“Jugadores, jugadores hoy vinimos a alentar. San Lorenzo es de primera y de primera no se va!” We are singing again but to a much smaller audience of people riding a Buenos Aires bus. An older lady at the back of the bus sparked our latest outburst after she began an older San Lorenzo song when she saw our blue and red colours get on the bus. As soon as we finished one song, some one would start the next one and we kept singing. The San Lorenzcista clapped along while grinning and ignoring her husband who kept saying “and Nuevo Chicago too!” every time she said “vamos cuervos!” Normally, despite being dressed in the uniforms of an hincha of San Lorenzo, my friends are reserved on the streets of Buenos Aires; keeping the terrace culture to the stadium. I also usually pay more attention to how 'the public' reacts to the sight of our group of hinchas but in this moment I didn't care – we laughed and sang the whole ride. Three hours after the match our emotional high had yet to fade: San Lorenzo defeated San Martin of San Juan 3-1 and passed a defeated Banfield to escape direct relegation. We were celebrating being in the “promoción” as if we'd seen the players lift the league cup, which incidentally went to Arsenal de Sarandí on the same night.
Our happiness came from a release of weeks worth of compounding anxiety. Relegation to the B is meaningful for hinchas and has a huge emotional impact on their day-to-day lives. It is nearly three hours before the match and we are sitting in the back of the van to go to the stadium. We compared how much sleep each of us has had leading up to the match. One of the girls in the group woken each hour that morning. Worse, during the whole week she had been unable to focus on her university readings despite facing an exam the next morning morning. I could only sympathize from previous experiences.
A few of us had purposefully woken with the sun that morning; I'd already been up for five hours already when we met at 12:30. I was in a group of five that drove an hour to the Catholic pilgrimage site of Luján to visit the icon of the Virgin Mary. Normally pilgrims will walk 18 hours on foot from Buenos Aires, as one in our group had done twice in his life. That morning, five hundred other cuervos had also made a similar journey in vehicles. All praying for a victory. Within the morning mass the red and blue jerseys of San Lorenzo were obvious and well represented. Within the crowds the only other football shirt that I could see, and in much fewer numbers, belonged to River Plate, champions of the B the day before. “They are here to fulfill their promise to the virgin” someone half-joked.
|Cuervos entering the Basilica|
Religion and football are often very closely related; underneath my San Lorenzo jersey I wore a Maradona tee-shirt with the words “La mano de dios” - the (in)famous hand of god. We arrived to catch the end of the mass and as we walked around the periphery my friends commented “It's impressive this church, no?” The basilica built early in the 20th century in the gothic style is large, but it has nothing on a football stadium. And then we stopped – each of us taking our own moment of silence. My friend and normally our driver to matches was with us and was the first to step out of the basilica, later saying “I couldn't be there too long, I had to leave, it was too emotional.” I soon followed after him. On the plaza in front several stalls are setup to sell various religious items: candles, pendents, key chains, and other small icons. At one of the stalls closest to the entrance of the basilica, the ordinary religious paraphernalia shared space appropriately with the icons of several Argentine clubs. You could buy key chains with the crest of your favourite club with the Virgin Mary etched on the other side or prayer bracelets in your team's colours.
|For all your match prayer needs.|
When we were back in Buenos Aires, one from the group who didn't go asked me if I had prayed for a victory for San Lorenzo from the Virgin. I lied and said “of course” - I am not Catholic or a Christian in faith, so I could not honestly pray. Even more, however, my thoughts inside the basilica were not on San Lorenzo's looming match. In a very round-a-about manner, my research with football fans is in part owed to my oma. My oma (German grandmother) was a devote Catholic and along with her delicious cooking was one of her defining qualities for me; religious spaces and Catholic churches most of all spark deep memories of her. The first match that ever brought tears to my eyes – and possibly the first moment I understood that sport can create powerful emotion's was Germany's loss to Croatia in the 1996 World Cup. As I child growing up, when we visited my German grandparents on Sunday I would always wear a football jersey, thinking that the collar made them dress shirts. My oma would always smile and tell me how she liked to watch games on the television. Last Sunday is not the first time before a San Lorenzo match that I have gone to a church and thought of my oma; each time has been followed by a victory. On our return trip in the car I was told “if San Lorenzo is saved from relegation, we all have to walk to Luján”. Despite my lack of religion or serious belief – whatever that phrase actually means – in lucky charms or penances, it's a promise worth keeping.
