The Eternal Derby
It’s Boca v River in the Libertadores final, and there won’t be a penalty shoot-out.
That morning, Mario Sanguinetti dashed off a succinct yet vague monograph on “The Politics of the Imagination” for his Crónica column, made love to his glamorous wife, Conchita, then slipped into a ‘post-nocturnal’ tango bar, Alba, for a Malbec and cigarette, where he discussed his team’s tactics for the Copa Libertadores final second leg that night with two old comrades from his Guevarist cell, formed almost 45 years ago to the day. “My idea,” he was explaining as he arranged eleven filter tips on the table, “concerns, as always, the denial of time and the creation of time. Pressing, and collective imagination in possession.” His friends – both of whom were lapsed Boca Juniors fans (which meant, they used to joke during the Dirty War, that they could never fully trust each other) – thought him cavalier, especially given the 0-0 draw a week earlier in la Bombonera, yet nonetheless wished him luck. “Not too much, though.”
In early afternoon he convened his team, the assemblage of limbs through which his ideas would take on form, and began to convince them that “this is just one more step on our path toward glory. If it brings us victory as well, so much the better. But our glory is found in the collective spirit and courage you bring to the pitch.” They then ran through the tactical formulations for a final time and the players were reminded that, at the behest of the AFA president Adolfo Martinetti, there would be a golden goal period and no penalties, a hasty if understandable reaction to the brutal assassination of Boca’s Gastón Cabrera after his insufficiently disguised panenka had flopped fatally into the midriff of José Portero in the previous season’s Copa Argentina. “With the eyes of the football world upon us,” Martinetti had announced, “this game must create only heroes, not villains or victims.”
Not long after Sanguinetti arose from his siesta – four hours before kick-off, 40 minutes after Crónica’s evening edition had hit the kiosks – he learnt that he had been unceremoniously fired, a rash move even by the hot-headed standards of the River Plate president, Enrique Schwartz, who had read between the lines of his column – its header reworked by a recklessly sloganeering sub to “mortal enemies, immortal rivalry” – and decided, with the stakes high and time ticking, that his approach to the game was “insufficiently sober”. The hospital pass was dutifully and unfussily accepted by Sanguinetti’s deputy, Sandro Durán, while Buenos Aires Metropolitan Police called in an extra 400 officers, expecting protests.
On the other side of the febrile city, a man who didn’t know the esteemed coach yet knew that he hated him for the steady stream of humiliations – the steamrolled annihilations, the rabbits from hats – that he had visited upon his team was pulling on his blue-and-yellow shirt in readiness for the ancient hostilities. His son was peeking around the door at that still unfamiliar torso onto which was etched its indelible allegiances, a destiny inked into flesh, and as Pedro López daydreamed about old battles he caught his son’s curiously avid gaze in the mirror: “So I don’t forget who I am…”
Facundo didn’t understand. Any of it. “Come, Facundo,” said Pedro, holding out his arms to his bemused son, “I have your present.” That Facundo did understand and, like a delirious pibe celebrating a winning goal, he leapt into his father’s embrace – the feeling Pedro had most pined for during those five endlessly solitary years, time passing like honey dripping from a spoon. He passed Facundo the parcel and, with similar avidity, watched as the boy unwrapped that sacred jersey. Today, Facundo’s eighth birthday, was the hard-negotiated (and reluctantly conceded) lifting of the matriarchal moratorium on football. “He plays the flute, Pedro,” Dolores had said on that journey back from the Devoto Penitentiary, imagining this alone would raze her husband’s plans. “I just want him to feel the colours, you know, like my father taught me.” She responded with a silence that became too long to salvage, so silence it remained. It was a home heavy with silences, some of them healing, others scarring. “I get it, Lola, I get it. You don’t want him to turn out like me.”
Triangulated by maternal prohibitions and paternal fervour, Facundo held the shirt silently in front of him, trying to work out what emotion he should apply to his face.
Pedro began rifling through the drawer into which Dolores had shoved his magazines, posters, scarves, pennants, pins and scrapbooks filled with newspaper cuttings detailing his firm’s victories and violence, its victories in violence. He handed Facundo an RCBJ pin that his own father had claimed had been given him by Antonio Rattin, then held up two glossy tickets embossed with silver leaf. “We’re going to the final, son. Me and you. The biggest ever game of the biggest game in the world!”
The boy smiled, because not to do so felt like treachery, then Pedro draped the shirt solemnly over him: “So you don’t forget who you are…” Facundo hugged him, then ran into the yard, where he was a horse, an astronaut, an aeroplane, a ball.
Pedro had rehearsed that moment many times and, if he were honest, felt disappointed it had failed to provoke tears – in himself, his son, both of them. How could Facundo have failed to feel the potency of that moment? His own unyielding commitment to that shirt had cost him five years, three of which were shared with a fucking gallina. It was an animosity that sustained people when nothing else would, everything arranging itself around that disjunctive synthesis: Them and Us, locked in the most fractious tango. Hate provided anchorage, surety amidst the constant anxiety and interminable tit-for-tat of the barra foot soldier’s existence, giving dramatic form to lives otherwise devoid of direction. But for Facundo this “eternal derby” was a thing of overheard hugger-mugger, snatched heat on the radio, as dim and distant a presence as the IMF or trade winds or Lafta for his parents.
The city crackled on toward its appointed climax. Over montages of flying tackles and brawling benches the news crews rattled out their bullet-pointed breakdown of both the quantity and quality of that awesome, awful antagonism, trumpeting it as “the world’s most hateful game”, a line not only pushed by the travel companies but also felt with keen pride by both sets of supporters (and all the racketeering factions therein). It surprised no-one when the evening news reported sporadic fighting, an unidentified explosion, reports of gunshots and a stabbing, and so before Dolores left to spend the night with her dying father – a River supporter with a Boca cardiologist – she forbade Pedro from taking Facundo to the game. “We’ll do something else, son,” she explained. “It’s too dangerous. I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon and we can talk about it then.”
