WORDS: DANIEL EDWARDS PHOTOGRAPHY: NACHO POY
After a desperate search for a ticket to the first Copa Argentina final, a 15-hour bus ride to San Juan, and a skinful of cheap alcohol, an English supporter of Racing Club was ready to see his once-great club end an 11-year wait for glory, yet the wait goes on for the country’s “most long-suffering fans”
For the long-suffering fans of Racing Club de Avellaneda, the chance to win silverware does not come along too often. At least, not since the club’s glory days in the 1960s, when La Academia were crowned at various points national champions, Copa Libertadores winners and, in 1967, the first-ever Argentine champions of the world, thanks to Intercontinental Cup victory over Celtic.
So, in August 2012, when the club were drawn to take on Boca Juniors in the inaugural Copa Argentina final and fight for their first title in 11 long years, expectations could not possibly have been higher.
Tickets were almost impossible to come by as the date drew nearer, despite the midweek scheduling and the not insignificant fact that the game was to be played on neutral ground in San Juan, 1100km away from Racing’s home in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The cheaper, standing-only popular sold out within a matter of days, while those in the platea – which offers a rear-numbing plastic seat and usually some respite from the elements – were all gone more than two weeks before kick-off. But there was no way that this game could be missed.
A tortuous combination of phone calls, bus trips around the city and called-in favours finally smoked out a ticket, and transport was provided by way of the subsidised buses laid on by the club’s supporters department. Although the Copa Argentina started back in the second half of 2011, thanks to the normal mix of apathy and confusion that seems to hit the country’s football, it was a full 11 months later before the two giants of local football played for the trophy introduced for the first time since 1970.
Expectations were high as we milled around the club headquarters in Avellaneda some 24 hours before the game was due to start, hopes that had little to do with objective reality. Just three days previously Racing’s Cilindro home dissolved into an atmosphere of muted groans punctuated by isolated insults as Luis Zubeldia’s men were held to a draw by Atletico Rafaela. Two missed penalties by debutant Jose Sand made the dropped points even more unbearable, but all that could be done was shrug the shoulders and say, once more, “This is Racing”. Of course though, Wednesday would be different.
The trip to San Juan, all 15 hours on a cramped, poorly ventilated coach that quickly filled with cigarette and marijuana smoke, passed in a flash overnight as some 5,000 Racing fans made their way along the treacherous two-lane highways that connect Buenos Aires with the biggest provincial centres. The trip was no doubt eased by the ready availability of boxed wine, available from any supermarkets for the bargain price of around £0.50 per litre but which needs copious amounts of ice and Coca Cola to become anywhere near digestible. Songs from El Cilindro reverberated around the vehicle, accompanied by violent strikes on the upholstery that served as a perfect drum line for the chants which promised glory and success once the destination was reached.
After the evening’s festivities, it was with some reluctance that I finally opened my eyes to see the Andean sun in its full glory which signalled the arrival to San Juan. With several hours to kill until battle commenced, the coach pulled in to a camp site on the outskirts of town, which had already filled with the distinctive sky blue and white colours of Racing Club; the boys were in town. As were, to my delight, scores of familiar faces from trips past and present across the length and breadth of Argentina.
There I saw ‘Cubito’, a regular traveller with La Academia with whom I made acquaintance during a particularly unforgettable odyssey to Tucuman; in which a total of 20 minutes play in a torrential downpour was the reward for a journey of 18 hours, followed by a madcap dash through the city streets as play was called to a halt. The youngster had travelled in another bus with the boys from his hometown of Lanus: ‘Tito’, a wisp of a fan at about 5’3” who never strayed far from a beer bottle. ‘El Paraguayo’ (The Paraguayan), a kid of few words who was content to spend the afternoon splayed out on the grass, only rising to light up another cigarette. And Jonny, a bundle of energy and laughs who strutted across the site with a battery-powered boombox obtained from god-knows-where, blasting out Cumbia to whoever would listen and always on the lookout for more ice to keep the drinks flowing. All three were greeted with a strong embrace and a kiss on the cheek, a tradition which in Argentina is practised by even the most macho friends in a way that would horrify most English alpha males.
The afternoon passed with this hilarious trio, exchanging old war stories from matches past, giving expert opinions on the matches to come – “Racing are gonna win, man”, was the extent of the analysis – and generally enjoying a break from the interminable Buenos Aires winter. The tipple of choice was Fernet con Coca, the ubiquitous Argentine drink composed of the eponymous Italian digestif, with a South American twist of more Coca Cola and ice added to allow the consumption of copious quantities. In the background, the unmistakeable beats of Cumbia never faltered: frowned upon by the middle and upper classes of Argentine society, imagine the melodies of folk music accompanied by Gangsta Rap lyrics and one gains an idea of this much-maligned, but infuriatingly catchy, popular genre.
