I arrived in Buenos Aires at the end of May 2006 and fell in love. A city with a faded glamour, with a hardness and a charisma earned through history. It was so European and somehow reminded me of London, all buses and rain. But Buenos Aires is different. Young people in the park-- not with a beer-- but with a thermos for their mate, instead. All around the city you could see remnants of the past; the mothers of the disappeared still protesting in the Plaza de Mayo regularly.
At that time, both the city and the country was in the slow recovery from the sovereign default that devalued the currency and wiped out jobs across society. The coming World Cup, while always a serious matter for Argentinos, needed to be a successful one to give people some relief.
Wherever I travel I always try to see a match. Along with eating the local food, it gives you the best feeling for a place and a people that you can get. For us, in the middle of a trip around South America, the timing would mean having to get to know this city without seeing a game live; missing two of the most iconic clubs on our route. Poor planning does not begin to cover it.
But we had the World Cup, for England it was the usual mess of hope and confusion-- mostly answering questions about why we weren’t playing our best man (Peter Crouch, apparently)-- and so we got right on board with our hosts’ progress. Watching the Argentina matches in Buenos Aires was incredible, the quiet on the streets, the absolute dedication to it. It reminded me of an FA Cup final when I was a little kid, or maybe more the ones my parents told me about when they were kids.
When Argentina beat Serbia 6-0, with the young prodigy Lionel Messi getting his first start, I went with the rest of the city to the Obelisco in the centre of the main highway, all 14 lanes of traffic stopped by the crowds full of optimism and joy.
It seemed like no time had passed before the eventual loss to Germany on penalties, commiserating with new friends-- “we know what that’s like”-- and somehow wondering whether I brought it on them by supporting their team with them. The next day when England followed it was a mirrored reaction in that way that football fans can always empathise.
After a while we moved on; continuing our exploration of the country, missing Buenos Aires, but still spellbound. We visited the Newell’s ground in Rosario, making the owner of our hostel jealous with our story of the Newell’s team party at a bar in Buenos Aires and the shirt I had taken away.
From there we moved on to Mendoza and as soon as we got off the bus, we saw a poster for a friendly match between Independiente Rivadavia, the local side, and the famous River Plate. Our Buenos Aires football dream was back on, just the odd 1000km down the road.
We checked in and asked for directions to the ground straight away, and were told promptly not to go. “Football is for locals”, they said. It wasn’t safe for a couple of gringo girls. We decided to do it the old fashioned way and walk in the rough direction of the stadium, following the fans. We managed to get in and a get a hotdog, sat freezing half to death in a ground with one of the best views of any I’ve been to. Though it was a friendly, it was a highly entertaining match with River Plate winning 3-1. One down and one to go!
The next couple of months were spent working our way south, going through small towns, meeting people ever more scarred by our shared history and getting to see so much more of that beautiful country. (We even learned to say the right thing regarding “las malvinas” when in a taxi!)
It took a lot longer to catch our second match than we expected – that bad planning again. It had crossed my mind that the Apertura would be starting, but we were due in Peru pretty soon. But it worked out that we could make to La Bombonera for one home match before leaving the country – providing we went straight back. Without the money for a flight, that meant a 50 (“fifty, yes, fifty, cinquenta no quinze”) hour bus ride, back through those small towns, nothing more than the odd loo stop, and with Jason Statham dubbed into Spanish for Transporter 2 with no subtitles-- TWICE!
We made it back to Buenos Aires, and to the promised land, Boca. Part two of our Argentine football dream. We got some tickets through a friend and went along with some other gringos. We had a slightly nervous local guy driving us who seemed convinced throughout we were all going to be killed.
Unfortunately, it was chucking down. I mean, absolutely throwing. Despite being September, and springtime, it was still fairly cold. We quickly ditched the people we had come with and hid at the top of the stand with some Portenos; smoking and keeping warm at the outlet from the kitchen below. From there we watched the game and felt the bounce, led by the man himself, Diego. We dissected the action, shared our part of the roar as Boca beat Estudiantes 2:0, and took the long trip back; amazed at having had an experience we never thought we would manage.
In the end, our trip would take us to the Maracana, a Copa Libertadores game at Colo Colo, and a lot of A-League when we made it to Australia. I have watched games all over Europe since, but no city or ground can match the joy of making it to Buenos Aires, and to the Boca.
By Gemma Teale. Header image credit goes fully to Hernán Piñera.