A draw, loss and win - two weeks of football

I'm way behind on my match-by-match updates! And with this weekend fast approaching and (hopefully) two more spectacular matches (including the clasico between father San Lorenzo and son Boca Juniors), I'm going to throw out three matches in one post... San Lorenzo - Estudiantes 19 Feb, Peñarol - Atlético Nacional (Col) in Montevideo 21 Feb, and Argentinos Juniors - San Lorenzo 25 Feb. Rather than going through these games 'match-by-match', I've compared-and-contrasted.

The Previa
Before any match there is the 'previa' for the hinchas; the idea is to get ready for the match. Against Estudiantes was the first local match, the 'home-opener' for the 2012 Clausura. For two weeks, facebook was filled with announcements for the purchase of globos/balloons for the game. I was clearly very excited to see how San Lorenzo would receive their team; but like a fool I misunderstood the kick-off time and only luckily checked to realize I missed the caravan that was leaving Av. La Plata in front of "tierra santa' by 20 minutes. Still enough time to get to the Nuevo Gasómetro though, because the caravana left two hours before kick-off. I walked down La Plata alone, in my classic San Lorenzo jersey ripoff of the '95 jersey- having become increasingly superstitious against the 2011/12 SL jersey I bought (I have yet to see SL win in that jersey and only seen one goal in the match against Lanús). Superstition is infectious, even if it makes no sense.

The classic jersey was a good choice, as it brought many comments of passer-bys ('hoy tenemos que ganar!' and 'hoy es un partido dificil!') till a meeting some local pibes on the street. We shared some songs and beer, schemes were being made about how to get into the stadium by the time we reached the athletics facilities. The line-up into the tribunas was huge, 200-300m long, 5 or 6 people wide. No problem, there was still 45 minutes to go. In the confusion I lost my new friends and I stuck out in the slow moving line; slow moving because at the very front, a lot of people were just pushing in from the side. There were futile shouts of "ahhhh, respecta la cola!" by one man in front, but most of the people, who nevertheless were going to respect the line, had probably given up yelling years ago. This is just how things are, until it gets close to kick-off. Then a little bit of panic sets in and people started yelling at the police officers - in riot gear - holding back the mass from charging past the security.

Security itself turned out to be lax by the end, they were waving people through. It was like Uruguay! In comparison, the Peñarol match had the least security I've seen at a football match in South America. I had not expected to attend this match, I didn't even know it was happening, but thanks to an alert taxi driver who told me all about Uruguayan football on the drive from the airport, the first thing I did was look for a ticket. I had bought my ticket earlier in the day - 220 pesos urg (around 60 peso Arg or $CAN 12; a good price for non-members)- at the stadium box office. Organized, calm and relatively hassle free (in comparison to Buenos Aires); it is the Montevideo way. The police check was only concerned about bags and about 75% less objects than police in Buenos Aires - fireworks, flares, emergency smoke, etc. is no problem in Montevideo. And there was no huge crush of people trying to get in.

A few days later, I arrived to the Argentinos stadium named after Diego Maradona, a 'product' of their youth club, by colectivo and a bit lost. I kept running into police barriers telling me "not here, just around the corner another block". I'm starting to realize that the police don't actually know very much about where they are stationed for these games nor how the stadium is laid out.

Finally arriving at an entrance, I could see in front of the police line there was another crush of people. Obviously a lot less than a week earlier in Bajo Flores but what this mass lacked in size in gained in disorder. I had heard the singing of hinchas blocks away, thinking that the hinchada of Argentinos was engaged in its previa in a nearby park. Wrong. La Gloriosa Butteler had loaded dozens of micros (old school buses) and taken over the normally quiet residential streets of Paternal and now they wanted into the stadium. But unlike in Montevideo, the police wanted to make an effort (show of?) to ensure no fireworks, flares, knives, and guns made it into the stadium. While in the the middle of a gently pushing mass, I felt a surge of pressure at my back, turning my head to see a group of big guys pushing everyone aside to get to the front. Again no one was going to say anything. Except the ticket counter, who didn't like the fact that one of the big guys hadn't brought his entrada.

For the Argentinos match I had to get a 'platea' - or seated - ticket because I missed the days to retrieve my abono popular while in Montevideo and the extras were sold out. San Lorenzo was taking over the Maradona. Of course, as a fool I showed up in shorts and tee-shirts despite the news that there would be a cold storm coming through, and sure enough once in the stadium huge winds picked up and within minutes a down-pour of cold rain. Thankfully being in the plateas the culture is to run for cover, not so for the strong people of the populares, who continued to stand outside singing in anticipation of receiving the beloved Ciclón.