The door had barely slammed shut, metaphorically and then literally, before Pedro was sweeping Facundo out on their adventure. First, they rendezvoused with Uncle Pablo, then began their trek across the city’s palpitating immensity – as mysterious and infinite as outer space for Facundo – discussing Boca’s formation for the match and the likelihood of violence. “Certain,” thought Pedro with unfamiliar trepidation, at that point mentioning to his brother that Facundo wanted to be a flautist. “No, Papá: an astronaut!” “You can be whatever you want,” Uncle Pablo told him, “just as long as it’s Boca…”
They rode the Subte from 9 de Julio to Congreso de Tucumán, poring over the meaning of Sanguinetti’s column and what there was in it that could get him fired on the eve of such a gargantuan match (neither of them was distraught, though, since they had always suspected the true depths of his allegiance), then the three of them walked through Belgrano as slowly as habit allowed, aspirationally daydreaming their way along Roosevelt to Libertador, Facundo looking at the clean streets and clean walls and the trees as smart as soldiers and wondering why Mamá didn’t come and live up here instead of Calle Cortázar, with its coughing dogs and cardboard castles. “This referee,” Uncle Pablo was now saying, conspiratorially, “married a gallina. Father lives in Palermo…”
At Libertador they had crossed the Boca procession, rumbling up the street like a long blue-and-gold dragon, spitting firecrackers, smoke bilging from spliffs and flares, the fluttering flags uniting and alienating all at once. Pedro noticed – and was unable to avoid being noticed by – a few old faces from the barra, their eyes like casino chips, nostrils flared and tender. Roiled by hormones and narcotics, younger ones jumped on cars. Eggs and bottles were thrown. The police fired rubber bullets at two River supporters who tried to charge the parade. Pedro spotted his old jefe, ‘Lucho’ Parodi, who was beckoning him over. He pointed at Facundo, gestured that his hands were tied. Lucho asked him to call. Pedro gave him a thumbs up, but he knew he wouldn’t – knew he couldn’t – and knew also that his face was saying as much. They moved past groups of Japanese and Arab and American tourists, clutching their exorbitant tickets to what the brochures proclaimed a “carnival of hate,” Facundo swept through it all like a maharajah atop an elephant, the Emperor of Possibility, as Pedro elbowed past the men selling pins and the men selling powder until suddenly, looming up in the distance, there it was: el Monumental, a giant concrete spaceship, God’s bowl of Zucaritas.
The smell of burning charcoal from the choripan stalls – the first thing Facundo had recognised since coming back overground – was too much to resist. Uncle Pablo and Pedro sipped a Quilmes as Facundo took in the riot of hawking, touting, pushing and peddling, oblivious to the cogs and levers of criminality all around. A tired-looking old man was selling scarves to the tourists, red-and-white at one end, blue-and-yellow at the other, and Facundo asked Papá if he could have one. Pedro glanced at his brother, then shook his head: “No, son. You have to be one or the other.” “What he means is,” clarified Uncle Pablo, “you have to be blue and yellow.”
Having decided against trying to circumnavigate the ground, they instead climbed to be among their own in the Upper Centenário, zigzagging along the outer concourse before turning down the dusty red concrete steps, the arena finally opening out in front of them. Facundo was captivated by the thrumming spectacle: the scale, the pageantry, the congregations and segregations.
Bronzed men with backs to the pitch beat out their portentous rhythms. Suddenly a roar rose up from that bobbing sea of bodies and the players were filing out, two rows of men rendered rigid or hyperactive by their jitters. “The players say they look forward to the derby,” shouted Pedro into his son’s ear. “They don’t. No-one looks forward to it.” The two brothers crossed themselves in silent prayer, perhaps in sympathy with the players’ own supplications, and with the pre-match rituals completed the night sky filled with balloons and confetti.
The opening exchanges were both thunderous and strangely timid, players committing to nothing so much as being seen to embody their fans’ rancorous vision. The game’s patterns were impenetrably chaotic to Facundo, who instead watched the men in the crowd who watched the other men in the crowd, cajoling their own end and taunting the other with their rude chants and banners and inflatable pigs. Others – the Japanese, the Americans, the Arabs – were watching all this on their smartphones, waiting for something to happen.
After 17 minutes the Boca supporters struck up a standing ovation for the murdered Cabrera. A symbol of everything that was best (or worst) about these games, ‘El Carnicero’ had been renowned for publicly goading River, so it was little surprise that their barra roused themselves into an ear-splitting jeer, nor that when the minute ended the Boca fans whistled back at them, and that they then cheered. Back and forth flew the insults – gnawing everyday frustrations vented, the act of venting reinforcing the psychological ghettoisation that entrenched those frustrations – while the game proceeded at its stultifying pace, scrappy, broken and edgy. The TV commentators refused to acknowledge the game’s lack of quality, their radio commentary colleagues filled the airwaves with conjecture about Sanguinetti’s sacking, while the livebloggers peppered their timelines with bookmarked badinage. And then something happened. Costa, River’s veteran libero, handled the ball in the box: red card and penalty. With Cabrera’s gruesome fate still painfully vivid, Ramón Delgado deprived the spot kick of all subtlety, driving it firmly down the middle to give Boca a crucial half-time lead.
Over a cigarette and Quilmes, Pablo and Pedro discussed River’s dilemma: the players knew their fans wouldn’t settle for passivity and resignation, and yet too much adventure – the sort that Sanguinetti would surely have demanded – could lead to a rout. And who knew what that might lead to. “But why is it all so important?” asked Facundo, still failing to understand. “Isn’t it enough just to try? That’s what you told me about my homework: ‘Just try your best and we’ll be proud of you…’”
The second half saw Boca, with their numerical advantage, take a reluctant initiative. They had a game to win, various traumas to annul. Each piece of action – a tackle, a shot, a dribble – conjured forth its antecedents from the archive of that collective memory, a living museum whose snapshots of division and animosity were dutifully bundled on down through the generations. River attacked when they could; half-chances were spurned. On the hour, Boca threw on Lucas Prat, the winger who earlier in the season had managed the rare feat of uniting the city in opprobrium by transferring between the two clubs. He was whistled from all sides – “even his mother is ashamed,” said Jesús Justo on Canal 7 – and Uncle Pablo again leant over: “See, you’re either Boca or River. X or Y. You cannot be both.”
