I’m sitting in the front passenger seat of a taxi in Buenos Aires and the burly driver is shouting at me in Spanish. Turning to my friend Alex, who’s sat in the back and speaks the language fluently, the look of mild panic on his face hardly helps ease my worries.
The driver continues, growing more intense and intimidating by the second, until he breaks into a grin and points to the badge on his shorts. Ah, of course. He’s a Boca Juniors fan, and we’re asking him to take us to El Monumental, home of their great rivals River Plate.
We all nervously laugh thinking that the tension has been alleviated. It hasn’t. Throughout the journey the driver keeps muttering under his breath about River, often punctuating the awkward gaps of silence by turning to me to aggressively shout something I don’t understand – I failed my Spanish oral exam at college because a) I spoke in a Yorkshire accent and b) I can’t speak Spanish. After each failed attempt he returns his glare to the road and a destination he detests.
Taxi journeys in Buenos Aires are already anxiety-inducing enough. The lanes of traffic outnumber the actual lanes painted onto the roads, while right of way seems to be decided by which driver wants it more.
Add to that the sensory overload of the smell of exhaust fumes, uncomfortable humidity and cacophony of beeping horns and it all equates to the similarly overwhelming sensation that led to me having to sit in a Pret for an hour to calm down after visiting New York’s Times Square with jetlag.
(Later in our trip, we return to Buenos Aires from the quiet, picturesque surroundings of Patagonia only to be immediately driven by a coked-up maniac who leaves us sat in a bar, clutching our drinks in terror until our heart rates eventually slow back down to normal.)
Eventually we begin to drive through a park in which everyone seems to be wearing River Plate shirts. We take our cue to jump out, at which point the drivers wishes us farewell by saying he hopes River lose. We politely thank him and quickly scarper off.
After passing through four or five security checks, we’re finally inside El Monumental. The stadium is essentially what you would come up with if you were asked to draw the ideal South American football ground; an imposing bowl with no roof, paint flaking off the walls, with a running track around the pitch that means the players enter the field through inflatable tunnels.
We’re sat in the top tier, meaning we have a view of the city’s skyline from the concourse and are so high up that the planes flying above the stadium feel a little too close for comfort.
Next to us is the ultras section, enclosed by metal fences topped with barbed wire. We’ve got to the ground early yet the ultras are already in place.
The songs soon start, all infectious rhythm and melody, while the fans shake their hands in the air to the beat like they’ve just been to the toilet but the dryer is broken.
In front of us, a group of younger lads yet to graduate to the ultras section arrive one by one to set up a flag, greeting each other with a customary kiss on the cheek. They’re all wearing River shirts, and a number have River tattoos to match. Ten minutes before kick-off, one lights a joint to ease any pre-match nerves.
This River Plate chant is – and I’m not overstating this – a certified banger pic.twitter.com/CtqFb51amc
— Wayne Farry (@waynefarry) July 31, 2019
At the time of the match River are still the reigning Copa Libertadores champions and are set to defend their title in two weeks against Brazil’s Flamengo (against whom they lose 2-1). Rosario Central are today’s opponents, languishing around mid-table and without any supporters in attendance – a legacy of the 2013 ban on away fans which has only been partially lifted. A win today will see River move to the top of the table.
The announcement of River’s line-up over the tannoy is met by huge cheers for each player, but there are ominous signs that the players to receive the biggest cheers, Juan Quintero and Ignacio Scocco, have been left on the bench.
By far the most rousing reception is saved for manager Marcelo Gallardo. Gallardo is the great managerial hope of Argentina. A player with River over three spells, he has been in charge for the last five years, winning two Libertadores titles to go along with eight more trophies.
“What Gallardo has done with River is incredible,” Pep Guardiola has told Argentine TV in the past. “Some things are inexplicable. Every year three coaches are named as the best in the world, and he’s never among them. I can’t understand it. It’s as if there’s nothing else in the world apart from Europe.”
Gallardo is widely expected to make the move to Europe sooner rather than later and has even been tipped to follow in Guardiola’s footsteps by taking over at Barcelona.
The allure of Europe is a major problem for football in Argentina, where anyone who displays a modicum of talent at a young age is snapped up. “Anybody who is in their 20s and is playing in the Argentinian league either is not very good or has some particular reason why they cannot travel,” Jonathan Wilson recently wrote in The Guardian.
And the evidence is soon there for us all to see. The game, to be frank, is awful. At one stage it feels like every second touch is a tackle.
River dominate the ball but rarely threaten, creating only half chances with their occasional sights of goal. Central are happy to sit back and soak up the pressure, but their lone striker is so painfully slow he barely reaches the edge of the area before being caught up after capitalising on a defensive mistake to find himself clean through on goal.
River’s winger Nicolas de la Cruz, without wanting to sound too harsh, is absolutely shite. At one point he controls the ball by the touchline only to then dribble it straight out of play in front of his manager. Gallardo responds by giving the Uruguayan two firm shoves in the back as if to try to wake him up.
At a latter point of our trip, in Rosario, we watch River beat Estudiantes in the Copa Argentina semi-final on TV and De la Cruz is equally rubbish, suggesting we didn’t just catch him on an off day.
Still, the rhythm of the songs continues, and even when the football disappoints, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than sit admiring such a grand arena transform into a living and breathing organism.
But then just a minute after the break, River attempt to play out from the back and a pass ricochets into the path of Central’s winger Lucas Gamba, who stabs the ball into the back of the net to complete silence.
The goal prompts Gallardo’s introduction of Quintero from the bench. The Colombia international is one of the few names we recognise, having played in Europe and appeared at two World Cups, and the No.10 offers hope of some guile and creativity amid the hustle and bustle of two teams frantically running into each other.
But the first time Quintero touches the ball he is immediately swatted away and dispossessed. As a result, he spends his half hour on the pitch dropping deep to orchestrate play, only to find himself too far away from goal to make a telling impact. When he eventually gets a sight of goal with a free-kick from the edge of the area, he fires the set-piece high and wide.
A couple of the lads re-light the joint and start to pass it around among themselves. River are going to lose. With our English cynicism, we can’t help but notice that nobody is leaving early. Rather than boos, the full-time whistle is instead met by yet another song, sang with more passion than at any other stage of the afternoon.
We leave the ground and trudge off back towards the city centre. Realising we have no idea where to get public transport from, we try to track down a taxi to no avail and accept we’re going to have to walk back in the searing heat.
I can’t help but think about the taxi driver who dropped us off just a few hours earlier. At least he’ll be happy now.
By Rob Conlon