An Americano in Argentina

Publish date:

My favorite sports venue? Whenever I want to explain why it's La Bombonera, the Buenos Aires home of Boca Juniors, I simply refer to the photograph. It was taken by ace SI snapper Simon Bruty at Diego Maradona's farewell game in 2001, and it captures everything I love about Argentine soccer supporters -- for my money the most passionate sports fans in the world.

I started attending games at La Bombonera -- "the chocolate box," a crumbling concrete hulk in La Boca, the city's hardscrabble Italian quarter -- in the summer of 1994. Somehow I'd convinced my college to foot the bill for a summer of travel studying the culture of fútbol in a foreign country, so I asked the school soccer coach for a good recommendation in a place where I could use my Spanish.

"Why don't you try Boca Juniors?" said Bob Bradley, who 14 years later is the U.S. national team coach.

That summer a 20-year-old college student fell in love -- with a stadium. I loved standing on the terraces, singing songs and riding like a crowd-surfer in the wave of fans who rushed the fence behind the goal whenever Boca scored. I loved guzzling Quilmes beer with my new Xeneize pals and their tough-guy leader, Quique "the Butcher" Ocampo. I even loved the urine-scented stairways, the menacing cops and the ubiquitous contact high that gave a hard edge to any game in La Bombonera (especially those against arch-rival River Plate).

These days, unfortunately, I'm too old for the Bombonera cheap-seat experience. When my wife joined me for a game there in 1999 we got box seats instead. (I wouldn't advise taking a lady into the terraces.) And by the time I returned with Simon for Maradona's testimonial match in November 2001, the country was enduring an economic meltdown. Crime was at an all-time high, and not even Quique the Butcher was traveling to games anymore.

"If you're going to spend some time with the fans here, Americano," he said one day at his shop in La Boca, "you'll need this." Then he stuck a loaded pistol in my shorts.

It was hard to tell if he was joking. And so, instead of recreating my college-aged glory days, I sat in the press tribune for Maradona's farewell. (It was the only time I've ever filled out a credential application that requested my blood type.) Down below, Simon captured the frenzy in all its glory: the 50,000 die-hards chanting MARA-DOOOOO; the Spider-Man imitators scaling the fence we used to rush and perching themselves on its barbed-wire summit; the crazies who shot off a 10-minute volley of bottle rockets, stopping the game as Maradona applauded them in a tearful salute.

A few minutes after he shot this photograph, Simon had to vacate his position when security officials warned him the fence was about to come down. Thankfully it didn't, but the day was one more reminder of what makes La Bombonera unique. Between us, Simon and I have been to some of the world's great rivalry games: Celtic-Rangers, Real Madrid-Barcelona, Holland-Germany, U.S.-Mexico.

But we've never witnessed a scene like the one at the old Chocolate Box.

2. Allen FieldhouseQuite simply the best place in the country to watch a college basketball game.

3. Parkhead, Glasgow, Scotland. If you ever get a chance to check out the sectarian rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, don't pass it up. (Just make sure to wear black like I did.)

4. Estadio Azteca, Mexico CitySoccer's version of Thunderdome from the Mad Max movies. Will the U.S. ever win in front of 110,000 screaming Mexicans? It hasn't happened yet.

5. Fenway ParkSox fans are insufferable, but their stadium is an American treasure.