Fifteen minutes later Prat had nutmegged Miguel Varela in midfield and crashed a 30-yarder in off the underside of the bar, giving him temporary reprieve from the flak, at least at the southern end of the ground. By the 84th minute, 2-0 down in their own back garden, some River fans in the expensive seats started to file away, as did a few pockets of ultras who couldn’t bear to bear witness. They were jeered by the blue-and-yellow end, jeered by the red-and-white end – Facundo learning that not staying until the bitter end was another in the fast-growing list of taboos. The Japanese and Arabs and Americans stayed, however, their morbid anthropological fascination suddenly piqued, and they were lucky enough to see the broken, outnumbered River players summon from their interminable purgatory the sort of revival that only abject desperation can provoke, a howling mother rescuing her baby from under a parked bus.
First, in the 88th minute, the Colombian Valdo García nodded home what Pedro assured everyone around them – old friends ‘Flaco’ Fernández and ‘Gordo’ Gutierrez, as well as ‘Pulpo’ Pavón and ‘Grillo’ Gómez, the Pizzis and Doctor Campo – was a consolation goal, and then, sensationally, River were awarded a penalty in the 93rd minute, prompting a pitch invasion – through which the last defender, Camacho, was walking off without even waiting for the inevitable red card to be shown – that took several minutes and several police officers to subdue. It would be the last kick of normal time, potentially opening up the abnormal time of golden goal. Miss, and the penalty-taker would be, eternally, an outcast: exactly the scenario the AFA had hoped to avoid.
Facundo was, of course, spellbound by the jeopardy, and watched Humberto Soldado intently as he scooped up the ball (what seemed a lifetime after the kick had been awarded) and wandered over to the spot, placing the ball purposefully down before turning his back on the goalkeeper, Juan Paredes, whose gesticulations filled the goal – the novitiate thought – just as those American aerobics instructors to whose exhortations Mamá danced most mornings filled their widescreen television. The howls from Flaco and Gordo were overwhelmed by the referee’s whistle, and Soldado stepped up…
“Goooooooooooool. Gol, gol, gol. Gol de River. Increíble!”
Once the pandemonium had abated, the two squads steeled themselves for the high-wire walk of golden goal. While ten-versus-ten opened up space, which of course created more time, the Boca coach Julio Roca sensed that River had the momentum and instructed his players to sit behind the ball (“A minimum of seven; later, our superior fitness will start to tell”) while Sandro Durán felt River had enjoyed something close to divine intervention and their reprieve now had him questioning the “recklessness” and “openness” that had characterised their play over the opening eighty minutes – this the native caution that had once helped temper Sanguinetti’s attacking instincts. It was no surprise, then, that the first thirty minutes of extra-time yielded little in the way of attacking play, both camps’ asphyxiation by fear allowing them to think about self-preservation and little else. “There’s no tempo to the game,” proffered Sanguinetti, somewhat ruefully, on Canal 7.
The minutes ticked by and while the crowd had been initially complicit in the pervasive trepidation, now, with families waiting up at home, pets to feed, early-starting jobs, they grew increasingly irritated by the passivity and began transmitting those frustrations to the players. A small minority also transmitted some of the Monumental’s seating from the top tier (it was at times like this, thought Martinetti, we should be grateful the pitch is so far away from the masses), but the police were quick to move in and the players responded to the agitation with a flurry of attacking football. Indeed, the 58th minute of extra-time saw the clearest chance of the entire tie, yet somehow Gallo and Del Toro contrived to miss a sitter for the visitors.
It was now past midnight and outside Buenos Aires was beginning to lower itself into sleep. Public transportation was shutting down and the food vendors outside the stadium had packed up and gone home, an idea shared by further pockets of the 65,000 crowd, some of whom started making trips to the toilet from which they never returned.
The broadcasters had little idea what to do, although the lack of a drop-off in viewing figures persuaded Canal 7 to cancel their late movie, The Straight Story, and continue with the live football. TV1’s highlights show, La Grada, went ahead as planned, albeit with the terra incognita of not yet having a result providing something of a broadcasting challenge. The press, meanwhile, had long since gone doolally. Reporters frantically phoned their desks for guidance now that the story was elongating and mutating. Eventually, after calls from the owners of Clarín and La Nación failed to persuade Martinetti to U-turn on penalty kicks (he wasn’t a partisan figure, just a common-or-garden autocrat with a taste for luxury), they were forced to adapt: reports, player ratings, tactical chalkboards, op-ed – all became provisional and open-ended, like reality itself.
The game had entered a deadlock of sterile possession with occasional skirmishes. Teams took minutes over throw-ins, although time wasting had lost all meaning and the referee was no longer checking his watch. With no real end to the game in sight, more and more fans dribbled out of el Monumental – perhaps as many as 20,000 now, rendering those who remained ever more determined to witness the winning goal. Clusters of the barra were getting plentifully high on their ample supply, launching anew into chants, beating out their ceaseless tattoos, although the rousing intent hit a slightly pathetic note as the players, now cramping badly, started to require regular medical attention. Up in the president’s box, Adolfo Martinetti, transfixed by the game, waved away a gesticulating doctor.
Facundo had fallen asleep, head resting on his father’s chest. Their temporary tribe – Flaco and Gordo with the mate; Doctor Campo, the cardiologist, with the cigarettes; Soledad Pizzi, the English teacher, wondering whether she would have to call in sick – contacted loved ones, explaining the utter impossibility of leaving. Uncle Pablo texted his wife: “I’ll see you soon, but I don’t know when.” Pedro, still with a few hours’ grace before the boy’s absence would become incriminating, scanned Twitter for the wider world’s reaction: #CopaLibertaBORES was trending in the US, averse as they were to such irresolution, while closer to home there was the surprisingly practical consideration of how long they could reasonably stay awake, and as extra-time ticked into a second, third, fourth hour OptaJose reported that there had been only two clear-cut chances since the equalising goal, as well as a couple of 40-yard efforts. Boca had 82% possession, although River had been content to allow them the ball while their back four took turns to massage each other’s legs.
