Pitch fever in Argentina

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