Compared to Brazil, Argentine fan culture is top-notch
Posted: Tuesday April 1, 2008 12:17PM; Updated: Tuesday April 1, 2008 12:17PM
Some 15 years ago, an English club chairman -- I'll withhold his name because I'd hate to be remembered for the dumbest thing I ever said -- declared that the soccer fan was fooling himself if he believed that he was paying the players' wages.
It was a classic case of someone knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. He was so close to his industry yet was unable to grasp its underlying truth.
Add up all the revenue that the clubs receive from TV rights, sponsorship deals, worldwide marketing, corporate boxes and so on, and the contribution that the fan makes buying a ticket might seem insignificant. But take that contribution away and the whole house of cards collapses.
That's because soccer isn't the movies. The fans aren't spectators, they're participants. Without them, there is no revenue from TV rights, sponsorship deals, worldwide marketing or corporate boxes. The fans help create the spectacle. The atmosphere they generate is as much a part of the event as the action on the field.
It's precisely that which makes it so fascinating to go to matches in other countries. On a trip back to England, I can take my Brazilian girlfriend to a game and, without speaking much English, she can thoroughly enjoy the occasion and make comparisons between the two countries. There is much to take into consideration because fans from different cultures aren't the same; they react to different things in different ways, creating different kinds of atmosphere.
Soccer, as I never tire of saying, is a universal language that we speak with different accents.
I'm dwelling on such issues because I just got back from a trip enjoying the culture of the game in Argentina. From time to time I go down to Buenos Aires from my base in Brazil, but usually it's to watch the national team in World Cup qualification.
What sticks in the mind from these occasions is the quality of the play. My previous two trips -- a 4-2 win over Uruguay in 2004 and a 3-1 victory over Brazil the following year -- were exhibitions of the game. Inspired by Juan Román Riquelme, Argentina moved the ball with pace and precision, with changes of rhythm, switches of the point of attack and a constant formation of triangles where two players exchanged passes while a third prepared to burst through as an element of surprise -- in short, everything you want to see in top-class passing play.
This latest trip won't leave me with such memories, because this time the focus was on the club game. In six days I took in five matches, three in the Copa Libertadores and two in the domestic championship.
The standard of play is not outstanding. In fact, it was often poor, a clear consequence of the exodus to Europe of Argentina's best players. But for all that -- and despite plenty of other things -- the sights and sounds of the trip will be very hard to forget.
For all its problems -- the low quality, the problem of violence, inadequate transportation, the shoddy way the fan is treated -- the atmosphere inside Argentine stadiums is like nothing I have ever experienced.
Soccer in my native England is famous for its atmosphere. But there is no doubt that its modern seating arrangements have sacrificed some of that atmosphere on the altar of security. Numbered seating is much easier to police, but it makes its harder for groups of singing fans to congregate.
And there is something else. There is usually an element of irony about the English. Humor is a key part of our makeup. There is little of this in the Argentine fan. Pure passion pounds out from the stands, pulsing to the rhythm of the drums.
The importance of the big drum in Argentine working-class culture helps make the atmosphere in the stadiums so special. The rhythm, the impassioned singing, the sheer quantity of songs -- it all makes for a memorable occasion even if the game is below par. The atmosphere in Boca Juniors' La Bombonera stadium is one that should be tasted by all soccer fans.
In comparison, Brazil can be disappointing. With the exception of the south, Brazil is a less collective country than Argentina. Fans are not as keen to commit. If he is unhappy with the performance of the players, the Brazilian supporter frequently uses a get-out clause -- it's my club, he tells himself, but it's not my team.
If the team is struggling, many of the fans will stay away, and during the game while the atmosphere can be inflamed, it's often dependent on what's taking place on the pitch; if little of note is happening it can all go very quiet.
Over the last couple of years, however, I have noticed a big improvement, notably in my home city of Rio de Janeiro, and some of this has to do with the globalization of the game.
A few years back, it was even rare to find Brazilian television showing matches involving the country's clubs in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. Now, though, there is blanket coverage -- and, with access to the matches from Argentina, Brazilian fans sit up and take notice of the non-stop signing and spectacle taking place in the stands.
Rio fans started to make their own adaptations of songs from Argentina, giving a much-needed kick-start to fan culture in the city, setting motion a virtuous circle of creativity. Supporters of Botafogo then took over a song that had originated in Portugal and made it their own, and fans of the city's other big clubs hit back by changing the words to mock Botafogo, as well as coming up with new songs of their own.
And as I found out in Argentina, for the visiting fan all of this can be every bit as enthralling as the soccer taking place on the pitch of the world-famous Maracană.