Sport Travel

HOW A FABLED FOOTBALL CLUB RECLAIMED ITS SACRED GROUND

“Cómo van?” What’s the score?

“Five to four, to the Ecuadorians,” says a severe-looking man with a sharp nose and looming forehead. Plugged into his radio, he is watching the San Lorenzo vs. Botafogo game in Buenos Aires and listening to another in Santiago — and he is nervous in both places.

“Mierda!” shouts back a squat, chunky youth. “That means we need another goal…or the Chileans need to score,” he adds hesitantly, unsure of his calculations. A series of nervous murmurs and anxious, half-answering nods from the people around him confirm his supposition. Content with the crowd’s approval, he smiles — and then, in a worried instant, returns to the desperation of his furious arm-waving and strained shouting.

“How much time left, Jaime?” someone else in the crowd asks the youth.

However, Jaime, who is now helicoptering his shirt around his head, is too deafened by his own shouting to hear. Instead the man with the radio turns around and, in the general direction of where he thinks the question came from, spits with a sternness that matches his expression. “Eight minutes here and ten minutes in Santiago — the Ecuadorians are still winning five to four. I’ll tell you the next time I know something!”

“Este sentimiento es verdadero, (This feeling is truthful)

Ciclón te amo, Ciclón [the club’s nickname],
(I love you)

Sin vos me muero… ”
(Without you I die…)

This is the last group game of the Copa Libertadores, Latin America’s equivalent of the European Champions League. San Lorenzo, the home team, is last in its group, but there are only two points separating it from second place and qualification in the knockout stage. The team needs a goal and they need it quickly, and they also need the Ecuadorian club, Independiente del Valle, to lose the match in Chile.

“Two minutes left here, four there,” strains the now rather pallid-looking man with the radio.

The crowd, suddenly and all at once, begins to holler, “Uno más, uno más, uno más!” (One more, one more!) The fans, all arms, legs and flying shirts, command their team to score.

And then:

Piatti to Mercier, Mercier back to Piatti, Piatti through, Piatti yes or no? Yesssssssssss! GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAL, GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAL, GOOOOOOOAAAAAL.

The crowd surges and heaves and falls on top of itself in a series of hugs, kisses and throttlings. The radio man, still plugged into the game in Chile, forgets his role as correspondent and begins ferociously shaking a thick-set lady in merriment. Strangers hug strangers as if fast-tracked through thirty years of intense friendship, and then, quite suddenly, half of the stadium is topless; a series of vigorously swinging T-shirts fill the midnight air.

The final whistle sounds, and as quickly as the celebration started, it stops — the fans have remembered the ongoing game in Chile. Now no one speaks, and compared to the tumult of two minutes ago, the caprice of the silence seems somehow absurd. Hordes of people are clambering around the man with his radio, all of them leaning and lurching, hoping to hear the news before anyone else. Yet with his chin burrowed into his chest like a sleeping bird and his eyes tightly shut in stressful concentration, the man waits out the final minutes in Santiago without giving anything away.

The whistle blows in Chile.

Our man raises his fist.

The crowd goes wild in Buenos Aires.

As I leave the stadium that evening I hear a lone fan straining into song, “That one is for Boedo…Back to Boedo we go.”

And it is here, in the guise of a victory-drunk supporter, slurring of a prophecy fulfilled, that I am introduced to one of football’s greatest stories: the team that lost its home, and the fans who fought for four decades to reclaim their sacred ground.

*   *   *

San Lorenzo was founded in 1908 by a group of young men who played every day in a small paddock in the barrio of Almagro — now called Boedo — in Buenos Aires.

“We used to play there because it was the cheapest place to play — also, there we didn’t get in anybody’s way,” said Luis Gianella, a former player and founder of the club, in an interview with writer Osvaldo Soriano. From these humble beginnings, San Lorenzo grew to become one of Argentina’s most famous clubs, winning the first division title eight times from 1930 to 1974. In 1968 they became known as los matadores, the killers, for becoming one of the first teams to win the league without losing a game. And in 1972 they made history again by being the first club in Argentinean football to win two tournaments, the National and the Metropolitan trophies, in the same season.

“Beyond the coldness of the statistics they were a true blend of elegance and efficiency, indeed, they were almost footballing perfection,” wrote Pedro Uzquiza and Daniel Ruchelsma of the club’s golden period.

 

However, towards the end of the 1970s, due to a series of bad administrative decisions and inept directors, the club fell from grace, teetering on the verge of footballing oblivion. Precariously in debt and struggling in the leagues, San Lorenzo found itself extremely vulnerable to the whims of external authorities. And unluckily for the club, such vulnerabilities were exploited.

