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Life and Death in the Chocolate Box

On a cool, clear evening in Buenos Aires, San Martín de San Juan, a small team from western Argentina, arrives to meet its fate at La Bombonera. Home of Boca Juniors, the largest and most successful team in the country, the stadium is the beating blue-and-gold heart of the colourful, chaotic La Boca neighbourhood.

Officially the Estadio Alberto J Armando, it’s more commonly known as ‘The Chocolate Box’ owing to its unusual shape. In reality, it’s as much meat grinder as confectionary container – few visiting teams enjoy any success here, in part because of the skill of the Boca players, but also because of their die-hard fans who transform the stands into a sonic maelstrom.

Following a series of violent and deadly incidents between rival fans and police, authorities banned all travelling supporters in 2013. The result is a wholly partisan atmosphere, an intimidating frenzy reminiscent of the Two Minutes of Hate in George Orwell’s 1984. “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill… [flowed] through the whole group like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.” A game at La Bombonera is like that, only 45 times longer.

In a sport where growing corporatisation has led to an increasingly bland and sanitised experience, Boca’s wild terraces are a throwback to a different era. For football fans from around the world, this intensity is something to be sought-out, rather than avoided – so long as it can be done so safely, with just a little hand-holding. To that end, Tangol Tours are able to source a limited number of tickets for foreigners, who are accompanied to matches by season-ticket-holding guides.

As soon as I heard this was possible, I wanted to experience it. I’m from Glasgow, a city with a notorious footballing reputation of its own, but even so, visiting La Bombonera seemed like it could be something above and beyond anything I had encountered at home.

A couple of hours before kick-off, I’m picked up by diehard Boca fan and Tangol guide Santiago Puerta. Inside the minibus, there’s an eclectic mix of tourists: two stern-looking Finns, a cheery American family and a lone Iranian backpacker. “You’re coming to my house now – it’s a privilege,” says Puerta to all of us. It’s unclear to whom the privilege belongs.

As each person boards, the guide makes a show of making sure no one is wearing any red or white clothing (the colours of despised middle-class rivals River Plate) before reassuring us that we’ll be in a section of the 49,000-seat stadium away from flares and, hopefully, trouble.

As the minibus moves through the city, it passes buses of hardcore Boca fans who have been touring the city for hours, shouting and singing out the windows to let everyone know it’s game day. As we get closer to the stadium, Puerta gives us a potted history of the club, which was founded in 1905 by Italian immigrants for La Boca’s vociferous, volatile working class. Now the most popular team in the country, their jerseys are found across Argentina, but the reason for their famous colour scheme is surprisingly arbitrary.

“The founders couldn’t agree on which colours to have, so because La Boca is close to the port, they decided to go down there and take them from the next ship that came in,” says Puerta. “It was Swedish, thanks God, because these colours are really pretty. This is what we have: blue and gold for life.”

Now, high in La Bombonera for the start of the game, those same hues are on the back of every fan and draped from all four stands. As the sun sets and the noise builds, even the sky seems to pay tribute to the team, shifting from a powdery blue to a burnished gold.

Puerta settles his guests before taking a seat on the stairs, making it much easier for him to jump up and roar when Carlos Tevez gives his team the lead after just nine minutes. The collective roar sounds something like an explosion.

One of the reasons the atmosphere at La Bonbonera is so electric is the steepness and semi-circular shape of the terraces, which boost the already considerable acoustics. From high in the main stand, we have a great view of the pitch, but also of La Doce (The Twelfth), the relentless fans behind the goal who move from one chant to the next, with only a quick breather at half time.

There’s no doubting the commitment of any fans inside the Chocolate Box – even we newcomers quickly lose our inhibitions when a goal is scored – but La Doce set the rhythm for the stadium, and perhaps the entire country. Season tickets are generational and vacancies in their manic stand are almost impossible to find. The section does have seats, but they’re only used as springboards, allowing fans to jump all the higher when shouting their heroes’ names.

Even before scoring, Tevez was the most popular man in the stadium. A short, stocky striker, he first made his name here with Boca Juniors before making his fortune in the UK. Despite never learning the language, he made a huge impression there, almost single-handedly saving West Ham from relegation, then winning league titles with Manchester United, and their old rivals, Manchester City.

He was rarely interviewed, but occasionally telling quotes would be translated. While at City in 2010, in the build-up to an end-of-season game against Chelsea, it was revealed that England captain John Terry had had an affair with the girlfriend of his former team-mate Wayne Bridge, who had since joined Tevez at City. It sounded like soap opera, but Tevez was not impressed: “In my neighbourhood, if you do that you lose your legs, or more – you don’t survive.” He went out and humiliated Terry on the pitch, scoring twice in a 4-2 win, inflicting a death of another kind.

