Watching the Beautiful Game in Buenos Aires

River Plate takes a victory lap before the game

Argentina’s economic crisis may have dried up the disposable income of many in Buenos Aires, but there are three luxuries residents of the capital are loath to cut from their budgets: psychotherapy, plastic surgery, and soccer. Call it the Holy Trinity of Argentine inelastic demand. There seemed little hope, then, of getting tickets to see River Plate—one of Buenos Aires’ two famous soccer teams—play their last match of the season just after winning the Argentine soccer championship. Nevertheless, on the day of the game, Federico, an Argentine friend, announced that he had scored four tickets from a scalper outside the stadium for 55 pesos (roughly $20). They were, he said, nearly the last available tickets to the game.

Entering sun-drenched El Monumental stadium, it was hard to believe our luck—the seats were at ground level directly behind one of the goals. It soon became obvious why our section was nearly empty amid tens of thousands of screaming and singing fans: It was down range from the artillery barrage of spit coming from the section above. As it turns out, we were situated directly below the fans of Racing Club, River Plate’s opponent that day, who had been shoehorned into one section of the 77,000-capacity stadium. The onslaught of saliva was relentless, with the spitters possessing deadly accuracy. After scoring several direct hits, the ammunition turned from saliva to urine, our cue to seek refuge in another section.

The crowd at El Monumental stadium

The crowd had worked itself into a frenzy long before the game began, chanting in unison and firing guns loaded with firecrackers into the air. Many of the bawdy chants targeted River Plate’s cross-town blood rivals, Boca Juniors, and during one chant the entire stadium was bouncing up and down singing, “If it doesn’t jump, it’s from Boca.” At this point, Federico turned to the rest of the group and said, “I think it’s a good idea right now to jump … just in case.”

Argentina’s collapsed economy may have humbled a famously proud (many in South America would say arrogant) people, but Argentines now seek therapy watching their world-class teams regularly manhandle other clubs around the continent. Sure, the popularity of professional basketball may be rising in Argentina thanks to the NBA stardom of favorite son Emanuel Ginobili, but Ginobili can forget it if he ever hopes to eclipse soccer great Diego Maradona in the collective Argentine sports consciousness.

(For the soccer illiterate, Maradona was one of the world’s best players in the 1980s. He rose from Buenos Aires’ slums to become a star of Boca Juniors and Argentina’s national team. He retired soon after scoring his infamous “Hand of God” goal against England in 1986 and began to devote his energies to a prodigious drug habit. How big? Think Al Pacino at the end of Scarface. He now lives in Cuba, but he returns occasionally to his homeland. According to city residents, during his last bender in Buenos Aires, Maradona drove an enormous semi truck around the city, leaving it with the valets in front of night clubs.)

At El Monumental stadium, the crowd’s passion subsided soon after kickoff, as River Plate played a lackluster first half. Unfortunately for us, this meant that most of the crowd finally took their seats. Seats? Actually, they are more like veal pens, submitting any soccer fan above the height of 5 feet 8 inches to an excruciating two hours with his knees pressed close to his chest. The pain was lessened somewhat by the joy of watching River Plate midfielder Andres D’Alessandro, a 22-year-old prodigy who will likely be a global household name by the next World Cup.

Even with River Plate losing 3-1, there seemed little danger that the rowdy crowd would turn violent. With no alcohol served at soccer stadiums, there is far less chance of a drunken brawl at an Argentine match than at a soccer game in Europe or in the bleachers of Yankee Stadium. Consequently, soccer in Argentina is a family affair, with men, women, and children attending the game decked out in face paint matching the home team colors. Together, they sing in unison such wholesome chants as “Boca, you sons of bitches, you wash your ass with acid.” Good, clean, family fun.