Pitch fever in Argentina

That Summer: continuing our series on significant journeys, Andrew Hasson recalls his dream ticket... but doesn't mention the war

The River Plate Stadium was crammed. I stood right in the centre circle surrounded by 80,000 screaming Argentinians. For a card-carrying member of Planet Football (Brighton and Hove Albion branch), it was a heaven and more: I was standing where the home team had kicked off the 1978 World Cup Final and I was happier than a whole first XI of sandboys.

It was 1987 and I was working on a fairly routine assignment as a photographer for an educational publisher. I had found out about the football match from local listings when I arrived in Buenos Aires, but assumed I'd be watching it in a bar, if I was lucky. After all, club football matches don't come any bigger than this: the two top footballing rivals in the city, and country, River Plate and Boca Juniors, playing a crucial league game. The whole of Argentina was on course to come to a grinding halt, all eyes fixed on the centre spot where I was standing, too over-awed to consider anything as trite as taking pictures.

Just a couple of weeks beforehand, I had been worried by the prospect of this trip. It was only a few years after the Falklands war and feelings would undoubtedly still be high. After all, the Argentinians had lost the "conflict" and I had no idea how they would react to British people. I couldn't get John Cleese out of my mind and kept telling myself "don't mention the war".

The River Plate Stadium is a national icon, on a par with the Tower of London or the Statue of Liberty, and earlier in the week I'd called in to take a few stock shots. Somehow I conspired to be introduced to the club's international defender, Oscar Ruggieri. I spoke in embarrassingly awestruck terms about the stadium and, to my amazement, Oscar not only invited me to the match but said I could take some pictures on the pitch before kick-off.

I'd heard about the moats around some South American pitches, snarling police dogs and referees getting shot. And I'd heard a lot of dubious stories about this place. The publisher didn't seem too keen. I, on the other hand, was mustard personified.

The city was buzzing as I jumped in a cab to the ground. The driver got talking. He was the first person I'd met to bring up the subject of the Falklands war. He was a veteran, but he loved the British. "We are one people," he told me.

Although it was still very early for the match, the crowds were immense as he dropped me off. Walking the last few hundred yards, I was serenaded by the stadium's PA system pumping out the music of the nation's greatest hero, the tango crooner Carlos Gardel.

When you're as hopeless at playing football as I've always been, walking out into the middle of the pitch in one of the world's great stadia is, frankly, only going to happen in your dreams. I remember making my way to the centre circle and looking all around, desperately trying to breathe it all into my system.

The two teams emerged, each carrying the hopes of one half of the city. Boca Juniors, based around the city docks and for whom Diego Maradona first played, have always gained most of their support from the poorer, working-class sections of the city. River Plate's fans have always been portrayed as the more affluent club. It's a classic script; the toughs against the toffs.

The River Plate fans unfurled a flag, of the team's colours, that seemed as big as the Isle of Wight. They sang louder and louder, "Solo River, Solo River" ("Only River, Only River") stamping their feet in time. I made my way to sit on the grass behind the goal, at the River supporters' end. The memory of it starts to get a little fuzzy around this point, giddy intoxication having taken place.

At half-time, I climbed up the main stand to my assigned seat, which as far as I was concerned gave the best view in the world. People wanted to talk breathlessly about the first half. When they heard my response, in English, they wanted to talk about the "conflict". Some people apologised: "This sort of thing should never happen between brother-nations". Others were wistfully philosophical, in the manner of defeated soccer fans worldwide: "If only we'd had Thatcher, instead of that fool Galtieri."

I had read somewhere that the first casualty of war is truth and, 10 years ago, at the age of 27, I understood. The hate headlines that had emerged from both sides during the war had given me preconceived ideas about this country and its people. Of course I was wrong, but it took the welcoming, yet potentially frightening, atmosphere of a football match for the propaganda to dissolve.

Boca Juniors twice came from behind, but River Plate were a different class and the toffs won 3-2. There were two penalties (one of them missed), a punch-up and a sending-off. I was on cloud nine.

How do you follow that? My solution was to visit a tango club in the city. The MC, as MCs worldwide are wont to do, was asking everyone where they came from. "Colombia", "Peru", "Chile", they said into the microphone.

"And you, sir," he pointed to me, "Where do you come from?" "Inglaterra, senor," and I felt the whole club craning their necks, as my voice boomed rather too loudly. Did I feel a slight pause? "You are an honoured guest, sir. The English are our favourite foreigners, so let's not talk about the war. That was a great shame."

Basil Fawlty's philosophy had been turned on its head.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power