The Brazilians famously dubbed it “the beautiful game” (el jogo bonito). It’s the world’s most popular diversion, and it’s played, watched and followed by millions of people.

However, what is known as soccer in the US, fútbol in Latin America and calcioin Italy, is far more than just a sport in Argentina. It represents something deeper here. In a country where change is constant and there’s a palpable fear of instability, fútbol is the one thing that remains the same. Its simplicity is part of its attraction. All you need is a ball, two goals, a few players, and a flat surface.

In Buenos Aires, fútbol is followed like a religion
. The city has more professional teams, 24, than any other city in the world. Teams represent neighborhoods rather than cities, and although not mutually exclusive, fan bases are built around where you grew up rather than where you currently live. Often times, it’s hereditary, you root for who your dad rooted for.

If you’ve never lived in a fútbol/soccer-crazed country, the level of fanaticism in Buenos Aires can sometimes be confusing or downright shocking, even for the most avid sports fan. Stadiums are known for flare bombs, singing, taunting, and even the occasional clash with local police. It’s all part of the passionate package that makes fútbol an important part of the culture. If you want to go to a pro match, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

The Teams

Now, with 24 pro teams in a city, it may seem like an overwhelmingly hard task to pick which team to go see. But there are five or six teams in Buenos Aires that are considered the top teams: La Boca, River Plate, Independiente, San Lorenzo and Velez Sarsfield. Any of these teams is worthwhile to see. A match between the fierce rivals Boca and River is called a superclásico.

Use these factors while determining what match you want to see and where: 1) Are they playing at home or away? 2) Is the neighborhood close to me, and safe enough to go to? 3) Are they competitive and will I have a good time? If it makes sense to you, go for it. If this seems a bit too complicated, here are a few recommended teams and games that are more convenient for the short term traveler.

boca juniors argentinaBoca Juniors: Boca Juniors are the nation’s most popular athletic team, bar none. They’re best known for Diego Maradona, one of Argentina’s most recognizable people, who played for the team in the early 1980’s. Boca t-shirts are everywhere in the city, and the stadium is famous for feeling like it moves when the fans jump. You can take a cab (recommended) to the stadium in the La Boca neighborhood, and it’s very close to downtown. Also, the very popular Caminito district is a few blocks from the stadium, and is a great place to catch a tango show and grab a bite to eat. Boca’s biggest rival is River Plate, and their matches are considered to be the top rivalry games in South America. The area around La Boca can be iffy, so keep your wits about you.

river plate argentinaRiver Plate: Where Boca represents the team of the common-man (due to the legend of Maradonna and the La Boca neighborhood), River Plate is considered the team of the upper-middle class. Though this is not always true, the reputation makes for great competition and animosity between each team’s fans. River Plate plays in the Nuñez section of Buenos Aires. This is by far the safest place to see a game, and the neighborhood itself is worth checking out. Nearby is Belgrano, another nice area, with shopping, restaurants and movie theaters. River Plate stadium is the city’s largest and cleanest, and can be reached by many buses or taxi fairly easily.

independiente agrentinaIndependiente: Club Atletico Independiente (C.A.I) is better known by its fans as “Los Diablos Rojos,” or “The Red Devils,” the team’s unofficial mascot. Almost every fan wears red to the games, and some even dress in halloween-esque devil horns and capes. The team has a famous support group, aptly named “Los Diablos Rojos,” who make a grand entrance (around 500 people) into the stands carrying red umbrellas while singing and dancing. This is a must-see, and it drives the crowd wild for the opening kick-off of the match. Independiente’s stadium is being remodeled, so the team currently plays in the adjacent Racing Stadium. Both stadiums are in Avellaneda, a suburb in southeast Buenos Aires which is fairly accessible, though further than both Boca and River Plate. Independiente is a great team to see but be aware that the stadium is near a villa, as shanty towns are called. It is not a place to take wrong turns or wander around looking clueless. If you can, go with your Argentine friends to this stadium.

Velez Sarsfield: If you are living or staying in the barrios of Caballito, Villa de Voto or Liniers, this is a safe and fun place to see a fútbol match. Although Velez fans may not be so feverous, it still a good time.

Other teams to keep on your radar: San Lorenzo, Huracán and Lanus.

To see a fixture of the Argentine futbol tournament fo to the Argentine Futbol Asociation (A.F.A.) website.

Getting Tickets

Before entering the stadium, put your money in a safe place, don’t carry bags or purses if avoidable, and if you bring your camera try not to show it off or hang it by the neck, but keep it in your pocket. Inside a professional Argentine soccer stadium is like nothing you’ll see in the US or most of Western Europe. The field is surrounded by an 8 to 12 foot moat, with a short barbed-wire fence on the perimeter. This is to keep you from running onto the field.

The stands are usually divided into two levels, upper and lower. Upper level seats, called la platea are a bit more expensive ($25-$35 pesos), and lower level seats, las populares, are cheaper ($15-$18 pesos). If you’re looking for a rush, hit the lower level. This is where the wildest and most vocal fans sit. They sing and chant their way through the entire match, using props, signs, flare bombs, and confetti to illustrate their point. The upper level is a bit calmer, but don’t fret, there’s still the jumping and singing, just with a bit less fervor.

Tickets usually go on sale a couple of days before the game at the stadium, with the longest lines for the seats in the populares. If you get to the stadium on game day without a ticket and the seats are sold out, finding a ticket on the street to buy shouldn’t be very difficult. The price will likely be higher though, especially if it is obvious that you are a foreigner. An easier way to get a ticket without having to go to the stadium or wrangle with a scalper is to buy your ticket through a tourist agency, which will provide transport and a guide, or through Ticketek’s Website

  • Transportation: Games are usually held on weekend evenings, which make it easy to get to the game. If you take public transportation, avoid buses near stadiums. The buses are mobbed by fans before and after the games, and it’s impossibly crowded and noisy. They sing for the whole ride, hang out of the windows, and bang on the ceiling and walls. If you’ve got no where to go, this is extremely fun, but the driver often misses stops, and chances are you will be tossed around a bit by the jumping and dancing.
  • Neighborhoods: Depending on the team, some neighborhoods where the team plays can be a bit shady, or industrial. There is always a strong police presence in the few blocks surrounding the stadium, but don’t wander around looking for a local tour. Even in La Boca, the home of Boca Juniors, Argentina’s most popular team, you have to be careful where you’re walking and who you ask for directions. Caminito is nice, but outside of that area, be a bit more cautious.
  • Concessions (Beer): There are none. You may see a man or two wandering the upper decks with Coca-Cola in plastic cups with no ice or straws. You may also find the occasional make-shift grill with frozen “Paty” brand hamburgers. My advice is to eat before or after the match to avoid gastrointestinal problems later. Alcohol is strictly forbidden inside the stadium, so have those pints before coming in.
  • Police: Police officers are everywhere on game day, though not the usual street patrol you’d see downtown. Game police are the equivalent of riot police, so don’t be shocked if they come off as a bit rude or despondent. The fans typically have a bad relationship with the police, and there’s a palpable sense of animosity between both groups. They won’t act violent against you, but they also most likely want nothing to do with you. When the game ends, the police keep the home fans blocked into the stadium for 30 minutes as they escort the visiting fans back on buses. Be patient, this is done to avoid rioting and mass brawls outside of the stadium.
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