When in Rome, right?  The other weekend in Buenos Aires was one of the world’s most well known soccer classics – Boca Juniors vs. River Plate.  This rivalry is so intense it would be best described as fanatical, and I was set on being there for the action.  We woke up bright and early Saturday morning to pouring rain.  The game didn’t start until 2pm so I was hopeful it would stop before then.  At the last minute, I decided that even though probably not the smartest idea, I was going bring my professional Nikon camera to the game.  There had been too many moments in the past when I had hesitated to bring it places and then missed capturing an amazing experience, so I decided it was worth the risk.  I remembered a trick my dad taught me and grabbed two large zip lock bags and my waterproof Patagonia jacket on the way out.  We rode out to the stadium with rain pounding on the windows of the van, it seeming less and less probable that the rain would stop before the game.

When we arrived we found ourselves amongst a group of people standing near a training center close to the stadium. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something, I couldn’t figure out what.  Then a car passed by the entrance of the athletic center and was completely overtaken by this group of men standing on either side who shook the car so violently it almost toppled over.  I didn’t know who was in these cars and didn’t understand what the rowdiness was about, I just knew I wanted to stay clear of it.  Another guy passed by on a motorbike and was told to put his helmet back on.  Then every man he passed riding into the facility smacked his helmet as hard as they could, laughing as they did.  I didn’t understand it and didn’t care to.

A friend had supposedly arranged for our tickets, but still no sign of them.  It seemed like we were waiting for someone to come and get us or give us our tickets, of course no one seemed to know who.  In typical New York style, I began to complain about how disorganized everything was. We stood there for what seemed like an hour amongst this group, getting soaked to the bone by the unrelenting rain.  I realized I really had to pee, and when I mentioned it everyone with me laughed.  I guess the idea of using a bathroom in a soccer stadium in Argentina was quite comical.  My Patagonia jacket had turned a dark shade of blue, soaked by the intense rain.  Luckily my camera that I had tucked into it remained stone dry, but I couldn’t help but obsessively check.

For a moment I stood looking around at the circle of men that formed next to us.  I saw many without front teeth, donned in all sorts of Boca Junior paraphernalia, gold chains, and who looked years older than what I could guess was probably their age.  It was obvious from the deep creases and scars that populated their faces they had lived a tough life in rough neighborhoods.  I smelled a strong whiff of marijuana.  I heard foul language.  Thankfully no one was drinking, or maybe they had but earlier that day.  I began thinking it was quite possible these men were mafia that ran the Boca hinchada.  I saw lots of hats and shirts that referenced “jugador numero 12,” which might have been confirmation. I tried not to stare and kept my hood over my head in an attempt not to call too much attention to myself and hide my hair I had just died blonde.  I swore I saw a few men sniffing something they brought out from under their coats.  No one else seemed bothered at all by the fact that they were soaking wet.  They lived for this day.

The quiet before the storm.  All of a sudden we were off on the path towards the stadium.  I still couldn’t figure out where our tickets were, who had them, how we were getting in, and what it was that set off the crowd on this wild race.  No one else asked questions so I kept quiet.

Big steel barricades lined either sides of the pathway to the stadium, which forced the crowd into a overly narrow space.  There were hardly any women around and once I felt the violent force of this group of people around me I understood why.  When we got stopped up at checkpoints where police attempted to control the volume of the crowd charging the stadium, but people began yelling out and cursing, in many cases just pushing past the police in total chaos.  I had to brace myself along the side wall from being taken over by the uncontrollable crowd, but my first reaction was to stop the force of everyone pushing forward (a very bad move) and in the process ended up jamming my finger.  I had never been in crowd control situation this intense before.

I felt like I was in a bad dream running from the bulls in Pamplona, the men behind me pushing forward with animal-like aggressiveness.  I felt nervous to the point of tears every time we stopped at a checkpoint for fear of being trampled, and I kept my eyes pealed for any break in the barricades for a chance to escape the madness.  At one point we got stopped up and people began shouting really loudly.  I looked over as a woman who looked not a day older than 25 passed through everyone with an infant in her arms.  I was appalled.  She had to be a mafia wife I thought, after watching as everyone attentively cleared the way for her.

When we finally reached the stadium entrance things reached another level of out of control.  I couldn’t understand why none of the riot-clad police I had seen at the beginning were stationed here.  People charged the entrance to wait in line to be frisked, knocking over barricades and splashing in giant puddles that had formed.  It was total and complete chaos, policemen physically pushing the crowds back and yelling.  No one gave a damn about anything but entering that stadium.  We stood to the side watching, ticketless, and staring up at the huge stadium walls it was then that we realized that we were waiting to enter the section where the “loco” fans sat.  Where the mafia leaders ruled.  We realized our contact that had arranged our tickets had lied and we didn’t actually have tickets or seats.  He must have tried to use some connection to get the mafia that ran these sections to let us in.  I wanted nothing more of the scene.  The thought of entering the stadium, watching the game, and then the chaos of leaving the stadium with this group of people made me anxious to the point of panicked.

“Yo no voy a ir,” I said, the words coming out quickly without a moment more thinking about it.  All the excitement I felt leading up to the game had been replaced by fear and I wanted nothing more of it.  I didn’t care if I had to leave alone, walking the precarious streets of La Boca alone to find a cab.  I wasn’t going in.  The Argentine couple we were with tried to calm me down, acting like the chaos was completely normal and telling me nothing would happen to me.  I was doubtful and told them I had never seen such a level of aggressiveness at a sporting event in my life.  We rode home, my drenched clothes soaking the seat of the cab.  I wondered if I had overreacted and was going to regret my decision.  But the thought of more hours spent standing in the pouring rain was enough to convince me I had made the right choice.  At home we turned the game on just as they were making an announcement.  The game was being cancelled due to rain.  I couldn’t have been more relieved. I guess that day taught me that sometimes you should just listen to your instincts.

Later I talked to some friends who had actual tickets and made it into the stadium.   They had spent three more hours exiting the stadium after the game was cancelled.  While waiting in their section, a giant metal pole thrown by some angry fans from the bleachers above landed a foot away from my friend’s head and moments later, a bathroom door that had been torn off the wall.   I think it will be a while before I rush to head back to La Bombonera.

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