Each one of these matches had their own distinct reception and reason for celebtration. San Lorenzo-Estudiantes was the first home match, Peñarol-Nacional was the first group stage match of the Libertadores, and against Argentinos, San Lorenzo took over their stadium and turned into a local match. Videos proved better descriptions:

Obviously people showed up with those thousands of balloons from facebook. Arriving just minutes before, I had climbed up where I saw space... which happened to be just above the banners of La Gloriosa Butteler. Perfect right in the centre of the hinchada and a decent view from above the goal. The popping of the thousands of balloons created a rippling of fire-work like pops; and my ears were ringing from the intensity of the singing. Incredible. 5 minutes passed as in seconds. And I got my first chance to really feel how much the stands sway under the weight of thousands of people jumping up and down: a lot, it rivals an earthquake.

Everyone in Montevideo, particularly Peñarol supporters themselves, wanted to impress upon me how 'big' Peñarol is. Of course Peñarol is a historic club - they say the team of the 20th century, at the very least one of the biggest for the number of international tournaments they won particularly in the 1950-70s. And along with Nacional dominate Uruguay (the split is something like 40-40, leaving 20 percent for the rest of the clubs). What is immediately noticable is how much the 'colours' of the club matter, in Buenos Aires they wear the colours, but in Peñarol they ONLY wear the colours - a sea of black and yellow, old railway colours of the carboneros (coalmen).

Obviously Uruguayans aren't subjected to the restrictions of Porteño supporters. Everything, up to and including tiny explosive bombs, are welcome into the Centenario (an impressive stadium, despite its age, clearly a 'temple' for football). Peñarol doesn't need a huge banner to obstruct the view of its supporters... I lost a year of my life I think because of the yellow and black smoke and burnt gunpowder in the air. I'd give bonus points for the sparklers that were handed out by the hinchada - known as the Barra Amsterdam - that created thousands of little candles. Too bad the sun hadn't set yet for the full effect. The reception of players lasted so long that the kick off was barely visible. And this was just a Libertadores group stage match... imagine a final. Obviously the identity of Peñarol is rolled into its historic, but not recent, successes in Libertadores.

Visitor league matches in Buenos Aires are different sorts of matches. Obviously you need to forget the experience of fireworks and flares, which are rare but not absent because they need to be smuggled in. What San Lorenzo lacked in the spectacle, it made up in the raw expression of emotion:

Argentinos is a small barrio club and simply when they play a "grande" their hinchada becomes the visitors. But I've been told that what is happening right now for San Lorenzo is special and cannot be compared. Obviously the people feel the pressure of the ascenso, the reaction of cuervos is to pour emotion from the back of a dumptruck into every stadium they go to. Unfortunately I was standing on the other side of a tall fence to the left in this video that separates 'popular' from 'platea' and didn't get to share in the full-force of the hinchada but no amount of cold rain and wind would have kept me waiting in the tunnels.

The Match
Lots of description leading up to the matches, the matches themselves!
San Lorenzo v Estudiantes was a must not lose match; that is how not-optimistic supporters had gotten. In reality it was a really need to win, but no one wanted to jinx even a tie after losing 4-1 to Lanús the week before.

That was exactly the image that flashed before everyone when San Lorenzo let in another easy goal in the first 45; I couldn't believe that the ball had slipped through Champagne's hands and left on the ground as a present for Estudiantes to be popped into the back of the net. Another match, another defeat, this was already written; the shoulders of the players dropped and I was afraid of having to watch 45 minutes of heartless play.

That was not going to be, something finally has changed (I hope!?) for San Lorenzo who came out of the dressing room with a new found determination. A bright spot has been the Uruguayan Bueno, who is constantly trying to communicate and lift players up around him, and Botinelli has secured his position as captain from the back line with a similar attitude. San Lorenzo pressured and pressured, finally being rewarded with a clear foul in the box and a chance for a penalty. Earthquake in the tribunas - it certainly feels safer to be jumping than standing still, at least then you cannot feel everything moving below you. Up stepped Ortigoza, the singing dropped several decibles; rarely does a penalty in a league match create so much tension, but the importance of this penalty could not be understated. San Lorenzo NEEDED at least a point, another loss would not only be bad for the team's average but would wipe out any hope. At the moment a penalty goal was the only solution to a misfiring attack. I don't think I even registered the ball going into the back of the net; I only understood that the Nuevo Gasómetro just exploded into the deep rumble of tens of thousands of people in unison hitting the letter 'o' at the top of their lungs. The whole three minutes here. "Estamos de la cabeza... yo quiero a la banda de fiesta... tanto sentimiento tanto carnaval nos hizo gloriosa por la eternidad."

