Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Argentina: Visitors not welcome

The Boca Juniors home ground, La Bombonera, is designed to intimidate, finds Patrick McKendry.

Boca Juniors' Rolando Schiavi enters the field as fans - and cheerleaders - go wild. Buenos Aires' most famous football club attracts the most fervent supporters in the world for any sport. Photo / AP
Boca Juniors' Rolando Schiavi enters the field as fans - and cheerleaders - go wild. Buenos Aires' most famous football club attracts the most fervent supporters in the world for any sport. Photo / AP

Boca Juniors manager Julio Cesar Falcioni looks like a man on death row.

He is sitting on the side of the pitch at La Bombonera, Boca's home stadium, watching the last moments of his team's 1-1 draw with San Martin, decides enough is enough and lights a cigarette.

Full-time whistle blown, he walks across the pitch to jeers from his team's fans who have packed the stadium despite it being a Sunday night match against a visiting team thought to be of modest ability. As he walks he fingers another cigarette as though for reassurance. He reaches the other side of the pitch. The jeers grow louder and supporters throw ripped paper at him.

If you want to experience true passion at a sporting event, watch a Club Atletico Boca Juniors match. Even better, get to one, but as we will discover, that's not easy if you're not a member or season ticket holder. The famous Buenos Aires football club, where Diego Maradona played in the 1980s and where the great man has his own VIP area complete with bench for all of his family, attracts what must be the most fervent supporters anywhere for any sport.

At the time, Falcioni was wearing his haunted expression and taking what looked like his last walk, his side was still second on the table. Yet expectations are high here. The hotel security guard told me Falcioni, a former goalkeeper, isn't popular because the team aren't playing with enough style or scoring enough goals.

In a bid to get tickets for the match, we arrive at the stadium four hours before kick-off. The air is heavy with expectation. There is a massive presence of armed police standing around, chatting in groups. It is a modest but vibrant neighbourhood and one popular with tourists who go to see the brightly coloured houses and tango shows on Caminito, a popular street.

We ask a policeman about tickets for the match but he doesn't look positive. We talk to a local, a man in his 20s. He asks us whether we would like a seat or a standing position but our negotiations go no further once a policeman walks past and catches his eye. The cop shakes his head and the man walks away without a word.

We're not getting far so we concede defeat and hail a taxi. Watching the match on TV, it is the morose Falcioni who stands out - him and the constant noise and the fans' disgust.

On a stadium tour the next day pieces of paper still litter the pitch. We are given a run-down of the club's history, and a fascinating one it is, too. The club was formed on April 3, 1905, by five Italian immigrants. Players used to wear pink but legend has it that in 1906 they had a dispute with another team which wore the same colours. They played a match to decide who would stay in pink and Boca lost, deciding to wear the colours of the flag of the next ship to sail into the port at La Boca. It was from Copenhagen, so blue and yellow it was.

We get to stand near the side of the pitch, look around the visitors' changing rooms and get some fine anecdotes from our guide, Brian, a man in his 20s from Palermo, a Buenos Aires suburb.

Before we meet Brian, we visit the club's museum, which features the pictures of all of the club's first division players on their debut since 1931. There is a young Diego Maradona - debut February 22, 1981. He would go on to score 17 goals for the club in his first season and become one of the most famous footballers in the world.

While we are made welcome, rival fans and players on game day are most definitely not. The stadium is all about intimidating them, which Brian takes great relish in explaining. Boca Juniors' most rabid fans are crammed into one end, with the No.12 written large behind them (as in, 12th player). The visitors' changing rooms are located beneath them for good reason. Half an hour before kick-off the chanting and stamping begins, designed, Brian explains, to put the visitors in a "not very nice frame of mind".

Boca Juniors enter the field at halfway, visitors from beneath the club's "12th player". "Always they have No.12 shouting bad things to them," says Brian gleefully. "Never nice things."

Outside, he says: "Look at the two entrances to the stadium [one for visiting players, one for home players]."

Indeed, there is a difference. Home players can walk in with their heads held high; visiting players must stoop to enter. "They must bow reverence to us," our friend Brian laughs again.

There is room for only 3000 visiting supporters at La Bombonera and they must cram into a lower level overlooked by home fans on the tier above.

But they always come, despite the club-endorsed intimidation, the jeers, the threat of violence.

Very few of the supporters drink alcohol. They turn up, imbibe gallons of soft drink, sing, chant and go home or to a local restaurant for the post mortem. After all, this is football, and the Boca Juniors, we're talking about. It's life and death. Just ask Senor Falcioni.

GET IN

It's not easy to get tickets for Boca games. You have to be a season ticket holder, take a risk buying them on the black market, or be ... Diego Maradona, who has the best seat in the house. The Argentina legend and 'Hand of God' World Cup-winner played for the club in the 80s. Still loved by the fans, Maradona has his own VIP area complete with bench for his family.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN Airlines operates six flights a week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to destinations throughout Argentina.

Further information: Price of stadium and museum visit for non-resident: $55 (Argentine pesos) - about $15.

* Patrick McKendry flew to Argentina courtesy of LAN Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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