By now some of the more pig-headed bosteros had categorically ruled out leaving, despite having grasped – and changed their bets accordingly – that the tactical stalemate in all probability meant a decisive goal was a long way off yet and so they set up a Facebook page calling for donations of blankets, food, warm clothes, even cigarettes, matches and kindling, all to be left outside la Bombonera, from where it would be ferried across town to provide succour for their hardy fans, stuck behind enemy lines and unsure when relief would be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Argentinian TV audiences continued to grow, some attracted by the sheer novelty of things, others by the strangely hypnotic and voyeuristic quality of the inaction, a sort of football version of Big Brother. Nevertheless, at 3am Martinetti decreed that the game should stop for twenty minutes while an emergency plan was drawn up in conjunction with delegations from each club (their presidents, Enrique Schwartz and Guillermo Neri, were long-standing golf partners with a few overlapping business concerns), the organising committee of the Copa, the referee, the chief of police, the stewards, the sponsors and the broadcasters – everyone except Cristián Conti from the Players’ Union. All parties agreed that they didn’t want another penalty-taker’s death on their conscience, while the various sponsors were delighted with “the traction” the match was getting “across global media platforms,” so they proceeded as before, only it was confirmed that substitutions could take place in batches of five every half-hour, at which point there would be a ten-minute recess, and that each club’s entire squad could be used, including the youth team. Durán and Roca sent immediately for scouting reports.
An hour or so later, with hunger kicking in, Boca’s players began heading to the touchline like Noah’s animals, careful not to leave an opening for River, then in the middle of a 362-pass move. Yet no sooner had River one-twoed their way through the undermanned midfield than those vigilantes of propriety and the codes, los Borrachos del Tablón, started to howl their disapproval. “Victory without honour is defeat,” they chanted. By the time refreshment regulations had been agreed and rubber-stamped, many fans had succumbed to their tiredness and, eager not to miss the epochal moment – whenever it might arrive – improvised a system of sleeping in shifts, with those keeping vigil tasked with blowing horns if either side got into the attacking third. The players had grown erratic and selfish in their decision-making, with few willing to make runs off the ball, so a goal wasn’t really thought to be in the offing.
It was a bitingly cold night and the crowd had begun to feel its icy grip. During the eighth interval a few filed out past the weary stewards, down to the Avenida Presidente Figueroa, where they built a small fire, a tentative fraternisation of passionate yet moderate socios from both clubs huddling together around that primordial social forum while those misaligned twins of the barra bravas remained in resolute segregation, kinships that passed in the night. As the resumption approached, the first shipment of supplies arrived from la Bombonera. The perishables were quickly scavenged – albeit with the presence of old foes guaranteeing a modicum of decorum – while last to the bag of clothes, ‘Grillo’ Gómez, was left with a red-and-white fleece and as he made to toss it on the fire, old Flaco stopped him: “Pass it me. I’ll wear it. I’m not superstitious.”
The public address system was by this juncture making several announcements each hour, with loved ones somewhere in this city of disappearances phoning the club’s overworked reception eager for confirmation that Señora Cruz or Señor Espada was still there. An Information Point was set up underneath the General San Martín stand and as those of unknown whereabouts headed down to log their ongoing presence a handful of errant ultras were flashing rueful smiles at one another, swapping stories as they queued. One evidently suffering bostero was given a packet of cigarettes by an old second-ranker from los Borrachos who had seen the desperation in his eyes and felt stir some hitherto untended streak of compassion. Necessity is the mother of reconciliation.
The sun chased off the twilight, poking its head over the San Martín not long after 8am, moving some supporters in the Belgrano from sol to partly vacated areas in the sombra. Those left had committed to a course of action and there were few reasons that could now persuade them to leave. “If you had stayed at a football match for 10 hours of extra time and then decide to leave,” somebody was telling one of the television crews that had recently arrived not to document this game – the biggest derby in the history of Latin American football – but the people watching it, “then imagine how you’d feel if the winning goal was scored after 10 hours and five minutes…” “A 695th-minute winner,” laughed Sofia Puig from Ojo as accreditation granting access to the running track was handed her.
A third shift of policemen arrived – only 300 now, a quarter of the original deputation, many of whom had simply stayed on to watch, slipping seamlessly into their partisan or neutral civvies. The new batch of journalists were onto a third or fourth coffee, all glued to the inaction, many convinced it was a ruse to lull their rivals into complacency before pouncing with deadly efficiency – “All’s fair in football and war,” as Neri and Schwartz were fond of saying – the theory in part fuelled by rumours that both presidents had, independently, offered their team’s winning goalscorer a ten-million-peso bonus, producing a sharp upswing in endeavour around the fourteenth hour, including a couple of shakily parried cross-shots, although most situations of promise foundered on the wildly speculative self-interest that had been inadvertently seeded. Others in the press sensed the on-field narrative was breaking down and, the old foraging reporters’ instincts stirring, instead headed out into the crowd. Rumour circulated in the Sívori stand about “the cigarette incident” – reprisals had been discussed, intimidation considered – and in the end it was decided that a counter-prestation would be sent over, if only to deprive Boca of the moral high ground.
Dolores López had arrived back in Cortázar Street just in time for the early afternoon news, dominated, naturally, by events at el Monumental. The house was empty and worried attempts to call her husband were going straight to that voicemail message that so annoyed her. There was no note, either, just some open post from the abattoir (recently bought by Neri) talking about pay freezes and the pressure of international markets. She phoned the River Plate helpline. An automated voice told her that “due to a high volume of calls the waiting time is likely to be several hours,” redirecting her to the virtual InfoPoint, where over 18,000 names – not Pedro, though – had confirmed their attendance, both for posterity and others’ peace of mind. Dolores grew ever more frantic. She visited the Boca website, which was streaming footage of the crowd, and watched and scanned for almost half an hour until spotting Pedro, albeit without Facundo. She screamed at the monitor, tried his mobile again (in vain, for his time on Twitter had killed the battery), then left a 200-character message on the InfoPoint that would, along with a few hundred others, be fed on a loop across the giant scoreboard.
As predicted by most of the assembled experts attached to microphone and keyboard, the Thursday afternoon saw a drop-off in pressure on the ball and the game became viscous and torpid, entirely devoid of cut and thrust until a new tranche of youth-teamers saw this as the perfect time to cement an undying place in the supporters’ affections and both sets of action-starved supporters cheered a gambolling gambeta from the 17-year-old Boca prospect, Zorro, until he was hacked down to widespread jeers.
