Football, Futbol , Futebol: Travels Around a few Football stadia in Buenos Aires , Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro. February 2009. By Paul Whitaker.
“Two English football supporters, twelve days, three South American countries, seven football matches, eleven stadiums and one Diego Maradona tour”.
Walking up Wembley Way with my mate and fellow England supporter Glenn Hinch, prior to the 2007 European championship qualifier match between England and Estonia, I did not know this would be my last England match attended as a supporter. After 15 years following ‘Ingerland’ to two World Cups, two European championships, Athens, Baku, Glasgow, Warsaw and many more European cities between, I was to sit through just another 60 minutes before coming to the conclusion that my match day experience on and off the pitch with England, was no longer an enjoyable one.
At first I thought I was just going through a sort of football-supporting mid-life crisis that seemed to afflict each generation of my family. My grandfather had apparently bemoaned England getting a footballing lesson from Puskas’ Hungary in 1953 and my father still gets misty eyed over Gunter Netzer’s Germany or Johan Cruyff’s Holland, rather than Kevin Keegan’s England in the 1970s. I thought the late, great Bobby Robson had the best teams and chances to reach a World Cup final, but was thwarted by the Argentinians and Germans in 1986 and 1990 respectively. OK, perhaps that was just misplaced nostalgia, but I was struggling to understand why English football had not moved on since Italia’90. Whilst German, French and Italian supporters had all watched their national teams lift the World Cup in recent years, I was watching the England team of 2007 put in yet another ‘laboured’ performance, this time against a poor Estonia team. We had the full repertoire of English fallibility on display, including poor movement off the ball, losing concentration in defence and my particular favourite, an inability to retain possession of the ball.
Now, bear in mind it was 15 years since the formation of the Premier League (best league in the world so Sky keep telling me!’), whose central aim was improve the technical skills of home grown players and so help the England national team compete more effectively against the French, Germans, Dutch and Italians. Yet, at a time when there has never been so much money in the English game, the pool of technically competent players, eligible to wear an England shirt, was actually diminishing and England seemed destined to continue being tournament quarter-finalists, at best. If that was not depressing enough, the 2007 ‘Golden Generation’ of players were showing that their loyalties were to the Premier League (best league in the world, remember) and club football, rather than the FA and England. They seemed as motivated to play in an England shirt as I was to part with £30 for a cheap seat in the upper tier “just for Estonia”, £5 for a match programme, £5 pound for a pint and £4.50 for a pie.
Events off the Wembley pitch had darkened my mood even further. I watched as stewards ordered the more passionate supporters in our section to sit down and stop rallying the quieter supporters around them into song. The same loud tannoy music that had drowned out any atmosphere before kick-off was also played after each of the three England goals for what I can only assume was to compensate for the lack of match atmosphere, a result in part of the actions of stewards telling supporters to sit down.
When England kicked off for the second half, I surveyed the huge swathes of empty corporate seats in the ‘circle of indifference’ section of the Wembley stadium. I could only conclude their occupants were still inside finishing their desserts of organic biscuit crushed on an expensive bed of strawberry mousse’. The final straw was the sight of a young man entering our section of the stadium, seeking out his seat for the match. A few designer shopping bags in each hand told us where he had spent the first half of an England European Championship qualifying match. This was not how English football should be played or supported.
What could I do though? In the short term, the only option was to vote with my feet and take a sabbatical from watching England matches. In the long term, I needed to rediscover my football-supporting ‘mojo’. There had to be a place in the world seemingly unspoilt by the levels of commercialisation that was afflicting English football. Somewhere, say, where I could pay a ridiculously cheap price to stand on football terrace, amongst a passionate group of supporters and be entertained not only by their choreography off the pitch, but by players on the pitch who could do more than simply retain possession of the ball. Did such a football utopia exist? Thankfully, the answer was yes and that place was South America, or more specifically: Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
As another England move broke down in the Estonia half of the pitch, I stood up, turned to Glenn and sombrely announced “B#gger this, I’m off before the Mexican wave starts”.
“Where are you going?” replied Glenn.
“South America. Are you coming?” For the first and probably the last time ever, we left a football match early.
Planning for our “Big Football Trip” began with two weeks being pencilled in for February 2009, when we knew that league and Copa Libertadores (South American version of the Champions League) matches were being played in all three countries. Pennies were saved, girlfriends were told and flights were then booked from UK to Buenos Aires and on to Rio de Janeiro. Finally, backpacks were retrieved from attics and security belts were filled with passports, credit cards and American dollars (the unofficial common currency of South America). We then prayed nightly to the fixtures God, to look kindly upon our forthcoming jollies and deliver us matches to some of the most famous football clubs and iconic stadia in South America.
Our twelve days of ‘football therapy’ began and ended in arguably the best footballing city in the world: Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here we watched five matches at Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors in a Primera Division match and a Copa Libertadores match, Racing Club and River Plate. A pilgrimage to a litter strewn football pitch in Buenos Aires’ Villa Fiorito slum, where a boy called Diego Armando Maradona kicked his first football . A look inside Diego’s first professional club Argentinos Juniors and the club Diego has always supported Boca Juniors, just had to be on our itinerary. Yes I know I am English and yes I was f#cked off with Diego for “Hand of God” goal, but I also appreciate good football. YouTube him at his best at Napoli and you will see why I think Diego Maradona is the greatest footballer for my generation.
A ferry ride across the Rio Plata from Buenos Aires is Montevideo, where we visited the iconic Centenario stadium to watch the Uruguayan championship play-off match between Nacional and Danubio. Finally, three hours flight from Argentina was Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s most famous football club, Flamengo, played Resende in a Rio state championship fixture at Brazil’s most famous stadium, the Maracana.
Although seven matches and eleven stadiums in three countries is plainly inadequate to do justice to South American football, it was enough to help these two Englishmen find their football supporting ‘mojo’. We returned to England with a renewed love for the game and an acceptance that not only will the England national team ever reach the latter stages of a major tournament, but that the English Premiership is not the best league in the world.
I no longer watch or am concerned England matches or the accompanying media circus until tournament finals and am happy if England get past the group stages. I also now travel regularly to watch football in Germany, where I can stand on a football terrace cheaply (for around €15/£13), amongst a passionate group of supporters and be entertained not only by their choreography off the pitch, but by German players on the pitch who can do more than simply retain possession of the ball. The Germans even share the Argentinian passion for pre-match sausage snacking (choripan/bratwurst) and mullet haircuts.
Finally we decided to put finger to keyboard and write “Football, Futbol , Futebol: Travels Around a few Football stadia in Buenos Aires , Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro” . Partly to give others a snapshot of the joy we had watching football in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro. Partly to find solace in rereading, just in case we begin to find ourselves worrying about whether Liverpool will ever win a title again, question why Robbie Savage is employed as a football television pundit or the biannual post mortem on why England failed in another major tournament. Yes “Football, Futbol , Futebol” is essentially a holiday photo album, but it is also 236 therapeutic pages about some of the biggest south American football clubs, their club histories, their supporter culture, locations of iconic stadiums we visited, how we bought match tickets, some useful vocabulary and all interspersed with 268 photographs of the cities, stadiums, supporters and matches.
The book can be purchased here.