San Lorenzo continued to pressure Estudiantes, reduced to 10 men, but couldn't find the winner. A tie, however, was a almost a win and for the hinchada I think some optimism had returned, San Lorenzo could respond to being behind and could turn up their game. "Dale dale matador!"Goals are here.

Peñarol v Atlético Nacional, on the other hand, was a disaster. 4-0. Not much to be said about how Peñarol played - they played a high attacking game but couldn't control the midfield and were left bobbling the ball forward to strikers who were not that interested in winning back the ball. Nacional scored almost routinely on the counter attack, sending balls from the midfield that cut up the defence of Peñarol. What shocked the Argentines, who I went to the match with, was how the hinchada of Peñarol had responded. I've been biased by el Ciclón (anthropologist debate about 'neutrality' and 'going native' is going to be a theme), I've seen them lose 4-1 in Lanús and respond with unrelenting "love", I've also participated in sharing parts of that emotion. I don't feel much for Peñarol; so for me, despite everyone else saying "que hinchada! viste!?!" mehh.. but really the response of the hinchada, as hundreds of 'cold hearts' streamed out of the stadium, should be marked as impressive. Unfortunately there is not a good video showing the hinchada at full voice, while losing 4-0, but nevertheless I could only imagine what social movements could do with this type of support when they are losing.

For the match against Argentinos, I had transformed into a complete superstitious supporter, and donned my 'lucky' Canadian Voyageurs supporter shirt (and was wearing white shorts... I wonder how many people thought I had wandered on to the wrong side of the stadium in those colours?). I'm going to be much worse now because it worked. I've finally seen San Lorenzo go ahead in a match (after only six matches...). San Lorenzo had carried the intensity of the last 45 minutes against Estudiantes into this match, and despite playing without their best midfielder Ortigoza (out because of his collection of five yellow cards), were creating chances. Controversially Madelón, San Lorenzo's manager, had elected to start young academy star Nahuel Benítez in place of also suspended Salgueiro ahead of veteran Romeo. The decision was rewarded with the best prize: the winning goal.

Bueno was sent chasing a ball that perfectly split Argentinos defence and put him one-on-one with the keeper, who came charging out and threw his body at the ball. While I was clamouring for a hand-ball against the Argentinos keeper who had clearly left the box, I missed Benítez putting the louse ball into the back of the net. I don't know if it was because it was a new experience for me - to see San Lorenzo winning - or I was still stuck on the hand-ball; but it once again took a moment to realize I was shouting GOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLL with the 5000 or 6000 visiting San Lorenzo supporters. San Lorenzo had scored a cup winning goal, or at least we acted like the did:

San Lorenzo kept the pressure on throughout the rest of the match looking for a second; but no one seemed to be capable of figuring out the location of the net. Bueno, in particular, sent the ball wide on a few 'sure goals'. The many wasted chances resulted in a very tense final 15 minutes. I expected to find the match tied every time the ball crossed into the San Lorenzo half. For me one of the beautiful agonies of Argentine stadiums is that they rarely display the match time anywhere, and as I'm without a watch, I live in oblivion of time. 45 minutes pass according to the rhythm of the match, each second can be drawn out to ten or five minutes can pass in the blink of an eye. My only sense that we were close was when the intensity of the hinchada's singing picked up. My acoustic submersion into the "olé, olé, olé, olé ola! cada día te quiero más" was so deep that you could almost literally taste the impending victory; but tense seconds passed with the possibility of another bitter finish for San Lorenzo.

The final whistle just happened; for me it was if the referee was blowing all the tension out of the stadium. For once I could cheer the players of el ciclon off the field as victors.

Streaming out of the match, the thousands of supporters joyously sang down the streets of Paternal, into the micros, cars, and colectivos. The words "te juro que en las mala momentos, siempre te voy a acompañar" took the tone of vindication that this hinchada does not lie: it will go support you through all of the bad times to get to moments like this. Dozens of blocks away from the stadium you could hear horns bleeping down streets of Buenos Aires. San Lorenzo had just won the championship! Or in reality, their first win of the 2012 clausura and el Ciclón still remains in the bottom four of the promoción. But at least now there is proof that the next 16 matches can end in a victory.

This Sunday is the big 'clasico' between San Lorenzo and Boca, the only "grandes" from the capital to play in the clausura this year. Boca is often called the 'hijo' or son of San lorenzo because of several historic and unpredictable victories for the azulgrana. Given the history between the two clubs, I've heard this clasico described as the most important match for both teams: if San Lorenzo wins, they likely have the team to escape promoción. If Boca wins, they likely have the team to win the 2012 clausura. It is a bit early in the season for such predictions, but with River in the B, San Lorenzo-Boca is the biggest game in Argentina.

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