Back in the era when I considered a trip to South America as an exotic adventure rather than a necessary but grossly inconvenient long haul ordeal, I took the opportunity to visit the Bombonera in Buenos Aires for a big local derby.
I was caddying for Greg Turner from New Zealand who was accompanying Frank Nobilo in the World Cup of golf held at the Buenos Aires Country Club in 2000.
We ended up playing in the last group with Tiger Woods and David Duval in the final round foursomes, when you find out in earnest how the team is playing. We shot a tail-spinning 80 and the victorious Woods and Duval humiliated us into the role of onlookers by the back nine.
Where are they now you may ask? Two of them are established commentators, one redesigns golf courses and the other, well, he’s Tiger. I’m still caddying.
You will have guessed that the day that was looking like it was going to be my greatest sporting memory turned into one that I couldn’t erase from my memory. Instead the experience that remains ingrained was my visit to the iconic ‘Chocolate Box’ stadium in the heart of the Argentine capital.
I had arrived in Buenos Aires early in order to recover from the long journey and give myself time to explore the city. I made my way to the exclusive Buenos Aires Country Club to walk the course and make my strategic notes for the week. There was nobody there, I got my preparation done promptly and repaired to the clubhouse for an early evening drink.
There were scenes on the TV of Boca Juniors hoisting their recently won Intercontinental Cup. I asked the barman about the team and he replied that they would be playing at home that night. A colleague of mine had joined me at the bar. We chatted briefly about the course and got back to the impending soccer game.
I was not even remotely a fan of soccer back then, but I was always fascinated by the live experience. We became more inquisitive about the game and consulted our barman. As luck would have it, the golf club president also owned the soccer club. After some more hopeful enquiries through the barman, it became obvious that he had no tickets available for the night’s game, not for a couple of toters anyway, but it was worth heading down to the stadium to see if we could pick a couple up at the ground. He emphasised that it would be advisable to get seats. “Don’t stand, it’s dangerous.”
My fellow caddie Andy, an Aston Villa season ticket holder, wanted to compare the Villa Park experience to Bombonera, so we decided to take a chance on securing a couple of seating tickets at the ground.
The Boca Juniors stadium is in the heart of working-class Buenos Aires. It is inextricably linked to the working-class neighbourhood of La Boca. There were streets of modest houses surrounding the ground with just a road separating them from the structures of the stands. Bad news at the ticket booth, there were no seats left, but we could stand. With the echo of the barman’s stern warning of “don’t stand” pounding in my head and egged on by an inquisitive Aston Villa supporter, we opted for a couple of cheap terrace tickets.
There was the usual pre-match bustle you would expect outside any big stadium and as it was early December, the start of summer, it was still warm at 8pm. My father had brought me to see Ireland play Russia at Dalymount Park in 1974. I got a flashback to the grubbiness of the Phibsboro ground, albeit on a much bigger scale in La Boca .Everything looked old, tired and dishevelled.
Boca Juniors had won both the Intercontinental Cup and the Libertadores Cup that year and were availing of the opportunity to flaunt their silverware in front of their local rivals San Lorenzo.
We made our way up to our section. Chants funnelled down the narrow stairwell, which amplified the noise to a deafening din. When we emerged on the second tier behind the goal I recall a certain sense of relief that it seemed relatively civilised, despite feeling somewhat like a caged specimen ‘estrangero’. As we settled onto our perch, the Intercontinental trophy was being paraded around the pitch, dark blue and yellow flags pervaded.
I wondered where the away fans could be, there appeared to be no other colours on view. Andy nudged me and pointed upwards with raised eyebrows. We were standing directly below the San Lorenzo fans, 5,000 of them penned in high above us. Gulp, not only had we ignored the sage advice of the barman we had ended up in the firing line of a potentially hostile mob above us.
They say that the Bombonera doesn’t simply tremble, it beats. The vertical nature of its three steep, curved stands and a flat stand on one side gave the ground its ‘Chocolate Box’ name. The stands seemingly descend right onto the pitch like a ski-slope, so you do have the feeling of being right on top of the action.
The game got underway and so did the antics on the terrace. Andy pointed out early on in the second half that my hair seemed to be on fire. Sure enough it was smouldering from some incendiary missile projected from the disgruntled away mob at an unfavourable decision by the referee.
There was the rich sweet smell of marijuana wafting about the central terrace as the local gentleman to my left offered me the remnants of a joint that had been proffered along the terrace. I noticed saliva sliding down Andy’s leather jacket.
We were tempted at half-time to head down for a calming ale, but neither of us had the conviction to risk it, we were doing relatively well where we were. We unwittingly got into the beat of the Bombonera as the hosts attacked the goal below us. The San Lorenzo aficionados were finding their own rhythm as a beaker of urine bounced and exploded close by, delivered from the beer swillers above.
Another near miss and the beat moved on. The response from our amigos above was a hail of debris raining down upon us including some chunks of concrete. The atmosphere until the 84th minute had been like nothing I have ever experienced at a live event and then came the game’s only goal scored by the hosts.
When the cacophony of the celebration somewhat subsided the chants of ‘Maradoo’ erupted as the man himself appeared hanging out of a corporate box in our view. He was swinging his Boca shirt manically, which he had obviously been wearing as he was visibly bare-chested. He had decided to watch his old club Boca, it was reported, while the team he was managing played their arch rivals River Plate on the other side of town. It is more apparent on hindsight why his actions appeared so frenetic I suppose, his excitement fuelled by more than passion for his old club.
The goal was the crescendo of a live event that would not disappoint even an observer not remotely interested in the game but fascinated by how a collective passion can create something so entertaining and frightening. My recall of the game is pretty sketchy but the feverish two hours spent on the beating terrace of the south sector of the General Local at the Bombonera will stay with me forever.
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