|Half of the line.|
Arriving at the stadium, it was clear that today was not going to be a normal match. A full two hours before the match the street was streaming with cuervos and outside of the gate to the popular section, a line stretched hundreds of meters to the edge of the property before doubling back onto itself. Half of our group split off to go to seats in the Platea Sur, including my friend who recently suffered heart problems. Inside and on the terraces space was rapidly becoming sparse and that was before the hundreds of hinchas with the barra brava and banda of the Gloriosa Butteler entered. The 40 000 plus crowd forced the police to open up the closed off pulmones (lungs), space between supporters groups, in the Platea Sur, to accommodate many socios unable to enter the popular just before the start of the match. With the entrance of San Lorenzo the stadium exploded into roaring song “y dale dale matadores ... vamos vamos San Lorenzo en las buenas y las malas hasta la fin” - everywhere people were on their feet. San Martín is a small club from a distant city. Their hinchada of hundreds who travelled a great distance but would only be heard once in the whole match. My space on the terrace was shared with two other people – something that I am only accustomed to during away matches.
|The entrance of San Lorenzo.|
And then silence. San Martín scored, Buffarini playing out of position as a wing-back had been beaten on the outside creating an opening for a pass into the middle and a strong strike on net. “La Banda” as San Martín's hinchada were the only people making any noise, but it was drowned out by the silence of 100 times more. I couldn't bare to register how others around me were reacting and my memory of the moment has been partly washed away, but I'm sure many many people had tears in their eyes and faces turned to fear of an inevitable and horrible outcome. I cannot truthfully say how I felt, but in retrospect, I feel that I wanted to stand by my earlier comments – with most of the match yet to play, there was no sense of giving up. And I was relieved when the deep base drums began to beat out a rhythm and the symbols crashed with an urgency to end the silence. Members of the barra brava standing on the avalanche bars whipped tears out of their eyes and began to urge people to sing, “DALE!” and waving their arms in their air; it is these moments that the barra brava claim their place in the stadium. I do not know how much influence they directly have – as it felt as if the urge of the hinchada to sing through the pain grew and grew within each hincha till we collectively reached the volume where we had previously been.
It's only after the match that I realized how short it was for San Lorenzo to find a response: the 2 minutes felt like a full-half of suffering. Carlos Buenos' goal at the 28 continues to cause controversy - was it offside? Did he knock the ball out of the keeper's firm grasp? I leave those opinions to football academics and biased journalists to argue – from the stadium there first shouts of goal had to be punctuated with a question mark as we looked towards the lowered flag of the linesmen and then towards the referee, encircled by San Martin players – Bogado received a red card. The on-the-field reactions lifted the stadium into a raucous collective embrace. I don't really know how, but I found myself a step or two up on the terrace after the goal. In the other matches, Godoy Cruz began to collapse to Rafaela but this didn't matter as we had heard that Colon had found the back of the net twice more. Reports of violence in Banfield led to speculation that a suspended match would result in a loss of points. Now playing a man-up, it was up to San Lorenzo to do something they rarely manage to do: win.
The second half started with San Lorenzo pushing up the field but were unable to find any inspiration from their strikers. Gigliotti feeling the pressure had found himself in several clear goal scoring chances only to put the ball into the arms of the keeper or on the wrong side of the uprights. Quite appropriately, therefore, San Lorenzo took the lead 10 minutes into the second by the most unlikely hero on the pitch: 21 year-old without a contract or even a wikipedia page, Walter Kannemann. Left unmarked at the far post, Kannemann headed Romagnoli's corner down and with pace. The right back who has found inspiration in the moments of San Lorenzo's desperation collapsed to his knees and was surrounded by his teammates; on the terraces we collapsed on top of each other.
