Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 July 2020

The chocolate box: lifting the lid on La Bombonera in Buenos Aires

The neighbourhood has the best sporting atmosphere our writer has experienced anywhere in the world

On a dusty patch of ground, on the northern fringes of Buenos Aires’ famous La Boca district, a father, uncle or perhaps older brother passes a football to his son, nephew or younger sibling. It is an objectively bad pass on a poor surface, bouncing wildly in the wrong direction, but the boy dutifully hares after it anyway, his arms pumping up and down in his counterfeit Boca Juniors jersey. The passer, also wearing the gold and yellow of Argentina’s most famous team, throws his arms up in frustration, berating the youngster for not making more of the garbage he has just been served.

Perhaps this is an important lesson – to make the most of whatever the game throws at you – and perhaps how many times the boy keeps desperately chasing the ball will decide whether or not one day he gets to swap his fake jersey for the real thing.

For him, and for all boys in La Boca, the journey to the team’s imposing stadium is, geographically at least, a short one. Rising above the rest of the barrio skyline, La Bombonera has been La Boca’s pulsating heart for the past 80 years.

These days, the team is a mix of foreigners – Colombians, a Uruguayan – and Argentinians. No one is strictly from La Boca, but then neither are many of the club’s most famous players: Juan Roman Riquelme, Martin Palermo, or Carlos Tevez. So long as they are willing to give their all for the team and never talk favourably about hated middle-class rivals River Plate, the player’s postcode doesn’t really seem to matter.

Of all the Boca Juniors alumni, the one that seems to loom largest over the barrio – and perhaps all of Argentina – is Diego Maradona, who nowadays manages UAE club Fujairah. He grew up 13 kilometres from the stadium and played for the team in two stints – never for very long, never achieving quite as much here as he did at other times in his storied career. Nonetheless, later that day it’s his face I see spray-painted on walls as I approach La Bombonera for a match.

I’m being escorted to the game by Santiago Puerta of Tangol, a tour company that offers itineraries all around South America, but there’s nothing else quite like visiting La Bombonera. The stadium has a 49,000-seat capacity, but Puerta tells me that there are about three times as many members of the club. Given this incredible demand, it seems almost miraculous that foreigners can even visit.

Even if tickets were easy to come by, however, I’d be grateful for the guide. Boca Juniors have become globally famous for the intensity of the atmosphere in the stadium, but that’s born in the fires of growing up in this neighbourhood. Thanks to tourism and improved infrastructure, it’s probably the safest it has been in years, but for most of its inhabitants, life remains a daily struggle.

“Look, I’ve been doing this for a few years and I’ve never lost a tourist yet,” Puerta laughs as our group makes its way through the thickening crowd. “But still, you just need to be a little careful. And, if anyone asks, today you are Alejandro.” He hands me the credit-card-sized season ticket that will get me into the stadium.

Before the buzzing noise of the stadium overwhelms us, Puerta also tells us the surprisingly quirky reason behind the club’s famous colours. Around here, everything – the stadium, the jerseys, the walls – is yellow and blue. “In the early days, the founders couldn’t agree on it, so because La Boca is close to the port, they decided to take the colours of the next ship that came in,” said the guide. “It was Swedish, thank God, because these colours are really pretty. This is what we have: blue and gold for life.”

After clearing security, we walk up several flights of concrete stairs, the walls yellow, the bannister blue, then emerge like newborns into the evening air, high on the top tier of La Bombonera.

The stadium’s name means The Chocolate Box, and from here, near its lid, we look down on its rarest treasures: La Doce (The Twelfth). These fans behind the goal are both the most famous and notorious in the ground. Most searches on Google for shots of Boca Juniors fans feature La Doce, some climbing the enormous steel cages that keep them off the pitch, often with flares going off behind. It’s they who bring the war drums to the game and who set the infectious, intimidating rhythm for the rest of the stadium.

They’re already singing when the reserve goalkeepers come out to warm up. Considering how unlikely it is that they will play a single minute of this match against San Martin, it’s amazing to hear them greeted like conquering heroes returning from battle.

Only at half-time do the fans calm down, catching their breath before their raucous concert restarts for the second half. Puerta comes over and asks me how this spectacle compares with games in England. I tell him that while the quality on the pitch might not be quite as high, every other element here is superior – the noise, the colour and, above all, the passion.

I mention that I have seen Argentinian fans only once before, in Abu Dhabi during the 2009 Club World Cup Final, when Estudiantes played against Barcelona. At the start of the game, the majority of the crowd was supporting the Catalan team, but the performance of the Argentinians, and moreover their fans, won over most of the stadium by the end. Ironically, the party was ruined when Argentina’s most famous player, Lionel Messi, scored the extra-time winner for Barca.

There are occasionally questions about how Argentinian Messi really is; the majority of his life has been spent in Spain, and a few years ago, he dramatically retired from the national team after losing the 2014 World Cup Final to Germany. Thankfully for all football fans, he changed his mind. After a mediocre campaign, Argentina needed to win their final game to qualify for this summer’s tournament in Russia. They won 3-1 and Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick.

At his best, other players are reduced to pylons, while the little man from Rosario becomes the electricity. The New York Times journalist Jeff Himmelman puts it another way: “When he’s on form, there is an inevitability to his play that transcends everything around him, like something foretold.”

For Puerta, in a World Cup year, of course he will be supporting Messi. He says succinctly: “When he does well, Argentina is doing well, so …” He’s interrupted by the drums restarting for the second half.

As the game roars on, Boca Juniors are always in control, even if San Martin show fighting spirit far beyond what anyone was expecting. Boca eventually win 4-2, but San Martin would have done their fans proud, had any been allowed into the game. Argentina decided to have a blanket ban on away supporters after a series of violent incidents a few seasons ago; it may be lifted again after this summer’s World Cup, but for now the support here and at all grounds, is entirely partisan. The result is the best sporting atmosphere I have experienced anywhere in the world.

In the middle of the chaos, three fans stood out to me. They weren’t down in the maelstrom of La Doce, but sitting on the hard stairs next to me. A father had brought his two daughters, the oldest of whom was probably 5 years old. The younger, perhaps half that age, didn’t last into the second half, falling asleep despite the bedlam all round. While I marvelled at her habituation, I was equally impressed by her father’s ability to celebrate the goals without waking his toddler.

Meanwhile, the older daughter was rapt for the whole 90 minutes. With her brown hair in pigtails, during one of the club’s songs she joined thousands of others with a sort of tomahawk chop, slicing through the air while the war drums beat ever on. Her tiny arm wasn’t quite in time with the rest of her tribe, but no one who saw her doubted her sincerity.


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