There’s a crystal clear sky above, a perfectly manicured field below. I am surrounded by thousands of people packed together in a sea of red and white clothing and banners. The sounds of starter guns ring from the stands; an army of policemen and several swat teams stand ready to pat down every visitor from head to toe. Young and middle aged men sing, scream, and chant, accompanied by a full drum corps and other orchestral instruments. Obscenities fly. This is a fútbol game in Argentina.
Fútbol is not just a sport. It’s a psychological phenomenon, at least according to my professor here in Argentina. And I would dare say that the majority of Argentina would agree with him. Fútbol is not just a fun pastime, but an obsession, an addiction, a way of life. I knew soccer, or fútbol, was popular in South America, but I had no idea of the magnitude. Before leaving for Argentina my friends commonly asked me if I had any plans of attending a fútbol game while here, and my answer was always, “no”. But in a country where there are approximately half a million federated soccer players alone, hundreds of thousands more Argentines who play recreational fútbol, and where at least 90% of the population are fans of one team or another, run-ins with fútbol are inevitable. It is an essential part of the daily life and culture.
It’s not only on television, or on the radio, or played in every park, but it is present in daily interactions with people. Another professor frequently uses fútbol metaphors to explain political theories, none of which, of course, I understand. Knowing this, the professor would often look at me, shake his head, and mumble “pobre intercambio, en su propio mundo” (“ poor exchange student, in her own world”). The other employees at my internship always discuss the big fútbol games from the previous night with enthusiasm. When I then inform them that I never watch the game, I am then, most often, excluded from the rest of the lunchtime conversation.
Each of these instances seemed a bit absurd to me, at first. Yet they sparked my curiosity, and I, too, suddenly desired to be let-in on the secret of this beloved game, a game that is loved by the majority of the world. I wanted to understand its appeal: why did people go crazy over it?
Then, thankfully, the perfect opportunity presented itself. I was invited by a friend to a fútbol game: Boca Juniors vs. River Plate, two of the most important teams in the club league and in the country. The director of this study abroad program had originally advised us all against going to fútbol games because of their raucous and often dangerous nature, but I shrugged that off and decided to go anyway. It turned out to be a once in a lifetime experience.
Looking at the distraught faces and listening to the angry screams of the fans, I’d never encountered such excitement and intensity before. On one side of me, one man was pulling his hair out, while on the other, a man was punching and kicking the stands to relieve his anger after missed goals or a fouls. Another man yelled some of the most offensive comments I have ever heard, attacking personal traits of the opposing team members such as their heritage or immigration status, rather than standard insults about their playing skills.
Despite my shock and fear, I found myself getting caught up in the excitement, holding my breath when a player was about to score, swaying back and forth in the stands with the fans to the beats of the drums, clapping as loudly as I could over a good play. The fans stood the entire game, making sure to see every kick, every shot, and every foul. I, too, wanted to know what was going on at every moment so I, too, stood most of the game, straining my neck to see past the towering men in front of me, looking past the clouds of red and white smoke coming from the dozens of smoke machines surrounding the field. As I scanned the field and the crowded stands, I began to appreciate the intense competition and devotion of fútbol and its fans. This game created a great division of loyalties, but in some ways it also united.
For the first time since arriving in Argentina, I felt like I at least halfway belonged. I was not the target of strange men’s inappropriate comments and offensive looks. They were all too busy paying attention to the game. I did not have to explain to a million people that I was from the United States and not Brazil. No one tried to engage me in a conversation about Disney World or Obama; I didn’t have to listen to negative opinions of the United States foreign policy. It did not matter that I did not know the rules of the game, or that I was a strange foreigner, or that I was a minority, it only mattered that I was supporting and cheering for their team.
I left the game that evening, feeling lucky that the game ended in a tie (and therefore no serious violence broke out), but also with a better understanding of the phenomenon. I cannot say that I now like the sport of fútbol any more than I previously had, but I can say that I love the spirit that it embodies, the festivities that it produces, and the camaraderie it created between the Argentines and myself. This game gave me something to now talk about at lunch or in class with my Argentine friends: it thus removed me from the position of social outcast. It has provided me with a new found respect and appreciation for this integral aspect of Argentine life.