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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
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
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice