March 12, 2012

The Chocolate Box

When in South America, do as the South Americans do and go to a soccer game!

Soccer is the Argentines’ number one passion. So much so, that there are people who have erected a church just to pray to Diego Maradona – the legendary Argentine soccer player from the 1980s. Fans are so passionate, that it’s highly recommended for foreigners to only attend a game with a guide. We did our research and decided that, since we’re here, we should see the most famous team in the most famous stadium…

Historically, Boca Juniors is considered one of the greatest soccer clubs in the world. They are based out of the colorful La Boca neighborhood that we visited last weekend. Their stadium has a really boring official name that no one uses, but it’s more commonly referred to as La Bombonera or “The Chocolate Box”.

The Boca Juniors club has over 100,000 members, but La Bombonera only holds around 55,000 spectators. There aren’t enough tickets for the members, let alone the general public. Because we chose to see a rivalry match – known as a “Classico” – the tickets are even harder to come by. This is another important reason to go through a guide. If a foreigner goes to the stadium and tries to scalp tickets, they will most certainly pay a pretty penny for counterfeits.

We were picked up by our guides and driven, along with about 20 other foreigners our age, to La Boca. When we were about a block away from the stadium, we got out of the vans and were strangely ushered into a private garage of sorts. Here they proceeded to serve us beers from a couple of pitchers and choripan (sausage in a hot dog bun), being cooked by what looked to be the guide’s relatives. We were all laughing about how ghetto it seemed, and then the guide kicked it up a notch. He went around handing out our “tickets” to the game…plastic cards that I’m sure were season ticket passes. While entering the stadium for the Boca Juniors vs. Independiente match, Steve was Rafael Jimenes Merino and I was Carlos Eduardo Jimenez.

Upon entering the stadium, our first impression was that it is small. The Boca Juniors club didn’t have much land to build the stadium on, so the field is the smallest regulation size allowed by FIFA, and only three sides of the stands are curved.

The stadium’s unusual shape means that it has good acoustics, and one whole end of the stadium is completely tricked out with banners dubbed La Doce or “The 12th Man”. Our guide consistently referred to the fans in the La Doce section as “hooligans”.

La Bombonera is notorious for vibrating when fans start to jump in unison, leading to the phrase, “La Bombonera doesn’t shake…it beats (like a heart)”. We experienced the beating heart first hand. We were seated behind one of the goals in the second tier just under the third tier’s overhang. Whenever Independiente’s fans on the third tier began jumping, we could visibly see the entire overhang bobbing up and down over our heads.

La Boca fans are just that…fanatical. They stand and jump and sing the entire game. They also have very aggressive hand motions, that when gestured in unison, could be mistaken for Nazi Germany.

It turns out that they don’t serve beer in the stadium. They also don’t serve it in a 20-block radius of the stadium starting 4 hours before the game until 2 hours afterwards. So these fans aren’t crazy because they’re drunk; they’re crazy because they love their team.

At the start of the game, there were two white inflatable tunnels leading onto the field. We figured these would be for the two teams to emerge from their locker-rooms. We were wrong. The Boca Junior players actually appear through a small underground staircase at midfield. One of the tunnels is for the opposing team and the other is for the referees. They have to have these so that the fans don’t hit them with bottles as they come onto the field. The fans don’t boo…they just whistle in a heckling sort of manner and try to throw stuff at the opposing team.

As the Boca Junior players were being announced, loads of huge confetti was thrown into the air and all over the field. Three guys with leaf blowers came out and did a mediocre job of blowing about 60% of the confetti off the field before the start of the game.

There was no national anthem. There were cheerleaders, but only for the home team. Half of them were wearing the standard cheerleading miniskirt. The others were wearing thongs. For the record, there was no halftime show…unless you count the cheerleaders strutting down the field waving their pompoms in the air.

So enough about all of the was the game? Apparently we witnessed something historic. Within the first 7 minutes, Independiente caught La Boca completely on their heels and they scored two goals. Then La Boca started making a comeback and the lead kept changing hands. Regulation time ended and the score was 4-4. During the last 5 seconds of add-on injury time, Independiente scored the winning goal. Normally Classico matches are 1-0 or 2-0. To have such a high-scoring Classico game is highly unusual. Regardless of the loss, we're considering ourselves lucky.

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