The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

River = Vida

Posted by steigs on May 19, 2008

A highlight of the FSC schedule for me is the weekly game from Argentina.  It’s late in the Clausura and this past weekend Estudiantes moved past River Plate into first place.  Things sound a little tense on the River side:

With few second-half scoring chances, the match ground down uneventfully with River fans insulting their players and River coach Diego Simeone expelled in the 86th minute for shouting at the referee.

That’s too bad — I was lucky enough to catch River’s fans on a better day, when I saw a game at Estadio Monumental back in ’04.  It was a wild affair in front of a huge and passionate audience.  I even got a preview of Marcelo Gallardo, now with DC United, back in his days with Los Millonarios.  Read on after the jump!


September 2004


On Sunday I head to the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where the elite of Argentina often reside.  The streets are cleaner, the shops posher, and modern luxury apartment buildings rise overhead.  I could be on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, albeit in an alternate universe where America is a Spanish-speaking nation.  I pass art galleries, designer boutiques, hostile doormen, even professional dog walkers.  When I pause in a café, Sinatra is playing as a soundtrack.


I eventually reach the Recoleta graveyard, permanent home, so to speak, of Argentina’s aristocracy.  Vast mausoleums fill the cemetery, all cramped together, as they try to use as much of the grounds as possible.  There are mini-Greek temples, an army’s worth of angel statues, and crucifix sculpture after crucifix sculpture. 


I walk the narrow rows, passing family tombs, pausing now and then to read the inscriptions — doctors, lawyers, cabinet ministers, military dictators.  They’re all here in the Recoleta.  Yet the tourists, and there are plenty, are headed for a different tomb, a relatively modest affair.  It is in the back, far to one side.  There are usually fresh flowers in front of it.  It is the family tomb of the Duartes.  Evita Peron is buried here, with the rest of her family.  (Juan Peron is buried elsewhere.)  They still remember here too, a half-century after her death, and, just by being here, she probably still bothers the aristocracy of Argentina.


I don’t stay long, I’m on my way to see River Plate, the team nicknamed the “Millonarios,” the eternal rivals of Boca Juniors.  When the two teams meet it’s known as the “super-classico.”  The Millionaires, hmm.  Come to think of it, why don’t we rename the Yankees the “New York Millionaires” and get it over with?


Greater Buenos Aires, an urban center with 14 million people, dominates the Argentine soccer league the same way the city drives Argentine life.  The land may stretch hundreds of miles south, all the way to Chatwin’s Patagonia but about one-quarter of all Argentines live here, the center of business and government.  Around two-thirds of the current top level teams are based in greater Buenos Aires.  The league is not completely about Buenos Aires — the cities of La Plata down the coast and Rosario inland have decent teams — but it often is, and the only team to really rival Boca Juniors on the field and in terms of fan following, is River Plate. 

Fans of Independiente, from the port suburb of Avellanda, will point out that their team has won the most Copa Libertadores with seven but four of those came in a remarkable run during the early 1970s and these days the team rarely challenges the big two.  The rough boys of Estudiantes also had a run at the top of their own, back in the 1960s.  Still, year in and year out, Argentine soccer revolves around the twin powers of Boca Juniors and River Plate.


When I leave the efficient Buenos Aires subway at Congreo de Tucman, I’m at the end of one line, much further into the city’s northwest end.  There is money in this neighborhood, known as Nunez (or Barrio River), if not quite as much as the Recoleta.  There are bright apartment towers with odd, modernist angles.  Things are Sunday quiet with only the restaurants and grocery stores open for business.  The temperature is reaching the 80s, almost qualifying as “hot” and the afternoon sky is clear and blue.


The River Plate fans, many wearing the traditional team jersey of white with a diagonal red sash, are flowing down a side street, bound for the stadium, a 15 minute walk from here.  A few fans pause at restaurants as we go.  River Plate may be known as the millionaires but their fans don’t look to be such.  (The nickname, I later learn, dates back to some free-spending for players during the 1930s.)  Of course, I realize, millionaires probably wouldn’t be taking the subway to the game.


