BUENOS AIRES // Police in riot gear brandish rifles as they stand alert like meerkats on motorbikes and their riders switch on flashing sirens. They surround a mini-bus with tinted windows. Inside sit a dozen men. Two police cars are positioned in front of the bus, two behind. With sirens flashing, the vehicle carrying directors of Boca Juniors, Argentina’s most famous football team, begins to edge away from the blue painted bowl of Racing Club’s Juan Domingo Peron stadium (named after the former Argentina president) in southern Buenos Aires.
They move slowly into the dark streets surrounding the stadium in Avellaneda which are packed with happy Racing fans. Their team, with stars including their hero Diego Milito, 36, have just beaten Boca Juniors, champions of Argentina, for the fifth successive time.
The Boca of Carlos Tevez, whom, like Milito, chose to refuse better paid offers to stay at the highest level in Europe. Instead, Tevez returned to the club where his career started while he could still provide a meaningful contribution – though he had struggled to do that against Racing.
The Boca of former Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Gago, 29, of former Roma and Southampton striker Dani Osvaldo, 30, and rising stars like 18-year-old Uruguayan midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, in their distinctive blue kits with a yellow band across the chest. The beaten Boca who would dismiss their coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena on Monday morning following Sunday night’s game.
Arruabarrena had won the league and cup double in early November, but he failed to win the most important trophy in South American football, the Copa Libertadores. Worse, his side were eliminated by their main rivals and eventual winners River Plate in a controversial encounter which, today, still has repercussions.
The managerial fuse is a short one in Argentine football and he lost his job five games into this season. His successor has yet to be confirmed, not that the Racing fans cared about Boca Juniors’ manager on Sunday night.
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Wearing white shorts and light blue and white shirts which mirror the colours of the Argentina flag, they goaded and gloated as the mini bus carrying the visiting directors was escorted to safer ground. During the game, they’d made so much noise inside the ageing stadium known as ‘the cylinder’ that it could easily be heard around the stadium of another rival, Independiente, a couple of blocks away. Forty thousand Racing fans surrounded by hundreds of flags declaring love and devotion – and an apology asking for a pardon because of the colour of blood.
Independiente wear red, River too. While blue is found on the shirts of Racing, Boca and San Lorenzo (with red), the other teams who make up the big five of Argentina, where the strongest clubs in South America play, the teams who have won the last two Libertadores.
Brazil’s deepest recession in 30 years seems to be reflected by the fortunes of their club sides. Brazilian clubs had won four successive Libertadores between 2010 and 2014, but a currency crash forced their biggest clubs to cut back on expensive imports.
It is in the Libertadores that Racing and Boca meet again on Friday night. Sustained violence on the terraces means that visiting fans are banned from attending games in Argentina, but directors and a couple of notable fans – usually used as extra security for directors – do get to attend. There, 20 or 30 men sit in stadiums surrounded by twice as many police and security officials who carefully corroborate their names on stringent lists.
The Racing directors who travel five kilometres to the famous, sheer-sided, Bonbonera (chocolate box) home of Boca will not need as much security. They are allowed to travel, but they will be among just a handful of people inside the sheer-sided venue, for the game will be played behind closed doors.
The Bonbonera is closed for two Libertadores games after one of their fans appeared to spray tear gas at visiting River players as they emerged from the tunnel at half-time during a last-16 match in May 2015. The game was abandoned with four River players taken to hospital.
The Boca president, Daniel Angelici, denied the notorious barra bravas - or hooligan firms - were responsible and said it was not possible to stop fans bringing weapons into the ground.
“An aerosol is small, I don’t know how it works, but it is very powerful, it can fit in your pocket and when there are almost 50,000 people it can get by security,” he said. “This is society’s problem, not football’s problem. These people are sick.”
Boca were favourites to win the competition after winning all six of their group games, but they were disqualified after the gas incident, which happened when they were trailing 1-0 from the first leg against eventual winners River.
While the atmosphere has suffered from away fans being banned in Argentina for three years and terraced away ends stand empty, the noise level is still white hot and superior to stadiums in Europe.
The fans don’t only sing to a pulsing beat of drums which are taken onto the terraces, they have lovingly crafted flags and they are expressive, using their arms to add motion to their melodies. Argentine games, where tickets are cheap and friends stand together on steep terraces, are a sight to behold, though the popular (cheapest) parts of the stadium have sub-sections which border on lawless.
"For some of the barra brava, football is just good business," said a journalist requesting anonymity as he covered a first division game at Banfield, one of the 17 first division sides in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area where 12 million live, on Friday night.
"They couldn't name their starting XI. They make their money from parking close to stadiums, from extortion, protection and merchandise. Club presidents are scared of them, the authorities have little powers to prevent it, it's a difficult situation because the bigger clubs have different fan groups and they fight among each other. So even if a president speaks to one, he will upset the other. The rival barra brava from different clubs actually have better relations than barra brava at clubs like River do with each other."
Racing have three barra brava groups who enjoy cordial relations with each other. And football remains the lifeblood of Argentina, the country which has produced the world's greatest ever player Lionel Messi – though you will find Argentines who will argue that Diego Maradona is better as he led his country to a World Cup triumph.
There are countless world class Argentine footballers playing around the globe, and fans reluctantly accept that they are going to lose their best players to big European teams at a relatively early age.
A salary of US$60,000 (Dh220,000) per month would be considered excellent for a leading Argentine top-flight star in his home country. Wily Caballero, the lowest paid of Manchester City’s five Argentines, that include Sergio Aguero, earns five times that. The fans prefer those players to then return and play for the team where they started out, as Milito and Tevez have done. It’s a slight on them if they don’t.
There is pressure on Boca, with their caretaker manager to win on Friday night, to change their dreadful record against their big five domestic rivals in their empty home. If they fail, they will have another chance to do that on Sunday when they play River Plate in the Superclasico. It will not be easy.
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