How Argentinians bring fun and flamboyance to football

Firecrackers, flares and all-out theatre — when it comes to football, nowhere compares to Argentina, where the fanatic fans are as much of a show as the match itself.Sunday, 5 January 2020

We hear the Boca Juniors Doce before we see them. Firecrackers explode overhead; there’s a banging of drums; whistling and chanting echo around the narrow streets of Buenos Aires’ La Boca neighbourhood. Thousands of fans in blue and gold appear three blocks away, escorted by police in riot gear. They’re singing and dancing, in full carnival mood. 

I rush to take my seat inside the stadium to watch the big entrance. With precision timing, the hardcore fans — La Doce (‘the 12th man’) — swarm through the gates, filling the terrace. They’re as able as any of the stars on the pitch to influence the game. The communal voices of 49,000 fans rattle around Estadio Alberto J. Armando, nicknamed La Bombonera (‘the chocolate box’) due to its unusual D-shaped design and steep tiers. And then the team run on to the pitch.

The sky momentarily turns white as ticker tape is launched into the air. Blue and gold smoke, Boca Juniors’ colours, drifts across the stands. To my right, three vast banners are unfurled down the three-tiered stand, shrouding a quarter of the stadium in darkness. One reads ‘La 12 unida jamásserá vencida’ (‘the 12, united, will never be defeated’).

Firecrackers and flares flash and explode — not that I can hear them over the din of the chanting fans. Residents in the surrounding neighbourhoods will know the game is about to kick off. The ground shakes. Nothing comes close to the visceral thrill of attending a football game in Argentina.

The pre-game build-up is just the first act of a play that takes place across Argentina every Sunday during football season. I’ve been told that football isn’t a religion in Argentina — it’s much more important. As soon as a baby is born, they’ll have a football jersey squeezed on for a photo, forever aligning them with a team; it might be River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente, Racing or San Lorenzo, or perhaps my chosen team, Huracán. Once the jersey is on, attention can be given to choosing a name for the newborn.

There are, of course, ardent football fans all over the world, but, in my experience, none come close to those in Argentina. I was a resident of Buenos Aires for five years, during which time I’d go to a game every Sunday. I didn’t care which team, or where. It didn’t matter; I could be sure that 22 talented footballers would be playing their heart out. And I wasn’t only watching them — I was in awe of the supporters, the songs, the noise, the ritual, the people. I’d turn up early and listen out for the drums and trumpets announcing the arrival of the barra brava, the fanatic supporter gangs. I’d drink cheap lager in the doorway of a kiosk while chatting to fans, and I’d choose a seat with the best views — of the spectators, not the pitch.

Argentines give their all in almost everything they do. Just look at the concentration of tango dancers or listen to the cracked, emotive voice of a tango singer. You can see it in the gusto with which they approach an asado (barbecue), the intensity with which they talk about politics and the passion of the couples kissing in the city’s parks. And then there’s football. A game of football here is the most electrifying, unforgettable experience on earth. Hyperbole? Not at all.

How to see a game

The league
Superliga Argentina de Fútbol is Argentina’s top-level league.

The season
July to May.

Safety
Argentinian football had a reputation for violence between opposing fans. Authorities have now banned away fans from games, which has led to a much safer experience.

Tours
Going with a local fan or a tour company will help you navigate safely; the neighbourhood around the Boca Juniors stadium can be sketchy. LandingPadBA and Tangol are reputable companies that run tours to most Buenos Aires games. Prices start at $100 (£78) and include entrance, guide and transport from downtown.

Where to sit
Always opt for the more expensive ‘platea’ seating area, not the ‘popular’ (the terrace area).

What to wear
Neutral-coloured clothes.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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