We cross the busy and wide Avenida de Libertador and are getting close.  Streets are blocked off, hat and jersey vendors appear.  A popular t-shirt proclaims River Plate “champions of the century,” a title they lay claim to because they won more Argentine league titles in the 20th century — nearly 30 —  than any of their rivals, including Boca Juniors.  They have also won two Copa Libertadores.


It is no longer residential — I see a colonial style church and car dealers and, across the street, basketball courts.  Straight ahead is the Estadio Monumental.  It lives up to its name, a huge place, making me feel tiny, like our NFL palaces.  Things are busy around the stadium, hectic with arriving fans and shirt sellers.  No sign of tail-gating.  Instead, people just buy their tickets and head inside.  I explore for a bit and assess the souvenir options.  River Plate hats are common, sensible given the sun, and more often take the floppy fisherman form than the baseball cap approach. 


I decide to head inside too, even though kick-off is still nearly an hour away, since the fun appears to be there.  I buy a ticket for an end section for the equivalent of $5.  The better seats, on the sides of the field, go for $10, and the cheapest, for the ultras, go for about $3.50.  They get you in the upper deck behind one goal.  Prices like this mean attendance stays high, even during tough economic times.


This is a historical site, in soccer terms.  The Estadio Monumental hosted the final of the 1978 World Cup.  Argentina won that game, 3-1, over Holland, the first of their two World Cup championships.  It was won without Maradona but with home field advantage and, it is inevitably whispered, help from the military government of the time.  (That said, the 6-0 win over Peru which let Argentina edge out Brazil for a slot in the final was suspiciously easy.)  Brian Glanville’s history of the World Cup sums it up this way, “As the defeated Dutch bitterly said, it’s unlikely that Argentina’s team could have won anywhere but at home.”


Argentina had been a power in world soccer long before the 1978 triumph.  The game came early to a port city like Buenos Aires and Argentines were quick to adopt it.  While Boca Juniors was founded in 1905, River Plate began even earlier, in 1901.  Argentina reached the first World Cup final in 1930, only to lose to neighboring Uruguay, their original rivals from the other side of, well, the River Plate.  Argentina and Uruguay have played more than 160 times since 1901, making it the most contested international match-up of all.  These days, however, Argentina tends to view the mighty Brazil as its rival, and the two usually battle for supremacy in Latin America.  All in all, Argentina has also won the Copa America, the South American championship tourney, eleven times.


Argentina has also developed an unusually bitter tradition with the English, which dates back to controversial games in the 1960s — after a bitter 1966 World Cup game English coach Alf Ramsey termed the hard-tackling Argentines “animals” — through the Falklands War and Maradona’s “Hand of God” revenge and on to the wild 1998 World Cup game where David Beckham was ejected.


River Plate, as befits a team with so many championships, has had famous teams of their own.  There was the “La Maquina” — or “the machine” — team that won three titles during World War II, finishing a close second two other years to — who else? — Boca Juniors.  There was another powerful team in the 1950s, when River Plate rolled to five championships in six seasons, starting in 1952.  If Boca prides itself on being a team of passion, River Plate’s trademark involves playing stylish soccer. 


The coach of the 1978 World Cup winners was Cesar Luis Menotti, politically left-wing and a something of an intellectual, which was ironic given the right-wing dictatorship made such hay out of the triumph.  He has remained a leading figure in Argentine soccer, later coaching Barcelona as well as both River Plate and Boca Juniors, known for looking a beautiful style to the game.  Menotti is often seen as representing the European flavor of Argentina, a coach for those who sit in the elegant cafes of Buenos Aires.


His long-time rival, Carlos Bilardo, coached the other World Cup champions, the 1986 side, before also later taking a turn at Boca Juniors.  He is known for preaching a very different approach, a “winning is the only thing” take on the game, which often involves tough defensive soccer and games with lots of fouls.  He is the hard man, the working class guy of the bars, although, strangely enough, he trained as a doctor in his youth.


