Vélez Sarsfield 3 (Insua 25′, Rescaldani 35′, Gago 69′) beat Deportes Iquique 0 at Estadio José Amalfitani, crowd ~15,000, Copa Libertadores, 20 February 2013.
I’d had an asado, I’d sampled mate, and six days into my time in Argentina, it was about time to dive into the other national obsession: fútbol. My first match was a Copa Libertadores clash between Buenos Aires club Vélez Sarsfield and Chilean outfit Deportes Iquique, and after emerging from Colectivo No.8 to Liniers, it took less than five minutes to encounter the first major difference between the South American game and the code in Australia – police, and a helluva lot of them.
I inadvertently stumbled into the small band of travelling Chileans who were being subjected to the most thorough security check I have ever experienced. The Policía Federal – the most ferocious looking constabulary I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with – had barricaded the road leading to the Estadio José Amalfitani, splitting the 200-or-so Iquique fans who had made the 2000km trip to BA into files, readying the visitors for a frisking so touchy-feely it made American airports look slapdash. The time-honoured Australian tradition of a flask in the back pocket wouldn’t have stood a chance against the Argentina cops’ wandering hands. I managed to slip away from the visiting hinchas to find the ticket office; 60 pesos (about seven bucks, on the blue dollar) for a spot on the terrace – not bad for a continental date featuring the reigning national champs.
The unseasonal rain depressed crowd numbers but around 15,000 porteños found their way into the surprisingly modern stadium, which offered little overhead cover from the deluge. Neither the moat that encircles the pitch – brimming with runoff after hours of downpour – or the slippery conditions were enough to dissuade the locals from hanging themselves over the fence, a popular vantage point in this part of the world.
The enthusiasm of the barra brava at my end of the ground refused to be dampened by the weather, and their hymnbook was hypnotic, backed by a troop of drums and bells. Lots of their songs are the same as Down Under – Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” (or “We Are Sydney” for the SFC fans, “Wir sind Zecken” to St. Pauli aficionados, or “Champions ’67” to the Celtic-minded) got a good run, as did the “Sos Cagon” melody (also known as RBB staple “We are the Terrace”). My personal favourite was a ditty to the tune of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba”, which whipped the entire ground into a whistling fervour, and added to the Latino flavour. Another profound contrast to Australian football was the visual element of the active support. A sprinkling of Italian tricolours – a nod to Vélez’s heritage – mixed nicely with the sea of blue-and-white flags and banners hanging from the barbed-wire fence at the front of the terrace.
As for the game itself, Vélez overcame the trying conditions to quickly assert dominance over their Chilean guests. The match resembled a full-scale game of futsal, where team-mates would chip the ball between each other until someone would invariably become frustrated with the disorganised ticky-taka and lump the ball downfield. The pace was lethargic, as you might expect for a game played on a rain-lashed bog by 22 players whose physical condition resembled Australia’s most famous Latino import, former Melbourne player and KFC devotee Carlos Hernandez. Indeed, the blue-and-white colour scheme, Samsung sponsorship, and big V strip contributed to a striking resemblance between Vélez and Victory.
After spurning some easy chances early doors, the hosts cashed in their ascendency around the half-hour mark through a pair of goals to Insua and Rescaldani. From there, the game became a procession – Gago extended the lead to three goals with a strike on 69 minutes – and the final scoreline flattered the listless visitors from Iquique (bad football side, terrific scrabble hand). The local hinchas – with bigger fish to fry than midweek continental cakewalks – were in a relaxed mood, perhaps enhanced by the liberal use of the holy herb inside a stadium that whiffed of an Amsterdam coffee shop.
The crowd’s marijuana-induced mellowness made the police’s decision to hold back the home fans for 20 minutes after full-time to protect the tiny pocket of away fans seem unnecessary. But even in the most innocuous of outings, a ring of military tanks and federal police armed to the teeth is apparently run of the mill for Argentine football.
Welcome to Buenos Aires.