San Lorenzo 3 (Verón 18′, Buffarini 40′ pen, Correa 54′) beat Boca Juniors 0 at El Nuevo Gasometro, crowd ~40,000, Primera División, 11 May 2013.
“Hola, que tal?
Boca, cómo te va?
Bostero hijo de puta,
Te saluda tu papá!”
The word ‘papa’ has a lot to do with San Lorenzo. The club was founded in 1908 by Padre Lorenzo Massa, after whom the club was named, as well as the 1813 Battle of San Lorenzo and Saint Lawrence of Rome (no prizes for guessing the translation in Spanish). More recently, another man of the cloth – newly elected Papa Francisco, whose father played basketball for the club – has provided Los Cuervos (‘The Crows’, so called for Fr. Massa’s black robes) international attention. And historically, their traditional dominance of Boca Juniors has convinced San Lorenzo they are the papá (with the accent, meaning ‘dad’) of Argentina’s biggest club. “Nuestros hijos” – ‘our kids’ – chanted the San Lorenzo fans at their cross-town rivals, whose trip to El Nuevo Gasometro probably represents the most important game of the season for San Lorenzo, whose local rivals Huracán languish in the ‘B’ (an all-too-familiar story to the visiting Bosteros, divorced from River – or, rather, RiBer – last season).
My day starts at the Tangol travel agency in San Telmo, where I have parted with 700 pesos for a comfortable platea ticket (I earned it after a physically exhausting Superclásico squeezed into the populares) and a door-to-door minibus transfer. The private transport seems like an increasingly astute purchase as we head into southwest Buenos Aires, a section of the city that could be euphemistically described as rugged, not really designed to be negotiated by a gringo with a tenuous grasp of the local idiom.
Our effusive local guide, Andrés, interrupts his colourful pre-game spiel to ask the bus driver to stop trailing a dinged up bus full of San Lorenzo hinchas, throwing fire crackers out the windows for no apparent reason other than to frighten the small group of nearby tourists – three American, two French, and one Australian. The constabulary pull over their driver and remonstrate with the young men hanging out the side of the vehicle. The leader is holding a guampa of mate, wholly unnecessary on such a balmy autumn’s day and positively dangerous on such a crowded colectivo. But hey, those Argentine stereotypes aren’t going to live up to themselves!
Our minibus speeds away from the mobile pyrotechnics show and reaches Boedo, a helluva long way from the postcard images of Teatro Colón and Palermo’s lush parks. The ‘E’ in ‘C.A. San Lorenzo de Almagro’ had fallen off the rusty sign as you enter the club’s grounds, a haven of cracked pavement and unkempt pitches. The locals aren’t complaining, though; they’re happy to call it home. In 1979, the military dictatorship repossessed El Viejo Gasometro – the Old Gasometer – and sold it to supermarket megachain Carrefour (a gargantuan retail complex now sits where the old stadium used to be). Los Santos then spent 14 years ground hopping across Buenos Aires until they moved into their new temple in 1993, El Nuevo Gasometro (or, formally, El Estadio Pedro Bidegain), a brutalist monolith that cuts a striking similarity to its predecessor and produces an intimidating atmosphere.
A card display tifo before the match hinted at the significance of this fixture to San Lorenzo, an undisputed member of Argentina’s cinco grandes desperate to escape the shadows of the two giants. You could sniff blood early doors. The hosts were raring for a fight, while Boca – who hadn’t tasted league success since February – were exhausted after a draining derby and distracted by a continental date with Corinthians the following Wednesday. Under-the-cosh gaffer Carlos Bianchi named a second string side to protect his stars ahead of the second leg of the 2012 Copa Libertadores final rematch in São Paulo, and the numbers – 40, 27, 38, 33 – on the backs of his youthful squad looked more like a basketball team than a football XI.
San Lorenzo dictated Boca’s B-Team from the opening whistle and opened the scoring in the 18th minute through Gonzalo Verón, who was gifted a tap in by Julio Buffarini, the No.7 with the Beckham-circa-2003 hairdo and the skill to match. He calmly converted a penalty himself in the 40th minute before laying one on for 18-year-old Ángel Correa in the second stanza. The hosts had raced to an unassailable 3-nil lead with well over half an hour on the clock, turning the second half into a kick around that allowed the home fans to haughtily “Olé” every completed pass, revel in the substitution of diminutive club legend Leandro ‘Pipi’ Romagnoli, and bask in yet another domination of their bostero hijo.
As La Gloriosa clamoured away in the background and the players ran down the clock, more entertainment was to be found in my conversation with my American friend Adam, a tourist from Austin, Texas taking the chance to sample some porteño fútbol before heading back to the States. “How does this stack up compared to the MLS or the A-League,” we mused as Boca committed another turnover or San Lorenzo misdirected another cross. “Rather well,” was our unanimous response.
Andrés – embodying all the cultural cringe of Australians who stay up till 4am to watch the Prem but thumb their nose at the A-League and state comps – warned us that the quality of play would be low compared to the big European leagues, and he wasn’t wrong. In some respects (specifically conditioning, athleticism, discipline and physicality) top-tier Argentine football lags behind the Australian and American competitions. On an individual, technical level, of course South America is streets ahead, but even then, the managers aren’t tactical masterminds and sides routinely waste periods of sustained pressure through their lack of patience. I don’t think any of the top five A-League sides (WSW, CCM, Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane) would get relegated from the primera división and Postecoglou’s Roar, in their pomp, would have given the top teams a serious shake. It’s more than just wishful thinking when you consider rankings like those produced by Sporting Intelligence and World Soccer Magazine, which placed Argentina 10 and Australia 20 in a list of the globe’s strongest leagues.
Another interesting talking point was the Argentine style of support compared to the more ‘academic’ fandom of Western sports fans. Over the 90 minutes the pair of us covered the 1996 Olympics, CA Atlanta’s relationship with BA’s Jewish diaspora, the development of Japanese soccer, US college football, and the intricacies of scheduling a 162-game MLB season. I get the feeling Argentine hinchas – the same angry young men who throw petards from bus windows and scale barbed wire fences – wouldn’t find such a conversation terribly compelling. Their passion is not in dispute; Argentine supporters contribute more to their club – by way of noise and colour and movement – than any others I’ve seen. But their focus lies on the terrace rather than the pitch, and this is a fundamental difference between Australia (generally) and Argentina.
San Lorenzo’s icing on the cake came with the final kick of the game, when Boca’s derby goal scorer Santiago Silva blazed his consolation penalty attempt over the bar (side note: South Americans possess an obsession with burying penalties into the roof of the net, rather than just safely sliding them wide of the keeper). The enthusiastic teenagers in front of us took a moment from their rapturous celebrations to high five the foreigners located behind them. A slightly more intoxicated local with stained yellow teeth and a well-worn bucket hat that had seen many a Saturday afternoon at the Gasometro overheard our English and – to the mirth of the crowd – decided to translate his drunken ramblings for our benefit. He explained how the Pope supported San Lorenzo and that Boca was followed by Bolivians – God help you if you hadn’t understood those two facts by now; they were just about the only thing the hinchada had sung about all afternoon – before bilingually expressing his frustration at the police; “Open the door, mother farker” he projected to a chuckling gallery, who appreciated the levity while waiting patiently for those puta madres to abren la puerta.
I doubt El Papa would approve of his language, even if the Porteño Pope has rojo y azul coursing through his veins.