None of this was seen by Facundo, who had wandered off not long after his father succumbed to the seductions of sleep, first stopping by the half-and-half scarf man, Señor Bueno, who threw one around the boy’s neck, saying: “That’s on me, son. It’s not as though they let me keep the profits.” Eventually he worked his way around to the Sívori and headed in to see for himself what was so bad about these strange men who Papá and Pablo had been badmouthing almost non-stop. Still in his birthday Boca shirt, he skipped blithely down the steps, past a rakishly tall, thin man and his dumpy friend with pigeon legs and paunch, standing together like Chile and Argentina – like Flaco and Gordo – before spotting a boy in a River top playing catch by himself, over where some of the barra bosses were sleeping. Facundo approached and silently the two boys began to throw the tennis ball back and forth to one another, after a while introducing complexity, elaborating games with strange names and Baroque points-scoring systems. “You like River?” asked Facundo. The boy shrugged: “I guess.”
After a while, these new friends went and sat out on the concourse, chatting about machine guns and skyscrapers and eventually falling asleep, arm in arm, under that giant scoreboard, where they were spotted by a roaming photographer who grasped in their heavy symbolism both a payday and, perhaps, an adumbration of the future. The world also saw this symbolism – or, at least, wanted to see it – and inside an hour the image had been retweeted 620,000 times, become the banner on both clubs’ websites (at least until Neri and Schwartz had them taken down), and appeared on the evening news in Argentina – news that Dolores had missed while catching the bus across the city – all before either of these slumbering kids had risen from their nap. Pedro woke up now, a little hungover but pleased the game was still in progress. He was shown the picture of his son on Flaco’s phone, at which point it dawned on him that the boy was missing. Uncle Pablo mentioned the message from Dolores that had scrolled along the scoreboard: “Pedro López, this is Lola. Please call me. Is Facundo there with you?” Pedro felt sick to his stomach, but Pablo advised him, not particularly reassuringly, to “wait here until the stewards bring him back. Besides, I feel we have some momentum. I think Zorro is going to score…” Meanwhile, outside the stadium, Dolores, still with no idea where her son was, was being told that only ticket holders and accredited media were allowed in.
Unsurprisingly, the photo was the day’s principal topic on both the current affairs show, Hoy, and La Grada, the latter having mutated in just 24 hours from a football highlights programme to a reality TV panel show, the increasingly button-down host first inviting a pair of celebrity supporters from each club to riff on the image’s power and meaning, before throwing, for the definitive interpretation, to a vehement psychoanalyst (whom it was hard to imagine listening to anyone for 50 minutes straight) who spoke about Lacan’s stade du miroir before a flailing producer got things back on the rails.
Facundo and Lucas were eventually woken by some fresh noise from the crowd and worked their way down to where Facundo’s new friend’s father was standing next to a large drum embossed with the famous River Plate crest. The big, bald man ruffled the boy’s hair and told him he was the joint most famous person in Argentina. “Even more famous than Maradona?” “Yes, but not as famous as Di Stéfano.” Before ‘Loco’ Guerrero could even break into a smile, Facundo was asking him if he had anything to eat. Loco snapped his fingers, gestured airily that food was needed, and a couple of minutes later it appeared.
“Are you enjoying the game?” asked this fearsome-looking tattooed bear who the boy half-recognised, maybe from the TV. “It’s pretty epic, no?”
Facundo curled out his bottom lip ambivalently, then stuffed more alfajores in his mouth, sharing them with Lucas, before asking Loco: “Why do you love football so much?”
Loco laughed, but it was clear that Facundo wanted a serious answer. “Because it’s not work, che.”
“And why do you hate work so much?”
“Because… because, you know, I work hard but I never get anywhere. Always kicking, kicking, kicking. It never stops. And even if we work hard and do well, things change and suddenly they don’t need us… We are meat.”
Now it was Facundo’s turn to laugh: “You sound just like my Papá. He works in the abattoir. He hates work, too, but he hates River Plate more. You’re both silly.”
Few people had spoken to him like this before. Loco looked at the boy’s scarf, shook his head indulgently, then hugged him hard, as though trying to absorb all the innocence he could. The sleep deprivation had nudged him into some uncharted, free-associative psychic space, stirring and realigning those primal emotions ordinarily coaxed into some sort of workable order (or controlled chaos) by habit. He wasn’t really sure what was happening – it all reminded him of the strange ceasefire provoked by the pills from Punta del Este – but they were out under the starry skies and immersed in the swarm, and that provided its own succour.
Late on Thursday evening, as Dolores returned home to a scrum of TV crews and photographers who told her, finally, of Facundo’s safety (and fame), Loco scooped the boy into his arms and then onto his shoulders – much as Passarella once had been in this very place – before marching him around the Western side of the ground, the concrete stairwells now looking like giant bedsprings, the whole stadium a hammock. He smiled indiscriminately at passers-by, his fellow survivors, picked up a blanket and two tins of corned beef from the Boca supply station, left a message at the InfoPoint and headed into the Boca end, looking for the boy’s father.
Despite the liberalisation of the substitution regulations and the fact that alternate intervals had been extended to fifteen minutes each, the players’ energy levels were in terminal depletion, not least because the pitch was so badly cut up, and so the game descended into long-ball amorphousness – a long way from the aesthetic refinement of la Nuestra, Flaco was grousing, “not to mention slightly idiotic if you’ve only got one up front.” Under pressure from various insurance men and lawyers, doctors were able to impose mandatory sleep breaks for the players – a minimum of two hours’ rest every six hours – which, in addition to the rotating assembly of squad members, at least ensured a little verticality in the approach play, if among increasingly few in the crowd. As each half-hour ticked by, the devastating consequences of defeat – the “retroactive Sisyphisation of the struggle,” as Sanguinetti called it on co-commentary – sucked the game back toward “the zugzwang-imposed inertia.”
Pedro hadn’t seen Loco Guerrero for six years, not since the fighting that cost Cholo Castillo his sight, yet when his roving son was returned to him he embraced his old foe – a little perfunctorily, given the circumstances – before shaking his hand with unequivocal sincerity. “How are you, Loco?”
“Oh, you know…” he said, tenderly almost.
Loco looked around the Upper Centenário, first across the seats left empty to segregate the fans, “the lungs,” and then around him at all the people he expected to have noticed him, much as you would a scorpion in the corner of the bathroom. “I heard you’d got out. Five years, just to protect Parodi? Maybe you’re the fucking crazy one!”
