeit with many won during the club’s golden era in the 1970’s. These trophies include 16 Primera Division titles, the last of which was in 2002, as well as a record seven Copa Libertadores (the Champions League of Latin America). Some liken Independiente to Tottenham Hotspur – a big club with a proud history and a large fanbase but with little to show in terms of recent success (not like, for example, Leicester City, the reigning Premier League Champions).
Another link to English football is via arguably the most famous player to have played for Independiente, Sergio Aguero, now playing for Manchester City. Aguero was sold by Independiente in 2006 to Atletico Madrid for around €23m, a sum that was largely used to pay off the significant debts the club had built up at the time, and that had threatened the club with insolvency.
So the day of the match came and it was a beautiful, warm spring day in Buenos Aires. After meeting in the city centre we jumped on a mini bus for the 30 minute drive to the city of Avellaneda, part of the Greater Buenos Aires province. There were around 10-12 of us in the group with representation from France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, England and USA. Our guide was a lifelong Independiente fan and on the way to the ground gave us a run down on all we needed to know about the club and more generally about football in Argentina.
The bad news was that beer was not permitted to be drunk within a 500 metre radius of the ground. The good news was that this was Argentina and rules are there to be broken, so our mini bus parked a short walk from the ground and we joined hundreds of other Independiente fans in a makeshift beer / barbecue garden. As kick off approached the area filled with more and more fans and we got to know a little more about fan culture in Argentina.
In the same way that Europe has its ultra groups, characterised by relentless chanting and singing through a game, large displays or tifo’s inside the stadium, and, depending on the group, heavy involvement in violence, organised crime and extreme politics, Argentina has its own groups. These groups are knows as barras bravas (although this was not a term I heard used by our guide at the time), which essentially translates as hooligans. All the major clubs in Argentina have their own barras bravas: in Boca they are called La Doce meaning the twelfth player while Independiente’s group are El Diablo Rojo, or The Red Devils. Although Barras Bravas now exist in many Latin America countries the most dangerous are said to be in Argentina, where the groups first originated. Needless to say these groups wield very powerful influence over Argentine football, despite efforts to crack down on them. It is said that aside from their fanatical support they are also involved in violence, organised crime, racketeering and drugs. For many growing up in the poverty stricken parts of Argentina the choice was clear – either become a footballer or join the Barra Brava of your club. For further reading this Guardian article is excellent.
As we finished our beers and made our way to the stadium there was no denying we were intrigued and excited by what we would see from El Diablo Rojo while in the Independiente ground. The game itself was against a club called Gimnasia based in La Plata also part of the wider Buenos Aires province. In very partisan tones our guide had advised that Independiente were a true attacking team, playing with fluidity and style compared to the defensive attrition of Gimnasia… it was funny to hear the phrase “park the bus” used far from it’s Jose Mourinho origins. With these two contrasting styles games typically end in a rout or a dirge, we sincerely hoped for the former.
We entered the stadium and took our seats right at the top close to the half way line. A great view of the pitch but also of the El Diablo Rojo who occupied much of the stand behind the goal to our left. Although there was still time before kick off the barra bravas were already in full flow – drums, flags, singing, banners, ribbons. The noise would not relent for the entire 90 minutes, despite the fact the game itself was a dirge, with Gimnasia offering no intent whatsoever, seemingly happy to return to La Plata with a point for the draw. With little to excite us on the pitch our attention was consistently drawn to the hardcore group of fans to our left. The passion, song repertoire and unrelenting support for their team would put most of us English football fans to shame, it really was a sight to behold and more than offset the disappointment of the game itself.
The uncomfortable truth however is that while we can show respect for the fans approach to supporting a team these same fans are also likely to be involved in the violence and criminal behaviour that has blighted the Argentine football world for many years. There is the feeling (and our guide attested to this) that these fans are critical to generating a loud, hostile atmosphere to help the players but by accepting them you also indirectly condone the darker side of their actions. Given the power and influence they already exert within the game it is not a situation that is likely to change any time soon.
So the game finished 0-0 and we returned to the mini bus feeling that despite the lack of action we had still had a true taste of Argentine football culture. As at time of writing Independiente sit 10th in the Primera Division, it looks like potentially another season without a league championship for the club. No doubt the drums of El Diablo Rojo will continue loudly and proudly regardless.