In search of the beautiful game
29.06.2008 - 29.06.2008 23 °C
The stadium thundered to the sound of 120,000 clapping hands. Beneath our feet, the concrete shook as thousands of fans started jumping in unison. All around us, flares, fireworks and smoke bombs were let off and rolls of toilet paper hurled towards the approaching players. Amidst all this chaos, the man to my right turned to me and, with a wry smile, whispered something into my ear. "Welcome to fútbol".
We were in the home stand of the colossal Cilindro de Avellanada (bigger even than Boca Juniors' ground), in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The spectacle about to unfold before our eyes was the final game of the season: a crucial relegation play-off between Racing Club F.C. and Club Atletico Belgrano. Racing, the home team, are a club steeped in the history and tradition of Argentine football, having won the league title 16 times (most recently in the 2002 season). This year, however, they finished last in the Primera Division (Argentina's Premier League). Their opponents, Belgrano, had just finished 3rd in Primera B (Argentina's version of the Championship) and were vying for promotion. The game´s result would determine which of the two teams would be playing top-flight football next season. The stakes could not have been higher.
As you would expect, the atmosphere was electric. The ground was packed out almost an hour before kick-off, with the rival fans taking it in turns to blast out their full array of chants. The rustle of prawn sandwiches was nowhere to be heard.
The game itself was a classic - characterised by breathless end-to-end football, individual flair and unmistakeably Latin passion. The visitors dominated the beginning of the game, squandering chance after chance. Then, out of nowhere, Racing´s 5ft 2 inch pocket-dynamo of a number 10 conjured up some space in Belgrano´s box and slammed the ball into the back of the net, throwing the home fans into delirium. The crowd surged forward, pressing up against the barbed wire fence and trying to cross the pitch-side moat (you can watch some footage here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=uUu1fyiBkyc). Visibly lifted, Racing went on to dominate the rest of the game - Belgrano were allowed just one more chance (the visitors' number 9 got around the keeper, only to trip on the penalty spot and watch the ball trickle agonisingly past the post).
As the final whistle blew, sending the crowd into raptures, more fireworks and flares were set off and the concrete floor started bouncing again. Exhausted, we left the stadium to the sound of drums. As we started to make our way home, my eye was caught by a banner being waved around by a small boy:
"Fútbol - la unica pasión"