At the time, the military dictatorship of Argentina believed there to be a surplus of stadiums in the city center of Buenos Aires. The government thought the land where some of these stadiums stood would be better utilized improving the city’s infrastructure and residential areas. San Lorenzo, sinking into economic turmoil, was the club most easily coerced into selling its land.

On December 2, 1979, the team played its last game in what is now known asViejo Gasómetro — literally, “the old gasometer” — its home since 1916. The game, a dull zero-zero draw, suited the helplessness and incredulity that filled the stadium that day. Victorio Cocco, vice-president of AFTA, the Argentinian football federation, says, “People couldn’t believe what was happening. They thought [the selling of the stadium] was nothing but a rumor. They didn’t understand why it had to be sold.” Juan Lopez, a sixty-two-year-old taxi driver and a regular attendee of club games, laments, “One of Argentina’s most beautiful stadiums — the Wembley of Latin America, no less — would disappear forever.” But the worst was still to come.

In an act that turned public sadness to rage, the agreement, which indicated that the authorities would use the club’s lands to improve the neighborhood’s transportation and housing, was reneged upon. Instead, with the aid of some suspicious and clandestine paperwork, the government sold the plot to the multinational grocery company Carrefour. As Enrique Cavilliotti, a lifelong San Lorenzo fan, bemoans, “In a very sad moment, a big, ugly, metallic box replaced one of Argentina’s most impressive sporting venues.” The government bought the stadium from San Lorenzo for $900,000, flipped it to Carrefour for $8 million, and all the neighborhood got in return was a supermarket.

And so began a period in which San Lorenzo was forced to rent the stadiums of other clubs in order to continue playing in the national league. The team also temporarily lost their place in the premier division of Argentinean football, dropping down to the second league. Pablo Lafourcade, a journalist with Argentina’s DeporTea, writes, “It was a time of broken dreams and frustration.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the construction of a new home became a possibility. Under the command of then-president Fernando Miele, a plot was found in the neighborhood of Bajo Flores, some two and a half miles from the site of the Viejo Gasómetro. At a cost of $20 million in supporters’ donations, building began.

On December 16, 1993 the Pedro Bidegain stadium, nicknamed the Nuevo Gasómetro by the fans, opened and San Lorenzo ceased to be an itinerant tenant. As Lafourcade enthuses, “The opening of the stadium was heart-warming and emotional; San Lorenzo had a new home and a new identity.” And so commenced what should have been a new dawn in the club’s history.

Yet, despite a new era of success and several championships in the 1990s and early 2000s, San Lorenzo fans yearned for one thing more than anything else: a return to Boedo.

*   *   *

Walking through the barrio of Boedo, one immediately notices that the place is awash with the blue and red of San Lorenzo — even the Carrefour supermarket shares its colors. There are team museums and clubhouses, lyrics of songs etched on trees and into walls, proud paintings of bygone teams and sporadically scribbled prophecies of the club’s return home on almost every surface:

Me verás volver.” You will see me return.

Volvemos a tierra santa.” We will return to sacred ground.

 

Boedo, Contaré que es amor, Juraré que es pasión.” Boedo, I will say it’s love; I will swear it’s passion.

The slogans are mixed in with ubiquitous paintings and pictures of the current Pope, a local of Boedo and the club’s most famous fan, and photographs of the movie star Viggo Mortensen, who during his youth in Argentina came to develop an affinity for the club. The supporters are fiercely proud of their connections to Hollywood and Rome. One fan proudly tells me how Mortensen has donated substantial sums of money for the upkeep of the club. Another fan, when talking about Pope Francis’s association with San Lorenzo, says, “Bergoglio is a socio [a club member] and before he was proclaimed Pope attended many of the team’s games. He was and still is an avid supporter.”

Club supporters wander about the neighborhood dressed in their team tracksuits — some in the latest edition, others in versions worn almost to rags through such repeated use. Some have the look of fishermen, marred by sea salt and hard drinking, and are gathered in smoky, gossipy huddles, whilst others, much younger and fairer-faced, are kicking about in parks, aspiring to emulate their footballing heroes. By the old stadium gates at the back of the Carrefour complex, a group of fans of the hard, weathered variety, are organizing anasado — a traditional Argentine barbecue. Their tough appearance, however, isn’t commensurate with their soft manners and jocularity as they natter for a good hour about all things San Lorenzo.

“I remember when we left [Boedo], I was fourteen, and I cried for the whole day,” croaks a stocky man, built like a boulder. “For sure, Boedo is our home and always will be.”

“Yeah, as good as Bajo Flores and the Pedro Bidegain stadium have been to us, you can’t beat Boedo,” responds another. “We’ll be there again soon.”