Already feeling hazy from an afternoon of beer and Fernet, I accepted with glee ‘Cubito’s’ offer to ride in their coach, standing, rather than face the ordeal of identifying the one which had taken me thus far. The lad was feeling sentimental with the emotion of the occasion, and gave me yet another glimpse of the overwhelming humanity and kindness I have experienced in this country in general, and within Racing in particular.
“Inglés (Englishman)”, he begins, using the tag which over the past three years has become both a blessing and a curse around the stadium. “You know I am always here for you, in this country you will never go without anything.
“If you are ever out on your ear, without a centavo to your name you know where I live. I might only have a plate of pasta, but I would give you half without a minute’s thought.” It was one of hundreds of similar conversations I have had with the fans of this wonderful institution, but it never stops touching me in an intense way.
A short, rowdy bus ride later and we were at San Juan’s Estadio Bicentenario, built for the Copa America in 2011 and one of the country’s most modern stadiums. Off we walked to the ground, still nursing two cartons of wine watered down with lemon juice and more stolen ice, but it was not to be all for the four. A shrine to the Virgen Maria de Guadeloupe adorned the side of the road just before the police controls, and one by one we moved closer to pay our respects to the figure. Each prayer was accompanied by the symbolic pouring of the sacred liquid in front of the shrine, before the last carton was left as our tribute, and an offering in return for guarantees our tortuous journey would not be in vain.
Unfortunately, not even the Virgen Maria could prevent us from intense disappointment on a balmy San Juan evening. Racing started brightly, but were dealt a hammer blow when former Fiorentina forward Santiago Silva was left criminally free on the counter and gleefully chipped a delightful effort past the stranded Saja in the Academia net. It was the beginning of the end; Lucas Viatri, who as a wayward youth was once arrested for the armed robbery of a hairdressers, this time stole the hopes of all fans with a smart close-range finish. Those of us in the Racing end knew that the game had slipped away; the desperation was summed up by a tough-looking supporter directly in front, who dissolved in a furious mix of tears and anger the very moment that the 2-0 scoreline was confirmed.
Young promise Valentin Viola gave the score some respectability with his own effort in a farewell to Racing fans before completing his transfer to Sporting Lisbon. But it was never going to be enough. Shoving and jostling with the rest of the stands, we moved out of the popular as soon as possible in order to avoid the imminent Boca celebrations. With spirits having plummeted through the floor the return trip was not one to savour; one cannot fault a fellow traveller who said, “I would give everything I own to take a plane back now.”
The journey back to Buenos Aires felt like it would never come to an end, literally so when in the capital’s suburb of Moreno the coach stopped to drop off a passenger and refused to start again. In the most bitter of coincidences, three coaches full of Boca fans passed by just as we had descended to push the stricken vehicle to the side of the road, and we were forced to absorb the cruellest of whistles and taunts from the joyous winners before, coach safely in the verge of the motorway, I wandered away to jump on the next city bus that would finally take me home.
Racing, then, were denied the honour of becoming the first champions of the Copa Argentina, and the 11-year trophy drought continues, as painful as ever. Having finally collapsed in my apartment after almost 48 hours of non-stop travelling and madness, I was full of desperate promises to my exhausted body. I’m never travelling again, I’m done with Racing. I will never darken the hallways of the stadium again with my presence. That’s it.
But of course, less than one day after my grave vows, tickets to the next Primera Division clash against Argentinos Juniors were already secured, more pesos out of the slender-looking account and another Sunday soon to be turned over to Racing. Because, even for El Inglés, the passion that brings a man to travel halfway across the country for a game of football; that brings one to take two days off work to see a team who at best were massive underdogs; that brings one to share personal space with 50 other men and the most basic of bathroom facilities, does not fade away so quickly.
It is almost a cliché in Argentina to simultaneously mock and admire the supporters of Racing Club. “The hinchada más sufrida” (The most long-suffering fans) is the tag we wear with pride, but no other can touch the Academia faithful for their willingness to suspend all sense and reality in order to follow their team every week without fail. The final defeat hit hard and would not be forgotten in the terraces, but come Sunday you can bet that the expectant masses would be present once more, searching ceaselessly for the joy that surely is just around the corner.