All Boys 1 (Cámpora 19′) drew with Vélez Sarsfield 1 (Pellegrino OG 58′) at Estadio Islas Malvinas, crowd ~10,000, Primera División, 19 August 2013.
Even in a nation as patriotic as Argentina, it doesn’t get much more nationalistic than toasting a public holiday for the inmortalidad of General San Martín with a football match at a stadium named after the Islas Malvinas. An Australian equivalent – perhaps a game of cricket on ‘Henry Parkes Day’ at the East Timor Intervention Cricket Ground – wouldn’t quite have the same cachet as this feriado for the hirsute military hero who spearheaded South America’s charge to independence, invented Argentina’s iconic flag, and spared the time to cultivate a ferocious pair of sideburns that puts Bradley Wiggins‘ to shame.
The BA weatherman is evidently a chest-beating patriot because he turned on an unseasonably warm winter’s day for the country’s most famous set of muttonchops, enshrined on the five peso bill (above). A positively steamy 23 degrees that made me instantly regret my choice of jacket. Thousands of locals gathered in the plaza neighbouring the stadium like travelling fans before a big European clash, drinking one litre bottles of Quilmes (the national beer, of course) under a pale sky where the clouds bled into the blue. The sun only managed to cast a soft shadow over the graffiti-lined streets which had received a lick of paint for All Boys’ centenary celebrations.
Most clubs in Buenos Aires engender a feeling of community and All Boys – especially on a public holiday, where kids packed the escuela de fútbol across the road from a sede socio filled with mums chatting over a cigarette and dads over a beer – was no exception. Indeed, it was these very members who in 2008 bankrolled a major renovation of the stadium, which revamped both grandstands along the side of the pitch, including brand spanking new facilities for media and players.
They didn’t waste too much money on the aesthetics of the joint, unless bare concrete was the vibe they were after. A rust-stained basketball court is squeezed into the corner of the block, providing an obvious metaphor for the relationship between club and community. In a bizarre configuration, the local hinchada – La Peste Blanca, or ‘white plague’ – congregate on the roof of the dressing rooms, hovering just above the press box and team dugouts, while the other grandstand was spruced up by some pot plants that looked like they’d come straight from Bunnings that morning, as if they were going for a bit of Darryl Kerrigan “charm … it adds a bit of charm”.
The two sides – Vélez Sarsfield and Los Albos, an abbreviation of ‘All Boys’ that invokes an unwelcome mental image of 11 MPs for Grayndler running around – entered the arena to a shower of confetti and the company of a rotund harlequin for a mascot, reminiscent of that peculiar blob called Marvin that seems to follow the Central Coast Mariners. The ground announcer requested a minute’s silence for recently deceased former club president Sebastian De Bella and when a smattering of conversation persisted one quick-witted smart arse exclaimed “Che! Silencio por De Bella!”, a command heavy with sarcasm and faux outrage, inviting a chorus of laughter amongst a pueblo that shares Australia’s penchant for irreverence.
I found a patch of concrete at the front of the terrace behind a group of men who appeared to model their behaviour on Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy old Muppets who heckle from the balcony. A tall, track-suited gentleman fond of a dart assumed the role of ringleader and set about attracting the attention of as many Vélez players as possible with a barrage of abuse. This was a consistent theme across the tribuna: the most caustic fans enjoyed a privileged position on the fence, allowing them to pepper the visitors with a torrent of vitriol. The entire grandstand had transformed into a giant club house corner at a game of Lindfield subbies rugby, an enormous peanut gallery devoted to badgering the opposition.
The volume crescendoed as All Boys worked their way into the contest. Suiting the overt patriotism of the day, the Malvinas mural behind the northern goal, and the abundance of Scotland merchandise on the terrace serving as a big middle finger to England, manager Julio César Falcioni selected an team comprised entirely of Argentines. Falcioni – who could have easily played Richard Kiel’s roles in James Bond or Happy Gilmore – would have been keen to outmanoeuvre Vélez, the club that gave him a start as both a player and coach, and his opposite number Ricardo Gareca, dead ringer for Argentina’s spindly 1978 World Cup winning gaffer César Luis Menotti, and a popular choice to lead his own Albiceleste outfit to the 2014 Mundial until the lower profile Alejandro Sabella claimed the post.
Falcioni’s centre forward Mauro Matos – the type of bulky No.9 that is either kindly described as a target man or cruelly compared to Dino Kresinger – locked horns in a battle royal with high-panted Vélez centre half Sebastián Domínguez to determine the least mobile man on the pitch. Early doors, the balding Matos wasted the energetic service of 37-year-old Fernando Sánchez, who first represented All Boys when team-mate Jonathan Calleri was still in nappies. But the hosts’ labour was soon rewarded by a clinical finish in the 19th minute by Javier Cámpora, who proceeded to stuff the ball under his shirt in the classic ‘pregnant’ celebration. The visitors’ Mauro Zárate – presumably the kind of party pooper who delights in telling little kids that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist – demanded the referee book the goal scorer, but instead, picked up a yellow ticket himself in a piece of poetic justice that provided the peanuts in the gallery plenty of fresh ammunition.
The score remained unchanged at the break, which gave the stadium’s ‘big’ screen a change to peddle Lacteos Barraza cheese and a series of other announcements ignored by a crowd intent on sparking up a Malboro, billowing plumes of smoke into the clear night sky, and arguing with each other over tactics. In a city prone to pretentiousness, All Boys’ modest digs – coupled with the black-and-white colour scheme – brought to mind memories of several great working class clubs: Newcastle and Juventus in the round ball code, or Collingwood, Port Adelaide and Western Suburbs closer to home. This is the closest thing Buenos Aires has to Lidcombe Oval, a humble suburban ground loyally wedded to its neighbourhood, imbued with decades of history that has seeped in to the concrete. That’s the charm of the place. It’s the type of place Darryl Kerrigan would spend his Saturday afternoon. It’s the vibe of the thing, your Honour. It’s the buena onda.
The serenity didn’t last for long in the second stanza, as Vélez went on the attack. Alejandro Cabral – a bulbous-headed winger resembling an older Robbie Kruse – spurned a golden chance before the butter fingers of Albos keeper Nicolás Cambiasso spilled a fizzing free kick into the path Fabián Cubero, who claimed a goal later credited as an OG. The visitors, followed by a tiny pocket of hinchas who had made the 3km journey from Liniers notwithstanding the recent ban on away fans, pressed hard for a winner without success, and the rivals from west BA were forced to share the spoils.
After 90 minutes of graft, the hosts lace collars were skewiff and dripping sweat onto an otherwise attractive centenary throwback shirt ruined by a quantity of sponsors that makes V8 cars look clean-skin. Statler and Waldorf left with a frown on their face, lecturing each other on what tactical masterstroke they would have employed if they were in the hot seat. They mightn’t have been thrilled with the performance, but spending a balmy evening at the fútbol, isn’t that was General San Martín was fighting for? Viva los Albos, viva San Martín, viva la patria.