The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Like a “little red bug”

Posted by steigs on April 11, 2008

One of DC United’s multitude of new South American imports this season is Franco Niell, a forward on loan (presumably with an option to buy) from Argentinos Juniors in (duh) Argentina.  He’s of the small pesky type and, based on his initial few games, plays like a “rambunctious gnome,” as I believe someone on bigsoccer described him.  His nickname translates as “the dwarf,” which makes sense since Franco appears to be around 5-3. 

He’s been okay so far, impressing more with energy than skill, but came up with a goal as a substitute against Pachuca Wednesday at RFK.  Some may wonder what an Argentine kid like Niell is doing in MLS.  Why not live at home in Buenos Aires?  Well, the economy in Argentina — and thus its league — have some issues.  And, as someone who has seen Argentinos Juniors play, RFK may feel like a step up.  For more on my visit to Estadio Diego Maradona, home of Argetinos Juniors — known as the “little red bugs” — and first professional home of Argentina’s beloved #10, read on after the jump.

September 2004

My cab ride to the city’s northwest misses the downtown traffic, zooming along the vast Avenida 9 de July, a street so wide it usually takes two lights for pedestrians to cross it.  (Thankfully, there are islands for people to wait in the middle.)  Tall modern buildings — banks, hotels — rise along the 9 de July and electronic billboards run a series of high-tech ads for airlines and luxury cars.  Meanwhile, Argentina’s economic distress — like that of so many “emerging markets” during the late 1990s, leading to a 2001 devaluation of the peso and a burden of accumulated debt — manifests itself at every stoplight on the 9 de July.  Children juggle to earn a few coins from the stopped cars and at one intersection a fire-eater sets the pace.  Later in the evening, I see the horse-drawn carts of garbage pickers moving along the streets as they seek a bit of living from the cast-offs of others.  They seem like extras from some film set in the 19th century, displaced figures out of step with the rest of the modern city.


I arrive at Diego Maradona Stadium a little before game time.  The afternoon is warm.  It is in a modest, mostly residential part of Buenos Aires, one of those stadiums in the midst of houses and apartment buildings and a block away from a strip of businesses to serve the locals.  You see, for all the Maradona ware at Boca Juniors, the legend actually began here with the more ordinary team of Argentinos Juniors, when he started with a youth team at age 10 and joined the first team by 16.  He played here longer than for any team other than Napoli.


Argentinos Juniors, nicknamed the “little red bugs,” are an otherwise run-of-the-mill team in the Argentine league, rarely winning anything, even now that the Argentine season — like many in Latin America — has been split in two.  (They did win a title and a Copa Libertadores in the mid-1980s, after Maradona had left.)  These days in the Argentine league there is an “Apertura” — or opening — season in our fall (which is their spring) of 19 games, in which each team plays the others in the league once.  Then a summer break of a month or two, often spiced up by local tourneys, before the “Clausura” — or closing — season, in which a team again plays every team in the league once again, usually reversing the home team from the initial round.  There is usually one promotion and relegation change per year, just like in Europe, based on complicated calculations of performance over the last few seasons.  The effective result is two championships a year, for about the same number of league games as it takes to decide one English championship.


I circle the stadium, which is about three stories high, hardly rising above the neighboring apartment buildings.  There are murals here too, which suggest that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the late Jim Morrison all root for Argentinos Juniors, along with a whole lot of Argentines I probably should recognize.  Britain’s two great 20th century exports — soccer and rock — often travel together in Argentina.


Feeling sheepish at not being able to identify many of the figures in the mural, I peek into the team’s small shop, little more than a single room built into the stadium’s wall, a kiosk compared to Boca’s department store.  It largely offers clothes — team jerseys in particular — and is doing a steady business.  I buy a game ticket — for the immense cost of roughly $3 — and make my way into the cheap section behind one goal where the Argentinos Juniors ultras reside.  It is a simple concrete terrace.  No seats, just hard, broad steps, about ten of them.  A 25 foot chain-link fence separates us from the field.  A line of razor wire tops the fence and, just in case that is insufficiently discouraging to those who might wish to rush the field, there is also a line of the nasty-looking stuff midway up the fence. 