Like many South American players, Tevez eventually opted to play out the final days of his career in his homeland, back with the team that gave him his break. He’s now the highest paid player in the league, even though his wages are a fraction of what they were in England, Italy, and during an ill-judged spell in China.

For Boca fans, the money is not important – what really matters is one of their most beloved sons choosing to return home. He grew up 20km from the stadium, in desperate poverty in the notorious Fuerte Apache barrio. While many footballers cover their bodies in patchworks of tattoos, Tevez came into the game scarred: as an infant he accidentally pulled a pan of boiling water off a table and onto himself. Despite his millions, he’s never had any surgery to remove or diminish the scars which run down his neck and chest. At the end of games, he often removes his jersey, as though to remind everyone what it means for him to be there.

He still plays the game like that too, like getting the ball is his only way to get out of Fuerte Apache. As he smashes through defences, a neutral fan might find themselves feeling sorry for his opponents. “He’s really one of us,” says Puerta, nodding with approval as a San Martín defender lies prone on the pitch.

The other player fans inevitably discuss has never worn a Boca Juniors jersey, yet when I visit in the months preceding the 2018 FIFA World Cup, his name is never far away. If Tevez is a hammer, then Argentina’s most famous player is a scalpel. Lionel Messi’s upbringing was significantly different to Tevez: born into a lower middle-class family in Rosario, he never played a senior game in Argentina – Barcelona plucked him from the youth programme at Newell’s Old Boys at the age of just 13, moving him and his father to Spain in 2001.

The young Lionel was so homesick he’d lock himself in his room and cry. He also had to go on a programme of growth hormones so his tiny body could cope with the extraordinary things his footballing brain would ask of it. Even so, when he emerged onto the pitch he still looked like a little boy.

He did not play that way, which is to say he sliced his way through games, making unhealable incisions in opposition defences. His game has evolved over the years, but he remains the most devastatingly talented player on the planet; at his best, other players are reduced to weathervanes, twisting and turning while Messi makes the wind blow.

Despite more than 600 goals and 30 trophies since moving to Europe, he’s a surprisingly polarising figure at home. Argentinians are proud of him, but they don’t love him the way they do Carlos Tevez, or Boca Juniors most famous alumnus, Diego Maradona, who won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina almost on his own, and the league title for the club in 1981/82.

Perhaps one day Messi will come home, most likely to Newell’s Old Boys, a final test at the end of arguably the game’s most glittering career. “Of course, we like to watch him,” says Santiago at half time. “When he does well, Argentina does well – and we have a World Cup coming up. This might be his last chance.” Messi turned 31 during this summer’s tournament and while he may play in Qatar in 2022, it’s hard to imagine that even he won’t be a little diminished by the age of 35.

The night before the game in La Boca, Messi was on the other side of the world, leading Barcelona to a 6-1 humiliation of Girona. If people talked about it on the way into La Bombonera, once inside, their minds focus absolutely on the pitch and on the irresistible rhythm of the drums, the crowd’s communal heartbeat.

As they chant, fans throw their arms out as though trying to shake something sticky from their hands. When they synchronise a sort of tomahawk chop, thousands of arms slicing through the air, the collective result is hypnotic and infectious. Around the stadium, the yellow and gold shimmers violently as Boca Juniors take a 2-0 lead, and during every goal in their 4-2 victory.

Visiting to La Bombonera felt like travelling back to see football as it was in the good, or possibly bad, old days. The tribalism is very real, the atmosphere supercharged. (Later in 2018, it would boil over when River Plate fans attacked the Boca Juniors team bus on its way to play the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final. The violence saw the second leg instead shifted all the way to Madrid, Spain.)

At half time, Santiago Puerta came over to me, keen to talk more football, listing every Argentinian player who ever played for Rangers or Celtic in Glasgow. He keeps an eye on that old Scottish war, just as I like to know who wins each Boca Juniors – River Plate match, the infamous Superclásico. The battle lines in Glasgow are religious, so what about here? Why do Boca and River Plate despise each other so much?

“It’s class,” replied Puerta quickly. “Those guys, you know,” he pushed his nose back, seeming to indicate snobbery, “but this year they’re so bad it’s almost no fun to beat them.”

I laughed and the guide added: “Hey, I said almost.”

I started to tell him that in the Europe’s top leagues, much has been lost as money has flooded the game. Season tickets are extraordinarily expensive and not enough fans support their home sides; the players are richer, but the sport is impoverished. I thought he was listening, but then La Doce restarted the drums, his eyes seem edto go just a little vacant and a moment later, my guide was leaning over the safety barrier, howling with 50,000 others: “When I die, I don’t want flowers/ I want a coffin that has these colours.”

 

A version of this piece was published in N by Norwegian in December 2018.



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