The Argentines have a long-running debate about styles of play, with Menotti and Bilardi representing the poles.  Their rivals in Brazil, however, support only the beautiful game, sometimes turning against winning coaches if their teams fail to play with enough style.  Maradona, the trickster, combined the two approaches and the Argentines continue to seek that balance of the tough and the stylish.


Up the concrete stairs and I find my section.  There is no assigned seating — that may not exist south of the Rio Grande.  The seats themselves are worn wood, like you might find in some historic minor league baseball stadium.  They are painted in alternating sections of red and white, River Plate’s team colors.  I take a shady seat, behind one goal.


Off in the far distance are the ultras for River’s opponents of the day, Newell’s Old Boys, a name that shouts the British heritage of the game — it’s even in English.  (They were named for one Isaac Newell, a professor of English way back when.)  Newell’s is from Rosario, a regional center about 200 miles northwest of Buenos Aires with a population of about 1 million.  The Newell’s ultras are carefully fenced off in their own section behind the opposite goal.  The authorities have been worried about crowd trouble, due to some previous incidents between ultras of these two teams.  There are police checkpoints on the highway south from Rosario to ensure the Newell’s ultras are not armed.  For reasons unclear to me, Newell’s are nicknamed “the lepers.”  Suddenly, being “little red bugs” sounds pretty good.  (A future investigation discovers that the nickname stems from an old story, involving the willingness of Newell’s to play a benefit game to help those with leprosy while their city rivals, Rosario Central, declined.)


Below me a game is already being played, reserve teams acting as a warm-up for the main event.  Estadio Monumental is gradually filling up.  Half of those here are watching the reserves and half are ignoring them.  I have a good perspective on the game, although it feels far away, especially with the running track circling the field, making it even further away.  A red card is given out near the end of the reserve match.  It looks deserved to me, a clear intentional take-out by the last defender.  Whistles everywhere.  Not all of the fans may have been watching but they all have an opinion.


The reserve game concludes about a half-hour before kick-off.  The Newell’s fans, who have made it in substantial numbers despite the police checkpoints, break out their flags, giant red and black banners, and practice waving them in the warm afternoon.  The whistles resume, firm and forceful, the River fans reminding the Newell’s fans that they are the visitors here today.


The Estadio Monumental is rather austere, with little in the way of decoration.  No scoreboard, for example.  The fans provide their own interior decorating, with banners and signs.  “River = Vida” reads one, or “River equals life.”  Fan clubs mark their presence, representing Buenos Aires neighborhoods like San Telmo.  River has a national following and I see banners for clubs from the cities of La Plata and Salta.  Rock bands are claimed as fans as well — the Rolling Stones and AC/DC for River, the Beatles and Iron Maiden (!) for Newell’s.  A sign proclaims the “colossal passion@ for Newell’s, a play on the name of their home stadium back in Rosario, the El Coloso.


The teams come out.  River is in their traditional white with red sash jerseys — they’re everywhere in the stands as well — and black shorts.  Newell’s have two-tone jerseys, half red and half black, like two shirts spliced together, and black shorts.  It’s the red and white against the red and black — I guess they agree on the red, at least.  I can hear the drums now, as the River ultras in the tier above me get going.  The beats ring in the air, echoing around the concrete structure.  The songs have begun in support of River.


Most of the people in my section are singing.  The Monumental is about two-thirds full, maybe 50,000 in attendance, spread relatively even throughout.  My section is on the young side — teenagers too cool or shy to join the ultras, fathers with young children.  Juan is next to me, with his cute daughter Gloria.  Gloria is maybe five.  She’s more interested in the singing than the game but, hey, whatever works for you.  Juan says he comes all the time.  We don’t manage to talk much more, though, because Gloria takes his attention.


