James CoulingComment


James CoulingComment

It is the 24th of April 2000 in Argentina, and the turn of a new millennium has seen the continued upturn in fortunes of Club Atlético Excursionistas, a Primera C side who have racked up ten successive victories under director técnico Néstor Rapa. Sitting pretty at the top of the table, they have a home clash versus Club Comunicaciones at Pampa y Miñones, the 8,000 capacity ground that hides, camouflaged, in the Belgrano neighbourhood of Buenos Aires.

Come the final whistle, Excursio, as they are referred to by their fans via both mouth and graffiti daubed on the surrounding walls, hadn't made it eleven in a row, with The Postman holding them to a draw. Nevertheless the team in green and white were still in a position to look down at the rest of the league table and, with five games left, set to take a step closer to the heights of the Primera Division and their esteemed rivals Boca Juniors, who less than a century ago they had faced on an equal footing. The result is not a bad one for Excursio, but equally not bad for Club Comunicaciones, who opt to share the celebrations with their travelling fans.

One away supporter, giddy from excitement, breaks free from the hordes to smell, touch and taste the sweat of his heroes.

This pivotal moment was the catalyst for an upturn in fortune becoming grotesquely wrenched into a downward spiral of chaos.

Immediately an Excursionista took umbrage at this act of ecstasy before him, on his turf, and entered the field of battle to confront his adversary. The Comunicaciones players defended their own and then, as one lifelong fan who was there that day puts it, “all hell broke loose”. An army of Excursio fans rushed to join the melee, assaulting the Club Comunicaciones players to such an extent that one, forward Adrián Barrionuevo, was rushed to hospital.

The riot sent shockwaves rippling through Argentinian football. All games, including the Superclásico, were postponed while the Argentine Football Association decided what punishment to mete out. Those calling for the club to be made an example of had their wishes granted as the AFA docked them 21 points and thus ended their hopes of promotion.

Despite a portion of their fans bludgeoning almost certain success to near-death, Rapa's players rallied the following year and won the Clausura, the second round of 19 matches in Primera C. Unfortunately for them, though those who believe in karma may opine otherwise, the AFA chose this year to restructure the promotion format, meaning despite being champions Excursionistas were entered into a four-way tournament for the chance to reach Primera B. Deportivo Laferrere were the scourge of Excursio, overcoming them 4-3 on aggregate at the semi-final stage and turning off the light at the end of Club Atlético Excursionistas' tunnel for a second successive season.

Two years later Rapa left the club, who went on to experience the bitter taste of near-success on three further occasions in 2006, 2009 and 2010. Although Excursio still threatened Primera B with their arrival without Rapa at the helm, violence was not a feature in his absence. It took only two months into his return in October 2012, however, for this to be rectified.

On December 15th in Los Polvorines, San Miguel played host to Excursionista. At half time, with the visitors a goal to the good thanks to a neat flick from a corner, San Miguel fans began pelting the away side with bottles and bricks. The attack brought further shame to Primera C, and the AFA are still to decide on the sanctions to face San Miguel.

The local neighbourhood hasn't forgotten this air strike though. The name San Miguel is scrawled on walls and objects outside of Excursionista's ground – inside a coffin. Primera B, C and D games no longer permit away fans, and currently one can only see this as a good thing until peace is restored. The support for C.A.E is clear to see during the day or night. Whilst the sun is up you can see the streets decorated in mostly green spray paint, slowly dissipating as you move further away from Pampa y Miñones. Most is simply pro-Excursionista, especially celebrating their centenary year in 2010. Other graffiti, darker in its sentiments, flickers between the lines though. Boca are hated. San Miguel have now earned the wrath of the neighbourhood. And I have been told I will never, never, never, have a friend who supports Club Atlético Defensores, the local rivals in Belgrano from the Nuñez neighbourhood, a single train stop and one division – the Primera B Municipal – away.

There are also numbers mixed in among the letters, specifically '22'. I asked what this meant. “Crazy man,” was the response.

Club Atlético Excursionistas and their contemporaries may be a far cry from Boca and River in terms of league standing, but you cannot put walls up to segregate them in the city. Each team has their own barra brava, and although the head of Boca's has just been arrested on a murder charge and Excursionista's loiter around their ground's entrance after dark during the school holidays, each team, regardless of stature, feels the need for this close community element containing codes and connections.

Across the league and lower divisions, it is not just the players who suffer when the barra brava take matters into their own hands for what they deem necessary acts. Elder fans lament the passion being strangled from their beautiful game thanks to the ban on visitors and hark back to a time they could meet their friends, share stories and a beer and watch their respective teams contest a game of football. Of course nothing stops them from buying a ticket in the home end, but just to sit there in silence?

Even during the close season you can feel the club's heartbeat as you walk around Belgrano, and at the centre of this are the supporters who watched Excursio rebuild during the 70s and 80s to consolidate themselves in Primera C and build for a promotion push. Their passion, knowledge and, above all else, honesty, is infectious. One supporter, Adrián, says he would be lying if he portrayed his team to outsiders as a great team with supporters to match, but this is not why he continues to follow the green and white stripes of Excursio. His and is friends' love for the club is “born from failures” and, rather than push blame on those who make the wrong decisions or wallow in the sadness of losing another play-off final, choose to take strength from the adversity and help build their team back up, again and again and again.

You cannot condone the violence that occurred in 2000 but you also cannot help but hope that thirteen years later a conclusion is reached whereby fans like Adrián, who has watched his team suffer at the hands of foolishness and fate for three decades, can once again get the train to Tigre, eat a parrillada with old friends and cheer his team back up to the Primera B.

If they're lucky, of course.

Follow James on Twitter @jamescouling