Defensores de Belgrano 1 (Batallini 83′) drew with Almagro 1 (Schunke 43′) at Estadio Juan Pasquale, crowd ~1,000, Primera B Metropolitana, 18 May 2013.
Hanging above the home end at the Estadio Juan Pasquale is a giant billboard of David Beckham modelling a Breitling watch in front a private jet, the very picture of luxury that defined Golden Balls’ 20-year career at the top (his infamous red card for kicking Argentine Diego Simeone in the pressure-cooker 1998 World Cup round-of-16 clash aside). About two hours before kickoff between Defensores de Belgrano and Almagro (under giant Beckham’s watchful eye), the super, über, ultra megastar bid a tearful farewell to the Parc des Princes to draw the curtain on a career that spanned Manchester, Madrid, Los Angeles, Milan and Paris, as if he was on a mission to have a kick in as glamourous a list of locations as possible (perhaps saying more about Posh than Becks himself). Not since his days as a 19-year-old on loan at Preston North End would Beckham have run around at a joint like this in front of less than a thousand people on a drizzly Saturday arvo. The scene depicted by the billboard could not be more different to the sparsely populated terrace below, like the local government had deliberately placed it there in the name of irony. If we’re talking ‘Premier League’, Defe vs. Almagro is far closer to the ‘NSW’ version than the ‘English’ one. Glamourous this ain’t.
After the dizzying atmosphere of the previous two weeks, a game in the Primera B Metropolitana was sure to bring me thudding down to earth. This was Defensores’ final home game of a spectacularly unsuccessful season where they languish second last, only saved from the drop by Argentina’s bizarre system of relegation, determined by an average of three previous seasons’ results. A fair process, but one that produces too many dead rubbers – this match providing the perfect case in point. If the meaninglessness of the match hadn’t dampened their followers’ enthusiasm, the weather sure would have. Heavy grey skies set the scene perfectly for an afternoon of equally grim football.
The Estadio Juan Pasquale sticks out like an ugly pair of dog’s huevos within its salubrious surroundings. Unlike most grounds located on the tricky outskirts of Greater Buenos Aires, Defensores come from Nuñez in the city’s affluent northern suburbs, only 10 blocks from El Monumental. The walk from the end of the Subte Linea D to the Pasquale takes me past a paddock of tennis courts belonging to Club Ciudad de Buenos Aires, where the children of well-to-do families play polite sports like rugby and hockey. The stadium shares a block with a Megatlon gym – where the city’s bronzed and cashed up go to flex in front of ceiling-high mirrors – and a Starbucks enjoying a roaring trade with well-heeled porteños. Almagro’s team bus is parked out the front, door open, with just one cop looking after it, apparently not concerned that Defensores’ latte sipping supporters will do any damage.
The stadium itself – across the road from the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, or the Naval Mechanics School, the most infamous of the military government’s clandestine network of concentration camps between 1978-83; a reminder of the insidious residue the dictatorship leaves on modern Argentina – is considerably more spartan. Local restaurant La Techada is moving plenty of 13-peso choripans (perhaps the best 13 pesos I’ve ever spent) from their canteen next to the main gate; the gentleman manning the till still wearing his muddied CCBA rugby jumper. The assembled crowd is humble and grizzled; a rusted-on army of pensioners not fazed by the drab weather or Defe’s even drabber form.
The merchandise vendor has set himself up in the tunnel en route to the main grandstand, selling – alongside the ubiquitous bucket hat – baby onesies pronouncing “desde la cuna”, or ‘from the cot’. Being born into Defensores is the only way you’d support them, a club anchored to the third tier while one of the world’s most famous clubs (River Plate) nets trophy after trophy just two minutes down the Avenida del Libertador. From the top of the platea you can spot the Coca Cola adverts that ring the top of El Monumental, like a mirage on the horizon, testing the fidelity of loyal Defe fans.
I take a seat in the second last row, immediately in front of the journalists who are forced to sit in the rain, scribbling on sodden pieces of paper on fold-down tables like you find in university lecture halls (the primary difference being that at uni – even at the glorified TAFE they call UTS – you have a roof over your head). It’s a good vantage point for a predictably miserable affair. They’re nicknamed El Dragón but Defensores breathed no fire in a timid first half dominated by the visitors, who capitalised on their ascendency just before the break through Richard Schunke. The highlight of the first term was referee Pablo Dóvalo halting play to reprimand an overly critical supporter who was disparaging the whistleblower’s parentage. What was the ref going to do? Send him to the stands?
During the break, the hinchada was in party mode – perhaps just to keep warm, perhaps thrilled that a forgettable season had reached its dying throes, perhaps in one of those ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ kind of moods that Sydney FC fans are so accustomed to – and did their best to outsing the tannoy, which had been monopolised by the Rolling Stones’ greatest hits. Perhaps their noise lifted Defensores in the second half: the hosts gained a foothold in the contest, allowing Martín Batallini to slot in a late equaliser. Not enough to give Defe just their second victory since Christmas, but enough to snap Almagro’s six-game winning streak. After the final whistle, La Barra del Dragón handed a spray-painted banner to retiring keeper Carlos Bangert – a spritely 41 years young – whose last touch of the ball was, fittingly, a diving save to deny Almagro a last minute winner.
Almagro have moved on to the torneo reducido to determine the second team to ascend to the Primera B Nacional next season, while Defe‘s season ended in Rosario against Central Córdoba, the team occupying last position in the ladder and competing, peculiarly, in the Primera B Metropolitana – ‘Metropolitana’ referring to Buenos Aires, a lazy four hours away. Cruelly, the game ended nil-all, like two ailing dogs forced to endure a final 90 minutes of agony before being put down. The same Defe faithful will be back in August for another season in the third tier, plugging away, to support a team whose combined wage bill is probably less than the value of the watch Beckham flaunts in that billboard.