As big football (soccer) fans, we put attending an Argentinian football match at the top of our list in Buenos Aires. As football fans know, Argentina is renowned for having some of the most famous, skilled teams on the planet (River Plate and Boca Juniors), as well as arguably the most hardcore ultras (hooligan firms), the latter of which is evidenced by a history of deadly violence.
Ultras, for those unaware, are the intimidating, organised, official fans of a club whose main purpose at matches is to chant, scare opposing fans, and create an uneasy atmosphere for the away team. Over the past twenty years, this has led to violent clashes, resulting in numerous murders. Ultras are perhaps, in this regard, better viewed as gangs. They exist not only in Argentina, but England, Italy, Spain, Poland, and beyond.
The general consensus is that Argentina, and River Plate in particular, have the hardest of the lot. So we bought a ticket to a match between River Plate and Racing to be part of the experience.
Intimidating doesn’t describe the atmosphere. Escorted by security, we made our way through a red and white sea that marched through the streets of Buenos Aires like an army of invaders. We have never seen anything like it before. It made the Champions League match I saw in Hungary look like a preschool program – riot police with guns, tear gas grenades, and batons? Ha! Try walking through six security checkpoints with federal police, city police, and security all checking – and re-checking – your ticket, patting you down to search for weapons, and decided whether or not you can come in. They can refuse you entry for nonsensical reasons, even if you have a ticket and no weapons.
The many human walls of police broke up the daunting crowd of River Plate supporters, who were brandishing flags and banners as they made their way toward the stadium. On a couple of occasions, our guide said that once seated all together, we can get up and buy a burger or soda. Maybe because we’re Australian, the fact that he didn’t mention beer stood out to us with suspicion. As the game commenced, we witnessed fanatical cheers, chants, songs, and plenty of sonic eruptions as the stadium burst into celebration each time a goal was scored. It was only when the opposing team, Racing, scored goals that the entire stadium went silent. You wouldn’t even know anything happened if you weren’t watching the Racing players running around the pitch with their arms up in joy.
As it turns out, due to the extreme violence at Argentinian football matches, it is now forbidden/illegal for opposition fans to attend matches. Alcohol is also banned, which is probably a good thing considering how intimidating the sober crowd can get without opposition supporters. We won the match against Racing 3-2, and each time River Plate scored it was as though every single fan in the stadium had won the lottery! Confetti – torn up pieces of newspaper that’s collected from the entrance to the seating area – showered down the rows of seats and down toward the pitch. Fans hugged and kissed each other at the 90th minute. We witnessed a true spectacle of football fandom, one that is globally notorious and relentlessly unforgiving during violent clashes – hence the new law of banning all opposition supporters.
We would find out later that only Argentinians are supposed to attend matches, and that they must be season members. Generally, gringos like ourselves aren’t allowed to go – this goes someway toward explaining the exorbitant ticket prices, and my brief encounter with a federal police officer who kept asking me if I am Spanish, and if I speak Spanish. Unaware, I told him I don’t know much Spanish but I speak English. He held the ticket up to me, pointed at it, then laughed and patted my back as he allowed me to go through.
The only event I can imagine mimicking or surpassing the atmosphere at the River Plate match is the Brazil World Cup, which we are attending next month. We have tickets to Australia versus Spain – an impending mauling awaits us!