The game is an important match, even early in the season.  River are in first place, Newell’s are in fourth.  The “lepers” have been contenders before, with three league championships on their resume.  Over the last generation, Argentine soccer has — like much of South America — been drained of its best players by wealthier European teams, which have ridden the explosion of television revenue in a way that not even a River Plate can manage in Argentina.  The result is a league where River and Boca corner the rising stars, who play for a couple of years before leaping to Europe, and often pick them up again, as experienced veterans, for a few seasons in their early 30s once they are no longer able to command as large a salary in Europe.  I am looking forward to the chance to see the players who might star for Argentina in the 2010 World Cup, not in the 2006 tourney.


The game starts fast and hard and bad-tempered.  Almost immediately a River player goes down in the box.  Penalty!  No, the referee doesn’t call it.  The crowd whistles loudly in complaint.

In the 3rd minute they get a more important reason to be unhappy — Newell’s scores.  Ruben Capria dinks in a nice chip shot.  It takes just enough of a deflection to beat the goalie.  1-0 to Newell’s.  Across the way, their ultras in the upper deck start wave the red and black flags, looking for all the world like a drill team who took a wrong turn and found themselves in the cheap seats instead of on the field.


The River fans and team seem startled.  Maybe Newell’s is a real threat.  Within a few minutes, River comes close to scoring but a Newell’s defender clears the ball of the line just in time.  The Newell’s coach throws such a fit — or says something so exquisitely bitter to the officials — that he is ejected. 


Ten minutes in and there has already been more action and drama here than in the whole of Argentinos Juniors game.  The game steadies with River attacks being regularly frustrated by the well-greased Newell’s offside trap.  River striker Maxi Lopez, baby-faced with long straight blonde hair, keeps going to ground, trying to draw foul calls, mostly in vain.  River’s team is frustrated, petulant even.


I soak in the scene, the vast panorama, the crowd singing, fans often shirtless in the warm sun, the flags waving in the distance, the urgent movement of the players — tiny almost — down on the field, the bored policemen on the running track, their German Shepherds snoozing in the sun.  Gloria has fallen asleep in her father’s lap, as if the songs of the River faithful are a lullaby.  The most common tune is rather soothing, going something like this:


O-wa O-wa O-wa O-wa-ho, O-wa O-wa O-wa O-wa-hey!”


Around thirty minutes in, River almost goes two goals down.  A free kick is sent into the box and there is much confusion before it gets cleared out.  Both teams are finding their rhythm.  The Newell’s team is fluid in midfield, quickly moving the ball forward and from side to side, a team that knows how to find one another.  River’s players, on the other hand, are especially deft with one-touch moves, little flick-ons putting passes in dangerous places, that extra bit of technical skill that suggests quality.


About thirty-five minutes in, it’s Newell’s turn to get confused when an attacking ball gets into their penalty area.  It is deflected — was that a hand ball?  The River fans, of course, are sure it was and demand a penalty be awarded.  The referee lets it go.


Puta!” comes a shout from a few rows back.  Gloria doesn’t stir — maybe she’s slept through a lot of these kind of games.  It is looking to me almost like Newell=s is the home team on the field and River stuck counter-attacking when they can, rather than dominating possession. 


The River fans are getting grumpy.  The mixture of songs and whistles tilts more to the latter as the River players increasingly find it hard to make their passes work.  Still, just before the half, Maxi Lopez almost gets an equalizing goal, only for the Newell’s keeper to save it.


At half-time I take a brief stroll to stretch my legs.  My section has been sitting down — it’s the ultras above us who have been standing during the game.  The public address announcer comes across as both loud and hard to distinguish, like the “wah-wah” voices of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons amped up.  I notice, looking closer, that in many places in the stadium there are banners hanging from banners — just not enough space to say all they want to say.  It gives the Monumental a more human feel, instead of the slick ads that cover every available inch of American stadiums.


Like the first half, the second half starts out flying.  Just a couple of minutes in and River is on the attack.  A cross sails into the box and there are bodies flying everywhere.  The referee whistles a foul — a penalty!  Marcelo Gallardo, a skilled midfielder, takes the shot and scores.  No!  Wait!  The referee insists that it needs to be retaken for an infraction invisible to us.  Whistles.  The River faithful are feeling tortured by this referee, if not outright robbed.