Pedro offered him some mate and the pair swapped stories as they sipped, mostly of the famous battles, but also of the great games – games they had seen, games passed on through folklore, the great names still dancing in the collective memory, still somehow deceiving defenders – while on the field the players, clustered on the running track, were discussing something or other, causing some consternation in the president’s box. Loco’s phone rang – it was Schwartz – but he ignored it. Uncle Pablo suggested the players themselves might be behind a new change.org petition asking for a rescindment of the no-penalties ruling (even the threat of eternal scapegoating, a few thought, would be cushioned by their future European salaries). In fact, they were discussing overtime rates, which was revealed in an insufficiently guarded tweet by Soldado as he went for his sleep break. This prompted some indignation but the reaction in the stands was primarily hard-headed pragmatism, taking the form of a demand – formulated in a matter of minutes on social media by fans of both sides – for the “equitable redistribution of income with our friend, the enemy,” Doctor Campo was now telling Sofia on Ojo, “since it is our stoicism that has provided the primary value of this spectacle.”
Schwartz and Neri were appalled and immediately set about heading off any resolution, first offering a bribe to Cristián Conti, then trying to expedite a conclusion via the somewhat crude expedient of another win bonus – only now, instead of 10 million pesos to the winning goalscorer alone, it would be two million pesos per man, all easily financed on the back of hastily arranged international broadcasting rights deals and the vast, silvery river of advertising revenue flowing into the clubs’ oceanic coffers, moneys which had long since wiped out both clubs’ debts. Such was the bounteousness that River had even disregarded their usual superstitious strictures over regarding the colour schemes of advertising livery, with Goodyear, IKEA and Peugeot all now welcomed alongside vast clamorous bids from TAG Heuer, Rolex, Accurist and Swatch.
As discussions rolled on past 3am on Friday, River injected some pace into a 418-pass move and won a corner in front of their weary barra. Ángel Paz, the Millonarios’ gambling-addicted striker, grappled furiously with Boca’s muscular stopper, Germán Guerra, and after a couple of warnings they were both shown red cards. Referee Rojo had decided that reducing the number of players to nine-a-side might yet precipitate the longed-for conclusion, a parting gift to the next official, Antonio Núñez, who was due to be married that afternoon, and who, stepping in for his next three hours, immediately sent off two more from each side for dissent, neither of whom seemed too inclined to argue about that.
But Núñez had also seen the photos and watched La Grada and had intuited the game’s previously inconceivable social ramifications, realising he was a protagonist – perhaps the chief protagonist – in a drama that was tentatively feeling its way toward something for which his own grandfather had died. An imagined future was being apprehended – wordlessly, privately, collectively – as though somehow the contours of that future were shaping the present to fit around it, just as the present – the crowd’s new openness to the future’s wider possibilities – was reconfiguring the past, changing its meaning, the decaying isotopes of its still-unfinished events. Linear causality – the nature of time itself – had become confounded in this mesh of anticipations and retroactions.
By this stage Uncle Pablo had stopped doing background checks of the officials’ impartiality, although he was a little shocked when Núñez, in order to keep the game going, denied García a goal for what he deemed a shove, but which looked to many like shoulder charge. “Seen them given,” said Pedro, and Loco agreed. Reporters noted the genuine relief in the crowd and applause broke out among Boca fans who had wandered into the Sívori and among River fans in the Centenário, as well as the miscegenated multitudes of the Belgrano and San Martin stands, passing their mate gourds around.
As sunrise approached on Friday, news filtered through that the President of the Republic, ever mindful of the chance to accrue political capital, had declared a one-off national holiday. The air was thick with rumours: that River Plate’s finance officer, with strong barra connections, had, unbeknownst to the board, started diverting all new advertising revenues to an escrow account, and that two unknown philanthropists were donating 5,000 pesos to the Villa Miseria orphanage for every minute of extra-time that ticked by (Gordo logged on to La Razón‘s MBM and discovered they were in the 1557th minute). Broadcasters now had agents circulating among the crowd, slaloming through the sprinkling of vox pops and passing around details of a microsite onto which people could enter any lost earnings, receiving compensation, to the tune of time-and-a-half, for their “ongoing sacrifice.”
As the money flowed in, a Fans’ Fealty Fund was established, Loco and Pedro (standing in for the sleeping Parodi) appointing a steering committee on which the two clubs were evenly represented. The game had hit something of a lull even by its own languorous standards, so the FFF set about improvising various ad hoc services in the Lower Belgrano, including a basic medical centre and a small classroom to enable the ample number of happily skiving kids to receive tuition in maths, Argentinian history and English language (this receiving a pantomime jeer, despite both clubs’ names). A priest from Villa Urquiza heard confession. A couple of rows in front was his secular compadre – a shrink from Recoleta who kept half an eye on the game and offered his visitors the chance to have the more convivial of their unburdenings relayed on the stadium scoreboard, to the intense displeasure of Neri and Schwartz.
The city yawned its way into Friday, and a skeleton workforce of postmen and nurses and bus drivers and teachers and street sweepers and social workers covering colleagues at the Monumental kept its pulse alive. Adolfo Martinetti announced – now without the inconvenient charade of consultation – that new, mid-match signings would be permitted, an attempt to break the impasse. “We’re still live on Canal 7,” Jesús Justo was telling those not at work (and some that were), “and as this see-saw of a game reaches its 36th hour, we are hearing that River have signed Ignacio Zunz, scorer of no fewer than 144 goals for Boca.” Schwartz had assumed this might restore the old tensions and antipathies, yet beyond a few murmurings that he might score a deliberate own goal the atmosphere in the ground scarcely changed. People’s sense of what could or couldn’t happen was being abandoned like a city under siege.
Outside el Monumental a swarm of paparazzi now took vapid pictures of the vacuous celebrities who didn’t look entirely sure why they were turning up at the winter’s must-see event – soap stars and stylists and men with palpably avant-garde hair and women who wore famous dresses and vloggers and WAG hairdressers and the ab model Tranquilo, who had stitched the two jerseys together, which only two days ago might have been enough to end his career, or even his life. And alongside this chattering of shutters the bug-eyed touts were back, hawking tickets to the moneyed locals for prices that didn’t matter, since each transaction’s proceeds were being funnelled into the FFF. Perhaps they all hoped to become faces in the tableau, like Fangio and Boludo and Gringo, who arrived as keenly devoted hooligans only to be quickly civilised by their strange new fame and the sense that life was no longer being lived on a precipice from which only the adrenaline of violence and belonging provided relief.
