Our man in Buenos Aires, Matt McGinn, sends his latest post from the Argentine capital. This time he’s at second tier Club Atlético Nueva Chicago, from the western suburbs.
Hernán’s aviator sunglasses could not hide his exhaustion as we shook hands beneath the late-morning sun in Mataderos, in the far west of Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires. He had good reason to be tired. Earlier that morning he had finished a night shift. He was running on empty.
Hernán had a good reason to be up and about. It was the day of El Superclásico del Ascenso. Nueva Chicago against All Boys, a fierce rivalry that simmers in the shadow of those played amongst the Big Five.
An Argentine football encyclopaedia/journalist/podcaster contact of mine and, crucially, an occasional drinking partner at the English-style pub Gibraltar in San Telmo, had put me in touch with Hernán. When I had mentioned to him that I was intending to go to the match, he suggested that it would be an intimidating fixture to attend alone.
The considerable queue to buy tickets (280 pesos – approximately £14) at the club’s boleteria (ticket office) in the centre of Parque Juan Bautista Alberdi was indicative of the occasion. Each Sunday, a renowned feria takes place nearby, as the gauchos come to the city and display their horsemanship. There is traditional food, artisanal products, and general revelry. If you are not in Argentina long enough to leave the city and explore gaucho culture, then the feria will bring it to you.
Hernán and his friend José Luis were impeccable hosts. Despite my protests, they insisted on paying for my ticket; a gesture for which they have both received a bottle of fernet in recognition. Despite what Quilmes may claim, fernet is the national drink.
A can of lager and a chorípan later, the pair were re-energised. The people of Mataderos are proud of their parrillas. It is a barrio of butchers. The name itself is a nod to this heritage, it translates as ‘slaughterhouses’.
We had to consume the pre-match tuck and tinnies several blocks from the stadium. To get any closer, we had to pass through the first of several police checkpoints. Nueva Chicago is a club with a severely negative reputation. When I told an Argentinian friend of my intention to go to the match, he winced. This reputation has crystallised following a match against Tigre in 2007, the second match of a two-legged relegation play-off.
The Nueva Chicago supporters reacted brutally to the club’s imminent relegation. They stormed the pitch, and stripped the Nueva Chicago players of their shirts. They then set upon the Tigre supporters. The violence spilled on to the streets after the match had finished. Tragically, a Tigre supporter was hit by a brick and killed. The following season, Chicago received a twenty-point deduction, and was banned from playing matches in Mataderos. Although the club has now returned home, its reputation remains extremely negative. Within this context, the meaning of Mataderos assumes a stomach-turning irony.
Hernán explained that the bus-loads of riot police were not a reaction to the strength of Chicago’s rivalry with All Boys. It was just a normal match-day.
Inside the ground, we settled on the terrace that runs along the side of the pitch. We basked in the midday sun. At the entrance to that section of the stadium, the supporters were bouncing around to the beat of the band like a swarm of black and green umbrellas and flags. As they lit a green smoke bomb, I realised that they were clustered next to the Nueva Chicago tennis club, which consisted of a trio of clay tennis courts. It seemed rather incongruous.
On the first step of the terrace, the barra had placed further canisters of artificial smoke at equidistant intervals. The acrid smell of the smoke filled the air as they made their way to their central position on the terrace, singing songs about the genitals of every mother in Floresta, the barrio that All Boys come from.
We were stood immediately to the left of the barra. As a result, we were in the heart of the atmosphere, but green and black flags, and men standing on the railings, obscured our view of the pitch. The intensity of the rivalry became apparent in the final minutes before kick off. In front of me, a young boy of about five was perched on his father’s shoulders. Father and son hurled abuse at the All Boy’s players in unison. To my right, a group of teenagers were sharing a spliff. It was clearly not their first of the day. One of them, ostensibly with a lower tolerance than his companions, was barely able to stand up. Yet he could still hurl the occasional, indiscriminate bellow of abuse towards the players clad in white shirts. The sheer ferocity of the partisanship was, perversely, quite impressive.
The noise and energy when the Chicago players emerged from the tunnel on the far side was spectacular.
As with many derbies, the match was rather cagey. Chicago controlled the early stages, and took the lead from the penalty spot. The scorer was 41-year-old Christian ‘Gomito’ Gómez, who began his first spell at Nueva Chicago in 1991.
At half time, we moved to the terrace behind the goal in order to gain a better view. The families of the All Boys players, the only ‘away fans’ permitted, occupied the stand to our left. The Chicago supporters goaded them gleefully, particularly after Alejandro Melo scored a late second goal on the break to put the result beyond doubt. A metal gate separated the two sections. As all twenty-two players piled in for the obligatory clásico brawl, two teenagers became overzealous. They took turns to run up and bombard the gate with flying kicks. They clearly sought to use the reputation of their fans, and the crashes of shoe on metal, to scare the cluster of family members. Their elders swiftly ticked them off.
The Nueva Chicago bench erupted as the referee blew the final whistle and pointed dramatically to the tunnel. The verdinegro players bounced up and down in a circle. The supporters were equally ecstatic. I was glad about the result, not just for Hernán and José Luis. Leading up to and during the match, I found it difficult to separate my first-hand experiences of Nueva Chicago from the pre-conceptions that I had held before the match. Personally, I had witnessed nothing but commendable vocal support. Yet I knew that some of the fans around me were capable of collective volatility. I didn’t want to find out whether an All Boys equaliser would nudge some across that line.
The Chicago supporters dispersed with that ostentatious spring-in-step that signals the recent acquisition of bragging rights. The neighbourhood was jubilant. As I parted ways with the bleary-eyed barmen and waited for a bus to take me east, several packed cars drove past, overflowing with insatiable Chicago fans banging on the roof and the outside of the doors.
Nueva Chicago had delivered, both on the pitch, and for me. I had wanted a clásico with colour, passion, and ferocious partisanship. But without feeling unsafe. That was precisely what I got.
How to get to Nueva Chicago
Mataderos is to the west of the centre of Buenos Aires, about an hour away by bus.
Use this ever-helpful tool to find your most convenient bus route: http://www.omnilineas.com.ar/buenos-aires/colectivos/
Expect to pay about 200 pesos (approximately £10) for a taxi from the centre to Mataderos. Pre-book a taxi back to the centre for after the game. I didn’t see any as I waited for the bus.