The supporters’ love for their barrio is clear: Thirty-four years have passed since they last played in Viejo Gasómetro, and yet, although the stadium has gone, everything else that is important remains. But why is Boedo so important to San Lorenzo fans? Why could they never fully appreciate their new stadium?

Ezequiel Rivero, editor of a San Lorenzo fanzine, says that the desire to return to Boedo has nothing to do with disliking the new stadium: “It is just about a rediscovery of the club’s identity.”

In his late twenties, Rivero is one of the many fans who have only known San Lorenzo to play at its current residence, and so is part of a group in which one would expect to find the least desire for a return to the old barrio. However, even in this group, it seems that Boedo’s reclamation is a must:

“For me, the current stadium is a very important part of our history; it’s what I have known forever. I’ve seen San Lorenzo win the league there, and I will be sad when we leave. However, the return to Boedo is about the recuperation of identity. You’ve heard the songs they sing in the stadium — they’re all about Boedo and the return. The club’s history is there, it’s not in Bajo Flores.”

Ezequiel’s thoughts correspond with those of Guillermo Pardini, a well-known journalist and public figure in Argentina, who put the desire for this hallowed homecoming in simple terms. “A person is from the neighborhood in which they were born and in which they grew up,” he says, “not where they might be living at a given moment. I am from Devoto [a neighborhood of Buenos Aires] and not from Saavedra, where I live currently. All my memories are attached to the place from which I’m from, and I think the same is true for football.”

.

 

For the fans of San Lorenzo, it is has never been a question of hating the new stadium. On the contrary, having won six major championships there, the majority of the fans have a very strong affection for the Nuevo Gasómetro. It’s simply a case of reacquainting themselves with the identity which they unjustly lost thirty-five years previously, and, as Carlos Cordini, a thirty-five-year-old journalist and San Lorenzo fanatic, says, “of healing a great wound from the past.”

*   *   *

People rush up and down flights of stairs; they bang on doors and shout at the terrified secretaries of the equally terrified politicians:

“Tell your boss to be in the voting chamber right now, we’re short of voters.”

“The vote is starting in ten minutes, come on.”

People shout nervously into phones, and others sit fretfully, expending great quantities of energy simply watching this frantic process play out. Meanwhile, outside, thousands of fans wait uneasily, knowing nothing of what is going on inside.

The date is October 11, 2007, and the vote for the restitution of some of the lost lands in Boedo is imminent. At present, however, there are not enough members of parliament to constitute a legal ballot. In an effort to fix this, the directors of the fan’s committee, who are leading the movement for the return to Boedo, are busy chaperoning and forcing politicians into the voting chamber. The room jangles with anxiety as the San Lorenzo members realize this is their chance to begin something they have dreamed of for decades.

“This could only happen in Argentina,” says Ande Nicholson, former journalist turned football tour guide. Nicholson explains that, in contrast to the U.S. or Europe, all the major clubs here are based on cooperative structures:

“Each fan has the right to become a socio. A socio is basically a part owner along with the other thousands of fans who pay for the annual membership. Thesesocios can collectively decide the direction of the club and elect a president on a democratic basis. The club directors that the fans elect are normally politicians or at least are influential members of society. So, in Argentina, the fans are close to the politics, and, if you get enough of them saying the same thing, anything is possible.”

Indeed, where fans and club directors walk side by side, and club directors rub shoulders with high-ranking government officials, the common man becomes far more powerful than he would otherwise be. Compare this to Europe and the U.S., where teams are almost all privately owned and fans are prevented from organizing themselves around political goals. For example, when London’s Arsenal football club moved from their beloved Highbury Stadium in 2006, to a new stadium some two miles away, there may have been a lot of sadness, but there was no chance or any hope that the club might one day return to its original home.

In Argentina, a fan’s love can have power. Here, the fan has a voice, and if he combines it with enough of his fellow supporters, such a voice will be heard.

*   *   *

On that day, the Argentinean government returned 15,000 square feet of the José Mármol and Salcedo Square back to San Lorenzo; land that had once been the club’s before its removal by the government in 1979. The space holds a small park behind the Carrefour supermarket, and the club is now free to use it for social events or training.

In this way, as Marcelo Vazquez, San Lorenzo’s club secretary, notes cynically, “[The authorities] recognized and so supposedly apologized for any of the inflicted damage that the then-military government had caused.” While it was not the site of the old stadium itself, or a location in which a new one could be built, a part of Boedo had been returned — and that was a start. Indeed, it was the moment when “the return to our homeland became a genuine possibility,” says Vazquez.