The new spectators brought some unfettered, gauche energy to proceedings, and Loco, now back among the River barra – or ex-barra – pounded his drum for the cameras, for the spectacle, until the exertion and the extraordinary amount of cocaine caught up with him and his heart stopped beating. Play was halted for a considerable time, and his hulking mass was swept down to the running track, where, over 20 tense minutes that seemed to last forever, Doctor Campo revived him, before he was transported to the makeshift sanatorium in the stands, a rapturous applause ringing in his ears (“the sound of angels,” he thought).
Fatally bound together in the singularity of this story, the players’ will to win had, by the middle of Friday, dissipated into an uncertain simulacrum of struggle as they tried to fathom the fans’ will. Traces of the competitive instincts remained, but all felt circumscribed by some greater urgency. However, Salas, the winger signed from Colo Colo at 2pm, had nurtured enough of a grudge against River to propel him on a burst through midfield, skipping past the sluggish double-pivot before being nudged over by Varela as he was about to pull the trigger. Incredibly, Núñez’s replacement as referee pointed to the spot. The crowd were stunned – deflated, even – and drank in their surroundings like two newly acquainted families on the last night of a magical holiday. Roca made an immediate substitution, throwing on his captain, Joel, who placed the ball on the spot and with Portero doing an impersonation of a traffic policeman walked back to strike the decisive blow, to become the hero. Martinetti crossed his fingers, as did Guillermo Neri. The nation paused. Joel looked up at the crowd, then at the ball. He took a long, deep breath, then ran up and … and he skied the kick way, way over the bar – ludicrously, preposterously high for a professional goalscorer – and onto the running track. The crowd erupted. Portero approached Joel and, almost scandalously, embraced him. Neri had erupted, too, and immediately fired Roca, then sold Joel to Estudiantes.
The following hour saw a clutch of new signings and arguably the most fiercely contested football of the extra-time period. Seven versus seven “would surely have to take its toll,” speculated Sanguinetti on the radio. The conflicting tug of motivations – for sleep, for glory, for stories to run their course – also took its toll, and the arrival of the albiceleste head coach brought fresh urgency, both teams pressing anew and River winning a first corner for 12 hours. Despite being the only home player in the box, Torres soared highest, if a fraction early, chest-trapping the ball as it cleared his marker’s head, but as it dropped onto that feted left foot he simply caught it, cradling it like a baby’s head and signalling to the referee that he had committed a foul. The massed hordes, colours now running into each other like the makeup of a heartbroken drag queen, burst into loud and sustained applause. Various Twitter accounts with clumsy portmanteau handles sprung up professing unity and solidarity.
Something imperceptible was happening to the barras in the midst of their Spartan endurance, a collective metamorphosis in which the layers of meaning that had become attached to the fanatics’ flesh – identities that formed their harbour on the stormy historical seas, the matrix through which they understood themselves and their place in the world – were slowly eroding, leaving nothing but those decoded, denuded, newly malleable bodies, open once more to possibility. Outside the stadium, Dolores López bought the last of Señor Bueno’s batch of half-and-half scarves and headed up into the Belgrano where at last she found Facundo, helping paint a banner: Hasta la victoria siempre. Utterly appalled at the harmony enveloping the ground, Neri and Schwartz sent for their consiglieri who in turn summoned the leaders of Loco Guerrero and Lucho Parodi’s rival barra factions, men who had obligingly broken strikes and bones for them, put various squeezes on various bad apples. And yet when some Gavrilo Princip in the upper Centenário was persuaded to plant the Boca flag on the penalty spot in front of the Sívori he was greeted only with mild – yet unambiguously ostracising – laughter. The swaying throngs were singing folksongs, writing folksongs and talking about the world beyond the Monumental, even if the world beyond the Monumental was primarily talking about events in the Monumental.
By the time the main political leaders had arrived to soak up the atmosphere and the kudos, both teams were punting the ball back to one another, ceding possession in order to remain compact against the surprise attack – a sort of pre-emptive catenaccio, or so it seemed to a crowd now only secondarily concerned with the mechanics and outcome of the game. Some furtive and formless motive was insinuating and asserting itself in their amiable commingling, a whole undiscovered country of gregariousness further reinforced when the floodlights failed for three hours, sending the Friday arrivistes shuffling home in the rain, disappointed no longer to have a spectacle to be seen to be part of. When the light returned and the game resumed, pushing into its 50th, 51st, 52nd hour, both sets of players – 40-odd lined up on the bench, others sleeping in the stadium’s bowels – seemed unwilling to score the decisive goal, to break the spell of the broken spell. It was in this strange equilibrium that the glory resided, with the derby’s “bragging rights” in the abattoirs and warehouses and factories falling to everyone who was here, everyone who stood to benefit. Carlos Walsh, River’s talismanic midfield schemer, recalled Sanguinetti’s last speech as coach in which he spoke of the society of winners and losers, haves and have-nots, all the petty vengeances and petty aspirations it germinates. “There can be no winners until there are no losers,” the old man had said.
And so this once immortal rivalry was showing signs of mortality. Jesús Justo surveyed the improbable sympathies coursing around the old stadium and the sole precedent he could muster, he told the Canal 7 audience, was the World War I truce match, “when battalions of soldiers kneaded and cajoled into blind loyalty found, in the midst of industrial slaughter, a crack in habit, an opening through which clamoured the enemy’s three-dimensional humanity, and so out they stepped from their symmetrical miseries and into No Man’s Land with just a ball, a white flag and, despite it all, a desire to trust – an inextinguishable recognition that they could, however briefly, throw off their obligations, their uniforms, their inherited sentiments.”