Along the field to my right — in the shade — are the more expensive seats for the home fans, actual seats, in a double-tiered stand.  It’s mostly full.  To the left, in the sun, is where away fans are situated.  Today they are rooting for Almagro, another average Buenos Aires side.  The half of that stand closest to us is empty, closed off, except for a few security types.  The far half is busy with Almagro fans — after all, it’s not like they have to leave town for this road game, even if they appear to be coming via special buses and have lines of cops protecting their separate entrance.  Attendance is in the neighborhood of 12,000.  The opposite side of the stadium from us is just a wall, plastered with signboards like you might find at a minor league baseball game — motor oil, air conditioners.  A rightly humble origin point for Argentina’s Elvis, a Sun Studios of soccer, before he moved on to bigger stages and worldwide fame.


The singing starts a good ten minutes before kick-off.  The ultras area is crowded without being packed.  Banners are up all around, on the fence and on the wall behind us, swearing devotion to the “little red bugs.” Directly behind the goal stretch long red and white banners, marking the team colors.  They reach from the top of the wall down to the fence, like monstrous streamers.  The songs involve love, that much my bit of Spanish tells me, and our hearts.  Many of the fans are in red Argentinos Juniors replica jerseys.  No scarves, though, perhaps because they would seem silly on such a warm afternoon.


I find a spot to stand on the fourth row of the terrace amid an interesting mixture of fans.  The ultras are almost all men.  A group near me are getting stoned, teenagers with thin mustaches and sullen looks.  One is a skinhead with a tattoo of — what else? — a little red bug visible on his upper arm with the team’s Spanish initials “AAAJ” as well.  He makes me a trifle nervous but he turns out to be a happy sort of fan, singing the afternoon away when not taking a toke.  The man behind me is older, in his 30s, and has a scruffy, disreputable Jesus look to him, beard and long hair straight from religious icons.  He also looks a bit dirty and hungover, which may be why he is quiet, not even contributing to the communal songs.


The man to my left, whose name is Roberto, is not quiet.  He is in his 20s and is wearing a red team jersey.  A bit of small talk during lulls in the songs gives me to understand he is a mechanic or something else to do with cars.  I find myself drawn to him because of his fevered way of watching the game.  Roberto stares intently at the play, continually muttering “buena” when the little red bugs are doing the right thing.  Something like this:


“Buena…buena…buena buena BUENA!”  An Argentinos Juniors shot goes wide.  Then about thirty seconds of silence as Almagro moves the ball around then “Buena!” as a pass is intercepted by Argentinos Juniors then it is back to “buena…buena…buena” as Argentinos Juniors attack.  A blind person could follow the game just listening to the frequency and power of Roberto’s “buenas.”  It’s like a prayer.  I’m amazed as the game goes along at the way he can communicate a range of comments with a single word, sometimes the “buena” is doubtful, like he doesn’t expect the move to work, other times it comes forcefully, like he is confident in his team.


Roberto is a classic of the fan type I think of as an “Edwin,” after a friend in Washington.  I have watched several NCAA tourneys with Edwin, astounded by his passion for UCLA.  He gets intensely engaged with the play, wholly lost in the flow of the game, physically affected by how his team is faring.  When UCLA is losing, Edwin appears in pain, desperately offering advice to turn things around.  When they’re ahead he takes on a doubting persona, watching closely for any sign of trouble, certain that things will take a turn for the worse.  I can only manage that level of intensity for a DC United play-off game or a US World Cup match.  Edwin slips into it for weeks, even seasons, at a time — and Roberto seems there as well.


The game starts out evenly, with play shared.  Argentinos Juniors are in their red jerseys and red shorts with white trim; Almagro in blue jerseys with black shorts.  Both teams are having trouble generating extending possession, usually only managing a couple of passes before losing the ball.  The ultras sing steadily for the first fifteen minutes.  Across the way, the Almagro fans are making a fair bit of noise as well, sometimes hopping as well.  I catch sight of an ultra in my area wearing a Steelers jersey — Kordell Stewart? — and another, a man, in an WNBA jersey of the New York Liberty.  Souvenirs from shopping in New York or Miami or signs of a knock-off market with more scope than you would expect?  I’m too far away to be able to ask.


The little red bugs gradually gain the upper hand, generating some — “Buena!” — chances and shots on goal.  The Almagro goalie makes a couple of excellent saves to keep it scoreless.  The ultras pause now and then in their singing, often quickly resuming with a different tune.  Vendors wander through the crowd, pitching ice cream and soda.  No beer.  These folks don’t seem to need any.  Almagro manages to worry us with a couple of shots of their own.  About thirty minutes in — there’s no clock or scoreboard in the stadium — a commotion in the Almagro section of the stands signals that another wave of fans have arrived.  A late bus, perhaps.  They renew their singing, provoking us to new levels of noise.  Still, it is 0-0 at the half.


