I like soccer as much as the next guy—assuming the next guy is North American, not South American, that is. But like any good tourist, when I found myself in Buenos Aires on June 15, the day Argentina played its first World Cup match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, I seized the opportunity for a cultural experience.
Watching the game on a big screen in Plaza San Martín surrounded by thousands of baby blue-and-white clad fans, I learned pretty quickly that Messi was the messiah. It took embarrassingly longer for it to dawn on me that the gold, head-shaped thing that the guy next to me was pumping in the air was the World Cup trophy. Ah, yes. Right.
It didn’t really matter that I’d never watched a televised soccer match before in my life. As a kid, I’d played defense on a girls’ team for a few years, so I could recall the basic rules of the game. (I can’t say the same for American football, which I’ve never understood well enough—okay, at all--to sit through a game, even if it does involve chicken wings.)
What mattered was that I was in South America—and here, the World Cup was a Big Deal. Even if you didn’t know anything about it, you could tell by the Argentine team colours draped over every shop display, selling everything from dulce de leche cookies to leather boots to lingerie, that soccer, like sex, sells.
Then there were all the fast-food ads hawking burgers with buns dimpled like soccer balls. And the billboards all seemed to feature that same dude—the really average-looking one in the Number 10 jersey--smiling at Adidas shirts, electronics, and more.
So a few hours before Argentina’s first game of the series, I Googled “where to watch the World Cup in Buenos Aires”. The gods of Internet keywords pointed me to exactly what I was looking for: a fan zone organized by the municipal government less than a half-hour walk from my hotel in Recoleta. Sweet.
At the front desk of my guesthouse, I asked directions from the kind owner, who looked a lot like Gérard Depardieu but spoke absolutely no French and, more troubling, very little English. He drew a neat line on my map to Plaza San Martín. Then, I asked him if it was safe to watch the game there or if I should be worried about rioting soccer fans. (That’s what happens at soccer games, right?) Since I speak no Spanish, the conversation went something like this.
Me: “Futball. Plaza San Martín. Okay? Safe?”
Depardieu: [furrowed brow] “Mmm. Maybe. Yes.” He pointed to my tote bag. Then he walked around from behind the front desk and motioned for me to give it to him.
Me: “Leave it here?”
Depardieu: “No.” He motioned again for me to give the bag to him.
Confused, I handed him the bag. He looped the straps over my head like he was awarding me an Olympic medal. Arranging the bag so it hung like a necklace over my torso, he then gently wrapped both my arms around it like I was clutching a bulletproof vest.
Ah! Of course: the international sign for “hold on to your valuables.”
Rather than walk around with a tote bag swinging over my stomach, I tucked my wallet away in my jacket and left the bag in my room. Thirty minutes later, I was at Plaza St. Martin, soaking up the pre-game energy.
It was a happy, optimistic crowd; the family-friendly atmosphere included kids playing futball on the pavement and families lounging on blankets on the grass. Almost everyone was sporting the national colours, even if it was just a flag painted on a cheek or a horn. I considered purchasing a jersey (again that Number 10) from one of the street vendors, but figured I’d never wear it again.
As the clock ticked closer to the 7 p.m. game time, the cheering, whistling, honking, drum-banging, and flag waving increased. It was now standing room only, and the sea parted only for a news crew filming through it. A cheer went up when the big screen opened with an image of the Argentine team entering Estádio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. When the broadcast cut to a crowd gathered in Buenos Aires to watch the game, the cheer broke into a roar as the crowd collectively realized, “That’s us! We’re really here!”
It was indeed a thrill to be part of all of that positive energy, watching the World Cup live in South America among fans who really love the game. And when Argentina scored its first goal against Bosnia in the first three minutes, I jumped up and down along with everyone else.
But then half an hour later, as the players were still kicking the ball around with no further action, and my mind started to wander. I had to leave Buenos Aires at 5 a.m. the next day, and still needed to pack. So I deemed my cultural experience complete, and at half time, I squeezed my way through the fan zone and back into the empty streets. I walked back to the hotel with nary a car or person in my path, and watched the rest of the game on TV in my room while gathering my belongings.
But when I returned back home to Vancouver, I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the World Cup coverage on TV. All those enthusiastic South American fans! And the North American media seemed just as enthralled by Lionel Messi as the fans in Buenos Aires.
Gradually, I started to really watch the matches. All that fast-paced action! All that national drama! Suddenly the game seemed like more than just a sporting event. I started to PVR all Argentina’s games, and warned my colleagues not to spoil the results before I could get home to watch. Over the course of three weeks, a came to realize that Messi really was ridiculously good at dribbling that ball, and more than once I found myself screaming “GO MESSI!” alone in my living room.
Now that Argentina is in the final, I’m genuinely excited for the game on Sunday. Really, it’s all about having somebody to root for. I’ll be watching Messi for breakaways, but just as much, I’ll be watching for glimpses of the fans cheering at Plaza San Martín in Buenos Aires. And this time, I won’t be wandering off at half time.
Now, I wish I’d bought that Number 10 jersey. Or, at the very least, one of the gold, head-shaped things to put on my coffee table.