This was also broadly the point being elaborated on La Razón’s liveblog by Héctor Luna, now sketchily superintending something of a sociological, anthropological and philosophical forum, and one almost entirely devoid of trolls. What had started nearly four days earlier with whimsical observations, tenuously relevant music videos and the great creative outpouring of the better-natured corners of the hive mind had become, through the final’s interminable longueurs, a place to riff on what exactly was happening to them all – inside and out, individually and collectively, within and beyond the stadium. Translating as best he could, Luna posted a telling quote from “an obscure English football quarterly called The Blizzard: ‘There are some rivalries that are hewn for the ages, it would seem: a self-perpetuating, endlessly renovated symbiotic loathing in which each new supporter is compelled, as a kind of initiatory sine qua non, to adopt a bone-deep, acid-sweat hatred of the Other Lot … The fact that they rumble forward at glacial speed – nourished by an animosity so viscous and seemingly implacable that fans on both sides of the divide never escape the gravitational pull of their compulsory mutual abhorrence – indeed creates the sense of a de facto permanence from which the supporters henceforth appear to derive their rigid identity.’ It seems to me that what’s happing here these last few days is the undoing of all that,” he signed off, dreamily quoting an old graffito: “the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives…”
Enrique Schwartz had had some pamphlets printed, outlining over a picture of the two rivals’ barras facing off in downtown Buenos Aires that supporting a club was a lifelong commitment that came with “certain obligations, certain non-negotiable dispositions.” But in every nook and cranny of the old stadium the old certainties and façades were crumbling. They hadn’t come this far only to come this far and as email addresses and phone numbers were swapped, visions shared, plans hatched, the FFF transferred 2 million pesos to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, while Uncle Pablo and Doctor Campo set up an ad hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the lower San Martín, offering an amnesty on the perpetrators of inter- and intra-barra violence provided they abided by the principles of restorative justice.
Leaving the field after another goalless half-hour featuring only tepidly speculative shots, Soldado and Delgado swapped shirts, another act that was once tantamount to a death wish but which now elicited only smiles, and as the Saturday sun drew west toward the Andes, giving its last rays to the vines, Guillermo Neri pulled one last political manoeuvre, a last-gasp effort to shape the story’s end. Taking his leave of Martinetti in the president’s box – where the old man was contemplating a penalty shootout after all – he made his way up to the commentary gantry to offer Sanguinetti the Boca head coach position. “I read your column on Wednesday,” he said, “and I know you, above all, can persuade them to attack.”
After swift and wholly unproblematic negotiations, Sanguinetti signed a two-year deal, donating his signing-on fee – 80% of the overall value of his contract – to the Fondo (“to cover the impending redundancies at the abattoir”), then glided downstairs, round that familiar wide, arcing corridor and into the arena, where he awaited the next break in play, taking in the details of that great communion in the stands and thinking about what his old comrade, Baxter, with whom he had shared so many beautiful dreams, had told him on Wednesday: “These fools think that football is not real life, that it’s escapism, fantasy, ‘the opium of the masses.’ Nonsense! It’s not separate, a little place to let off steam and indulge idle daydreams. Great transformations can come from anywhere. Why not football?”
He smiled, then ran through the closing lines of his Crónica column, which doubled as the closing lines of his team-talk to River on Wednesday afternoon, supposing he might recycle it one more time. “Football can be hectic,” he had written, “placing its demands upon you before you can think. There is no time. The public, the board, the barra, the imagos of your parents – all exact a tithe. But really there’s only one question: how to invent your form of solidarity and what space you leave in that for invention, for becoming-other, for risks that might end in defeat and yet can never represent such a defeat as living out your life according to someone else’s idea of who you are.” Just then Canales skipped in front of him, jinking past the Boca fullback until, with no one in the box, he played the percentages and recycled the ball into midfield.
Núñez blew his whistle and the weary Boca players again trooping over for isotonic drinks and guidance were more than a little shocked to see the River coach of several seasons, Mario Sanguinetti, in the dugout. Their dugout. “Boys,” he began, with a bullish familiarity, “I have one question: What matters more to you, a Copa Libertadores medal or the possibility of a just Argentina?”
“Mister, with respect, how are we supposed to trust you?” asked Rodrigo Castro, the full-back. “You were the enemy only four days ago.”
“Trust takes a long time to build,” said Kiko Franco, his skipper, before Castro added, “but seconds to destroy.”
Sanguinetti was in the business of unlocking organised defences and after allowing himself a wide smile pulled from his pocket a photograph of a boy wearing a Boca shirt. “My first love. But true love should be for the whole world…”
By now, the López family were in the Canal 7 studio – Pedro talking about the FFF and his old life in the barra, Dolores radiating a sort of nonspecific pride and Facundo yawning and hoping the players could hear him when he told María Martínez and an estimated 65% of Argentina about his first ever football match. “I was a bit frightened when Papá brought me here. Everybody else looked frightened too. Mamá said I shouldn’t come, but even though everyone likes each other now I think I have flute class tomorrow and it would be good if you tried to score a goal. I don’t think anyone cares which team scores anymore.”
As the players retook the field, Sanguinetti was serenaded first by the River fans and then by the Boca fans. From the kick-off, Zorro picked up the ball in midfield, beating Varela and Lisandro Laclau before playing a one-two with Prat, then flooring Portero with a snake-hipped shimmy, whereupon he ran the ball to the line, leaving it standing there, neither in nor out. He was withdrawn to receive his plaudits, and to a man the crowd hailed him. The Boca fans, were they so minded, could now claim a moral victory, but it was clear that winning and losing no longer held the same meaning as before – that victory and defeat could not be measured on an abacus – and with that Sanguinetti strolled out on to the field, calling over charges old and new for a twin-pronged team-talk. “When you have been part of this kind of struggle,” he was saying, “there can be no losers. To lose now is inconsequential. To win, the same.”
Adolfo Martinetti got to his feet, somehow sure it was his decision that had created all this, and in a perverse way he was right. A megaphone was passed to Sanguinetti, who now addressed the multitudes. “The world has watched us these last four days,” he proclaimed, “playing our superclásico. Our eternal derby. And you have shown us that history, like football, is neither inevitable nor predictable, and that sweating for the shirt is honourable, but sweating for those without a shirt, the descamisados, is truly noble.”
Meanwhile, the organising committee of the Copa Libertadores had made their way down to the pitch. Exhausted, relieved and content, Martinetti took the megaphone for one final edict: “It’s time, I think, to call it a day.”
The journalists – aware for a while now, they felt, of how the story was going to end – phoned their news desks, asking for confirmation their copy had been received. As the crowd streamed out of el Monumental for the comfort of their beds, they were able to read on Crónica’s website a leader that caught the headiness of the moment, describing how “this crowd that had, for the most part, nurtured dreams of equality, could now have their timeless draw…”
And the following morning, when Pedro and Facundo strolled down to the kiosk on the corner of Cortázar Street to buy all the papers and make their very first scrapbook together, they noticed that La Razón, Crónica and Clarín’s headlines were the same: THE GOLDEN GOAL!