San Lorenzo started to fall back after scoring, leading to nervous moments. I've become accustomed to late goals against as a Toronto FC supporter. I have started to feel that they are an inevitable part of the game. But the open play of San Martin, searching for the tying goal while playing a man-down, created the chance for Los Matadores' talisman Romagnoli to lead a counter-attack from the half-way mark. Carrying the ball forward, he drew the retreating defence before finding Carlos Bueno at full tilt with an across the box pass. With little time to think Bueno struck with his first touch and put the ball in the back of the net. We knew that San Lorenzo had won and it was Pipi Romagnoli, after leaving everything on the field, who had set up the goal. We sang “OLE OLE! PIPI! PIPI!” before the stadium reverberated with the hinchada's song: “Jugadores, jugadores hoy vinimos a alentar. ¡San Lorenzo es de primera y de primera no se va!”. The final whistle came with the terraces literally bouncing under the weight of the hinchada singing their own glory: “... a tanta locura no hay explicación, si yo de pendejo estoy junto a vos, tanto sentimiento tanto carvanal, NOS HIZO GLORIOSA POR LA ETERNIDAD!”
In the Bar San Lorenzo the day after I'm sitting at a table with three other cuervos – smiles of relief on their faces. Through the glass doors I can see the Carrefour where the Viejo Gasómetro once stood, the view obscured by a painted CASLA shield on the window. Most patrons of the Bar San Lorenzo grew up in the heart of Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro below the wooden terraces of the Viejo Gasómetro. Only one of my three lunch companions made it to the stadium last Sunday. “My heart cannot take it. My señora wont let me go to the stadium anymore,” Lucas explained, “Still, just around the corner, on the third goal you should have heard everyone yelling 'GOOOLLL!'” It reminded me how many more fanatics have suffered through the television or radio during this championship. Another cuervo later commented that they haven't even been able to watch live any of the matches this year.
“The worst six years of my life” the owner said from behind the bar. The suffering is not over yet; behind the smiles the nerves are still rattling. Román, another cuervo at my table, is jumping up once again to respond to the jokes coming from another table; this is probably one of the few places where a bostero of Boca, a gallina of River Plate, and an hincha of Ferro will sit together out of necessity - though these friendships are decades old. “He just cannot keep still,” says Lucas. Distracted by his own retorts, Román sits down, and I ask who might play in Cordoba.
But talk of the next two matches feels like a betrayal of the positive moment. Everyone knows that San Lorenzo does not have the reserves and those on the field have been far from the best. “The only player in the last ten years who is of any value is over there” comments one of the regulars pointing to the pictures of “Pipi” Romagnoli on the fridge. Though it was impossible to tell last Sunday, Pipi has suffered through the whole campaign with chronic pains in his knee and ankle. Yet once again before Sunday's match he was demanding to start. Already a club legend, Romagnoli has no replacement on San Lorenzo's bench. Every match the crowd's admiration of his skilled efforts grows but there is an anxious fear – repeated everywhere in the press – that at any moment the pain will become too great and his legs will refuse to work. Manager Caruso has faced criticism for keeping Romagnoli on the bench till the final twenty minutes in a few of San Lorenzo's more critical matches, which is a possibility for the first match in Cordoba.
On the positive side, Instituto is entering the play-off after falling off the top of the table of Primera B and a loss at home in their final match. And there is a confidence around San Lorenzo; the resignation I had felt in the previous week has gone away. Clawing their way out of direct relegation has lifted the hincha's spirits and increased their faith in their own ability to carry forward their club through this difficult time. For next Thursday's match in Cordoba, a tie would put San Lorenzo in a commanding position, while a one goal loss is not seen as insurmountable as any tie on goals is resolved in favour of the team from the Primera. I'm sorting out arrangements to be in Cordoba on Thursday and next Sunday another 40 000 plus crowd wearing azulgrana will be present. For now, San Lorenzo is still singing in the Primera, “Vengo de barrio de Boedo, barrio de murga y carnival. Te juro en los malos momentos, siempre te voy a acompañar!”