Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fight Songs and Kettle Drums

These days there aren't any major sports I pay much attention to anymore. For example, I know that the Super Bowl happened not to long ago, but I couldn't tell you who played in it, much less who won. This is not to say that I don't have a great appreciation for sports, but my time for following teams has come and gone. Soccer is probably one of my least favorite games to watch. The constant back and forth with nominal scoring does little to hold my attention as a spectator. However when my friend Mauricio's phone rang Saturday morning in the middle of us plastering and painting walls, and he looked at me and asked if I wanted to go to a soccer game in La Boca, I knew this was an experience I couldn't pass on.

Within a few hours we found ourselves in a taxi on our way to see Boca play Newell. Soccer is as much a part of Argentine culture as tango dancing, grilled meat and protesting in the streets. Thus going to a professional game was something I knew I had to do at some point. There is a certain air around going to see Boca play. They are Argentina's most famous soccer team and their fans are known for being rowdy, if not riotous. As our cab approached the stadium Mauricio told me our seats were in rowdiest hardcore section. My grin grew wider because I knew I'd be meeting up with my friend chaos. One of the quickest ways to remind yourself you're alive, to break free from the monotonous routines of life, is to walk through disorder, through the unpredictability of a moment and come face to face with the uneasiness, excitement or fear that accompanies it, through chaos. From all that I heard a Boca game to be, it felt like this indeed was where our path was headed.

All around people were converging on the stadium donning the navy blue and gold colors of Boca. The neighborhood of La Boca where the stadium is located is one of the less affluent areas of Buenos Aires, a place you probably wouldn't want to be caught walking the streets at night by yourself. This knowledge combined with the scores of police in full riot gear, in and around the stadium, all contribute to the aura of going to see a game here. We exited the cab 5 or 6 blocks away and joined the march in the humid sun towards the game, stopping first by a friend of Mauricio's who had waited in line all morning to get us tickets. We had stopped long enough to make the transaction, however after uttering a few hasty words in Spanish the friend sprinted off down the street. Apparently the police were searching for ticket scalpers and he was less than innocent. While laughing I thought to myself, "Sweet sweet chaos. I missed you so."

After the Tickermaster's departure, I was introduced to cleft-lipped guy who I think of more as The Gatekeeper. The Gatekeeper, wearing Boca gear from head to toe, was in his early twenties and lived in the area. He would be the local who would safely shepherd us the last few blocks to the stadium and to our seats. Most of the remaining blocks were fenced off, funneling the masses to specific entrances. There were no signs telling people where to go, but the Gatekeeper had walked the labyrinth of fenced streets surrounding the stadium many times before. Eventually we were corralled into a line hundreds of people long, in between metal barricades and surrounded by police in riot gear. Then, like cars staggered on freeway entrance ramp at rush hour, every few minutes 30 or 40 people were released to the next holding area of the line. Very quickly I became aware of the need for the staggered entry. This was not your ordinary calm and complacent line waiting to buy groceries. No, this one more closely resembled a mosh pit whose volume started on low and was progressively being turned up the closer we got to entering the stadium. At some areas of the line we passed through checkpoints where random searches and breathalizers were administered. I was told that no alcohol would be for sale at the game and that if they caught you tanked they wouldn't let you in. The further we progressed in the line the more intense and eroded it became, still the Gatekeeper was able to keep us close together. Soon the stadium was towering ominously over us while booming kettle drums and fight songs were reverberating through nearby streets and dilapidated store fronts. The line began to bounce and sway. Adrenaline filled my veins. As the drums and chanting increased in volume I felt as if I was being primed for war. Surely at the next stage of the line I would be armed with a sword and shield. When we were released everyone now ran to the next checkpoint where we were funneled in 10 separate lines and patted down one last time. At the feet of each officer lay dozens of colored lighters confiscated from those entering the stadium. This mad rush continued to the ticket collectors. At the time I remember thinking that this glorious charge on the stadium gates all seemed unnecessary, but I had little desire to go against the grain.

After passing the entrance turnstiles The Gatekeeper assembled our disheveled group back together. We had done it. We were in and he had kept us in one piece. We had only entered the stadium but it seemed like we had accomplished some great feat. Boca's stadium is known among locals as La Bombonera, or the chocolate box, because of its shape. As we ascended the mustard yellow stairs to the top of the stadium a chocolate box was the last thing on my mind. The old worn concrete structure and the noise within it had me visioning epic Roman gladiator battles inside rather chocolate covered nuggets. When we got to the top there were no ushers to walk us to our seats. Hell, there weren't even seats. Rather is was a set of concrete stairs divided by metal railings that descended all the way to the ground level. There behind each goal a 15 ft wall rose up that was topped by barbed wire with police in riot gear on the other side. It was a place of extremes. Even the stadium's largest sponsor, Coca Cola, had given in. Because the color of Boca's rival team is red, the stadium is said to be the only one in the world where billboarded Coca-Cola logos are black and white instead of their traditional red. Another small riot preventing measure I guess.

We squeezed are way into an open area directly next to the band. The band consisted of 5 bass drums and 2 snare drums and played nonstop for the entire duration of the game. In unison our enraged section, mostly 18-25 year old men, would sing fight songs for the entire duration of the game as well. Interestingly half of them never even watched the game. Instead they faced the crowd and pumped their fists in the air shouting the songs at the top of their longs. At times I felt like my watching the game was an act of betrayal to our section and any lack of yelling on my part would only be causing Boca to lose. As each song finished and drum roll ended, another would immediately begin. Not even the two goals by the other team quieted our section. Normally at sporting events, when the visiting team scores at a crucial moment the home crowd is hushed by blanket of disappointment, however here the visiting teams goals only caused the hardcore to continue their song louder. Perhaps if they sang loud enough the goal would be erased or the opposing team would simultaneously combust. I'm not sure what the exact thinking was but the thunder of my section was deafening.

Boca would go on to lose the game 2-0. My only explanation for the loss was that we as fans had failed the team. We had not sung loud enough at crucial moments nor torn down any walls. Nor had we made a ritualistic sacrifice to the soccer gods of any kind. The riot police, barbed wire, muted soda logos and lack of alcohol were all too much to overcome. They had prevented us from reaching our full strength and carrying our team to victory. Sure my comrades had snuck in enough weed for everyone, but our chanting and raging discontent would not be enough be enough to turn the tides. Of course we were not allowed to leave at this point. In one last measure to contain us, we were locked inside for another 45 minutes while all of the visiting team's fans were escorted out of the stadium by police. Damn. We couldn't even shore up our bleeding pride by fighting the other team in the streets.

In the end exiting the stadium was significantly less eventful than the entry, almost even orderly. As we emptied into the streets and walked towards the bus stop I contemplated all that we had seen. We didn't get to storm the field, tear down goal posts or light anything on fire, but our friend chaos had still made it to the game and it was good to see him.

Currently Reading:
Mother Jones

Currently Listening To:
Song: My Hanging Surrender
Artist: The Wheel


JHudson said...

what a great story! sounds like you had an amazing've come a looong way from the shy boy I once knew in highschool. very inspiring.

Clay Shanks said...

Fire always makes sense, when the alcohol tipped spear has been blunted. But alas, they even confiscated lighters.

Daniel said...

Can't believe you went to a Boca Juniors game. Very cool. One day I will too... Miss you buddy.