Gallardo knows his business and scores on the retaken penalty.  This time it counts.  1-1!


In minute 54, the tide turns even more in favor of the home team when Ruben Capria of Newell’s gets his second yellow card, which means a red card ejection.  A day of high and low for Capria, who also scored the first goal.  He trudges slowly off the field.


Newell’s is now down to ten players and whoever is coaching them now quickly takes out a forward and puts in a midfielder to strengthen their defensive posture.  In minute 58, Newell’s does earn a free kick on the wing on the River side of the field.  The ball is crossed in rather nicely and the new guy for Newell’s, Marcelo Pento, scores.  2-1, Newell’s!


Where did that come from?  Like a boxer with an injury, Newell’s had gone into a defensive crouch to be able to go the distance only to find a cautious counter-punch goes straight to the jaw of the opponent, dropping him to the canvas.  The Newell’s fans are singing so loudly I can hear them from across the vast stadium.  The flags wave briskly back and forth in celebration.


River immediately strikes back on a break.  The Newell’s goalie stops the initial shot but gives away the rebound, which is nicely converted.  2-2!  Now we’re awake and alive!  That’ll show them!


My section rises, singing the “o-wa” song.  A little boy at the end of the row is waving a River flag.  Gloria, awake now, keeps looking over at it in envy.


The River coach now takes off a defender and subs in a third forward, Paraguayan Nelson Cuevas, who I recall scoring a nifty goal in the 2002 World Cup.  River is going for the victory, the kill.  Thirty minutes to get that third goal.


As the sun sinks, it grows cooler.  The fans in my section are standing and singing now.  River is continually on the attack.  As a British announcer would put it, “they have their tails in the air.”  The shots come regularly — a cross is headed goalward, a drive from twenty yards out.  Newell’s is up to the test, thwarting the attacks.  It stays 2-2, pressure building.

In minute 79, the tide turns again.  A River defender is given his second yellow card, meaning a red card and an ejection.  Now both teams have ten players.  River loses that confidence and momentum they had been showing.  The game gets wide open again and the action goes end to end.


In minute 85, the odds change further.  Another River player is ejected, this time a straight red card for a rather vicious-looking elbow to a Newell’s player well after he had passed the ball.  The foul is the soccer equivalent of a late hit or “unnecessary roughness.”  Now it is Newell’s with the advantage, ten on nine.  I wait for the wave of whistling in protest but it doesn’t come.  Was the play so egregious that the River fans are admitting it deserves a red?  Or are people too caught up in the relentless action to pause long enough to whistle?


No matter that they are now short-handed, River almost scores immediately after the red.  And then comes another close call.  This game is an operatic masterpiece of highs and lows and changing fortunes, worthy of the Italian immigrant heritage of so many Argentines.


Newell’s breaks down the field, quickly setting up a shot.  The River goalie saves it.  The ball goes out of bounds.  There’s a hustle by the ball boys to supply one to the waiting River player and he ends up with three, forcing a momentary pause in the action.  Juan and I share a laugh.


The two teams are desperate.  If  Newell’s was just trying to make it to the bell earlier, now both teams flail around, punch-drunk, frantic, knowing the end comes soon and also knowing they don’t have much energy left.


The final whistle.  Everyone sags.  It’s 2-2, a hard-earned draw.  The cops are waiting at the exit, holding us back while the Newell’s fans are loaded on to their buses.  It is quiet, fans discussing the games in low voices, sung out and wrung out by the drama.  The police eventually step aside and we scatter in the fading afternoon, the loud cries of the nuts and drinks sellers rising above the low buzz of post-game conversations.



One Response to “River = Vida”

  1. […] = Vida May 19, 2008 – 6:00 pm | spirits dancing spirits dancing Escribio un articulo buenisimo hoyAqui hay un pedazo del articuloThe league is not completely about […]

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