The ultras deflate at the half-time whistle, many sitting down to smoke, others going to the primitive concession stand for a burger or a soda.  Me, I wait expectantly to see if there’s any sort of half-time show.  When Maradona was young, before he began playing for the senior team, he entertained half-time crowds with displays of his ball-juggling talents.


Here’s how Jimmy Burns recounts an example in his Maradona biography Hand of God.  It is 1970 and Maradona is ten years old.  Argentinos Juniors are hosting mighty Boca Juniors:


The half-time whistle blew and out walked the boy Maradona, clearly determined to make the most of the few minutes given to him.  In perfect imitation of his elders, he limbered up by running with the ball, closely tracking it, zigzagging this way and that, delicately passing it from left to right and back again.  He stopped and, with a back spin, brought the ball on to his head, where he held it with a gentle, almost imperceptible inclination of the neck.  He let the ball drop, and then held it on his left foot before spinning it again and letting it fall back on to his chest.  He repeated each trick at least a dozen times, now and then breaking into sprint and showing extraordinary acceleration.  Then the moment came when the players reappeared and the referee motioned to the young boy to kick the ball away and leave the pitch.  But before the referee had even time to blow his whistle, the crowd in the stadium erupted spontaneously “Let him stay, let him stay,” the fans chorused over and over again…”


I’m to be disappointed.  There is no new Maradona showing off during the half, just the usual bunch of reserves passing the ball or practicing shots.  He is a rather hard act to follow, I suppose.


Early in the second half momentum shifts to Almagro, as they begin to hold the ball longer and generate more chances.  Roberto’s “buenas” come less often.  It’s been that kind of an early season for Argentinos Juniors.  They’re near the bottom of the league and just brought in a new coach.  Well, an old coach, Osvaldo Sosa, back for his seventh turn as the manager of the little red bugs, remarkable even by the coaching carousal standards of Latin America.


Almagro are playing the better, as if it has belatedly occurred to them that they don’t have to be on the defensive against Argentinos Juniors even though they’re on the road.  If only one of those early shots had gotten past the Almagro keeper then the whole tenor of the game would be different.  Then Argentinos Juniors would have had the upper hand.  No longer.


The Argentinos Juniors ultras are tiring, singing less often, as if they have tried to carry their team but can=t manage the burden without more help from the guys on the field.  But at least the Argentinos Juniors keeper proves as good as his counterpart, managing some quality saves of his own.  By the middle of the second half the referee is beginning to lose control of the game, letting hard tackles go, rarely whistling fouls. 


The Argentinos Juniors ultras are irritated and re-engage.  We’re singing a variation on the traditional “ole” song, one which sounds more like a Hare Krishna hypnotic drone.  The players, encouraged by the permissiveness of the referee, are colliding harder.  This leads to long pauses in the game as players roll about on the ground, injured or acting like it, in the aftermath of tough tackles.


In the closing minutes of the game, still seeking that elusive goal, we settle on a song about the passion of the players and the fullness of our hearts.  It has a steady, soothing tempo, backed by the thump of a bass drum somewhere to my left.  The intensity builds gradually, relentlessly, drawing in almost everyone, even the stoners and Roberto.


On the field, the teams play urgently too, knowing one moment could make a victory.  Their offenses, however, remain ineffective.  “BUENA!”  No, just a near miss.  “BUENA!”  No, the shot is saved.


It ends in disappointment, 0-0.  Almagro’s goalie, Martin Bernacchia, is dubbed man of the match in the next day’s sports page.  The game is described as a “war,” a hard fought game.  That it was.  Roberto leaves frustrated.  But he’ll be back to “buena” again.


As we leave, we are held up at the stadium’s exit by a stern impassive line of policemen in riot gear.  They simply block the exit and refuse to let people go.  There is no sign of real irritation — this is a common practice in Argentina.  The Almagro fans are hustled into their buses while the ultras for the little red bugs wait patiently, slipping into the restroom or assessing the stalemate with friends.  Finally, after ten minutes, the line of policemen parts and we issue out into the street as daylight fades.



2 Responses to “Like a “little red bug””

  1. […] a “little red bug” April 11, 2008 – 3:23 pm | Scott Escribio un articulo buenisimo hoyAqui hay un pedazo del articuloOne of DC United’s multitude of […]

  2. […] The Five Billion Person Party wrote an interesting post today on Like a "little red bug"Here’s a quick excerptOne of DC United’s multitude of new South American imports this season is Franco Niell, a forw […]

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