From there, the fan committee, so instrumental in the passing of the first law, began to broaden its aims. They weren’t satisfied with the restitution of a square; what they really wanted was for the government to grant them the right to purchase back the site of their old stadium. And so, little by little, the committee began to prove to the authorities that they were capable of handling such an ambitious venture. They started buying more plots of land in Boedo, protecting existing parts of the old stadium from further renovation and attracting the support of sympathetic celebrities around Argentina. They began to generate a belief within the San Lorenzo community that had never before been felt.

However, as Adolfo Resnik, one of the leaders of the fan committee, said in an interview with Argentinean television, “People really started to believe that we could return to Boedo when we actually presented the project [for the return of old stadium site] to the government — this was when the fans began to gather together and support the cause in earnest.” The supporters realized that if the club could win back the location of the old stadium, the dream of once again playing at the Viejo Gasómetro could become a reality.

On April 12, 2011, 20,000 fans gathered in front of city hall to support such a project. In June, 40,000 San Lorenzo fans inundated the city center. And so it went, protest after protest, the number of fans who believed in the cause growing by the day and the voice of the movement becoming more potent. On March 8, 2012, 110,000 San Lorenzo fans gathered in La Plaza de Mayo, the main square of Buenos Aires. The avenues and side streets were packed with people and rousing speeches were made from a stage near the presidential palace.

“I remember that evening very well,” says Carlos Cordini. “I left work with a couple of colleagues and we arrived at the Plaza de Mayo early, but there were already lots of people there, chanting and singing. About an hour later more people started to arrive, and little by little the square started to fill up until it was absolutely packed. I remember saying to my friends, ‘I have never seen anything like this, and I never will.’”

The fans arrived in tracksuits and team shirts, carrying flags and singing songs. They were portly, fat, stringy, thin, young, aging and old. Those drunk and boisterous for once did not irritate the solemn and sober, and those old and aging for once did not envy those young and virile. Instead they flung themselves into the procurement of a future that was also their past. Chanting verses from team songs, they filled the center of Buenos Aires with noise and identity:

“Señores 
(Gentlemen)

yo soy de un barrio
(I’m from a neighborhood)

barrio de corazón
(A neighborhood of the heart)

señores
(Gentlemen)

yo soy de Boedo
(I’m from Boedo)

y soy hincha del Ciclón”
(And I’m a fan of the Ciclón)

“It was just an overwhelming experience,” says Guillermo Pardini. “Thousands upon thousands of people gathered for a football club. They were there to say, ‘Here we are and we want back what is ours.’ It goes without saying that I shed a few tears in the square that day.”

“It was a time of great emotion and joy,” Ezequiel Rivero declares triumphantly. “The fans sung passionately and petitioned peacefully for the return of what was truly theirs.”

Matias Sabatini, taxi driver and fervent supporter of Huracán, San Lorenzo’s greatest and oldest rival, said, “Even though it was San Lorenzo, for football it was something remarkable. I was very pleased for them.”

And the passion had an effect.

On the 15th of November, the Historic Restoration Act was passed into law with unanimity, and but for a long negotiation process with Carrefour, San Lorenzo would have the right to buy back its land and rebuild its stadium. The return to Boedo was only a pile of paperwork away.

*   *   *

On Friday, April 4, 2014 in a packed press conference in the Intercontinental Hotel, the authorities of Carrefour and San Lorenzo meet. Camera flashes punctuate the tension, whilst those involved sit restlessly, urging on the last few seconds of a four decade-long wait. Outside, thousands of San Lorenzo fans assemble, glued to phones, tablets, radios or whatever they can get their hands on in order to hear the news. Twitter goes mad; Facebook, too.

Then, in two inaudible scratches, all negotiations are settled — San Lorenzo has the right to buy back its land in Boedo, provided that it finances the rebuilding of a new Carrefour supermarket somewhere on the same site. And so, as the ink settles into its new legal abode, all that which was once lost is now returned to its rightful owner. San Lorenzo has returned to Boedo — to a place which, as Daniel Fernandez, the representative of the Carrefour, says, “is undoubtedly yours.”

After transferring its first installment of money to Carrefour in May of this year, San Lorenzo has confirmed the club will start building the new stadium in 2015. The fantasy, which began almost thirty-five years ago, is soon to be fortified by steel and cement. But what of the new — soon to be old — stadium?

At the moment, no one is really sure. Some say it will be used to host concerts and functions while others say that it will be used occasionally for cup fixtures and friendlies. What is certain, however, is that the club will try its best to maintain the site. As Marcel Vazquez says, “We must look after what is ours, especially if we don’t want to repeat the errors that led us to lose our first stadium. Now, and like the Viejo Gasómetro always was, the Nuevo Gasómetro will be our stadium forever.”

 

 

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