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Grant Wahl
February 01, 2002
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February 01, 2002

Extreme Football


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At 66 Ocampo's white hair, jowly smile and animated eyes belie a sordid past: In the early 1960s he became Argentina's first professional hooligan. It all started when he and a dozen hard-core Boca Juniors fans decided to follow Boca wherever it played in the South American club tournament. As their leader Ocampo approached Boca's club directors, demanding free trips and game tickets in exchange for their vocal support of the team—no small contribution—and protection from the fists of the Butcher's followers. "Quique the Butcher was superpowerful within the club," says a recent book on the history of Argentine hooliganism. "His methods were violent. He didn't talk, he threatened."

"I was born in the street," Ocampo says, smiling. "I know how the street works."

Before long nearly all the Argentine clubs, large and small, had similar gangs—barra bravas, they were called—and the Butcher acquired a sizable piece of fame. He was the Zelig of Argentine soccer, always there, following Boca to Japan and England, Germany and Spain, Brazil and the United States, never paying a single peso. There's the Butcher in Germany, cowbell in hand, congratulating Boca's players on winning the 1978 world club title. There's the Butcher, wearing a porn-star mustache, enjoying a meal with Boca's players and coaching staff.

In 1980 Ocampo was ousted as chief, but he kept traveling to games, leading a crew of 30 or so young toughs, which is how I met him in 1994. I was a 20-year-old college student in search of the ultimate South American road trip. Ignoring my friends' warnings (Boca fans kill people!), I joined the Butcher's crew for a 24-hour excursion to Rosario. We drank Quilmes beer (a sort of poor man's Natural Light), shared bad jokes and sang Boca anthems through the night. The game went off without incident, but in the confusion afterward I got separated from the group. Two hours later, giving up hope, I took a cab to the train station, where an amazing thing happened: I found the Butcher and his gang. The natural-born killers had waited for me. "Americano!" the old hooligan said, wrapping me in a bear hug.

I fell in love with Argentine soccer fans that summer. I loved the thousands of papelitos, tiny scraps of newspaper, that supporters hurled on command, creating a storm cloud of confetti to welcome their team. I loved the way chant leaders pumped their fists while leaning out over the stadium terraces, clutching their long, narrow flags like climbers rappelling down a rock face. I loved their goofy yet heartfelt chants, to the tune of such incongruously lame songs as Culture Club's Karma Chameleon. And I loved the traditional vuelta Ol�mpica, the "Olympic victory lap," during which fans would celebrate championships by joyously stripping their heroes down to their jockstraps.

Times have changed, though, Ocampo tells me. Much like the deficit-ridden Argentine government, the country's first-division clubs are in crisis, a combined $250 million in debt. In Argentina every team is a small-market team, thanks to the global economy. "Boca always sells its best players to Europe," Ocampo says, sounding a lot like a Montreal Expos fan. What's more, Argentina's economic collapse has turned soccer stadiums into less festive places. In the past year five people have died in and around Argentine stadiums due to hooliganism. "It's much more dangerous than when I was chief," the Butcher says. "There's too much violence, too many drugs around the fans nowadays." Adds Ocampo's friend Luis Lamboglia, "In Quique's day we only used our fists. Today they use knives and guns."

So the Butcher travels less these days, minding his store in La Boca, schmoozing with old cronies. When he learned that I was going to a game, he casually pulled out that gun from his desk and stuffed it in my pants, like a kindly grandfather handing out a piece of candy. I politely declined and placed the enormous pistol gently back on the desktop.

Why is Maradona so beloved? After all, he won only one World Cup, in 1986, two fewer than Pel�, who has never attracted the same degree of fanaticism in his native Brazil. Everywhere you turn, El Diego salutes you: from T-shirts bearing his maniacal grin and his flexed, Che Guevara-tattooed biceps, above the words GOD EXISTS; from newspaper articles entitled .A Country Called Maradona; from baby-blue-and-white Argentine flags, on which Maradona's impish mug has replaced the blazing sun. Five years after he last played competitively, 15 years after his finest hour, Maradona remains a cult of personality: a national treasure, a national psychosis. He eclipses the Argentine sun.

To gain some perspective, I pay a visit to the national team, which is training for a World Cup qualifying match. The Argentines, as usual, feature many of the world's top players, proud men who look like models for ancient Greek sculptures. Yet when I ask them about Maradona, they suddenly turn wistful, reverent. Javier Zanetti of Inter Milan: "For many of us, what he did on a soccer field made him similar to God." Juan Sebasti�n Ver�n of Manchester United: "He's the best player in the history of the world. I still have the photograph of the day we first played together for Boca. It was one of the best moments of my life."

Compare another player to Maradona, and be prepared to be accused of blasphemy. "Those players come along only once every century," says Ver�n, one of the best players in the world today. "Diego was born, what, 41 years ago? So that means we have 60 more years to go."

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