The Beautiful Game

Before graduate school, I had the opportunity to take a trip to Argentina with some of my future classmates. Other than eating steak for lunch and dinner for eight days in a row, the memory that my mind drifts back to the most is my first real Latin American soccer game.

Naturally, there are A-league games in Buenos Aires. Boca Juniors—the best, most prestigious team in the long tradition of Argentina’s soccer history—plays in Buenos Aires. This was not going to be one of those games. This was more like the D-league.

The organizer of the trip hired a local to give us the true soccer experience™. We met this gentleman in the lobby of our hotel, where he explained that getting into the stadium was a complicated process.

“When we arrive outside the stadium, do not leave the group and do not look at anyone—keep your eyes on me the whole time. Follow me and walk with purpose,” he said.

We hopped in the van, and after a stunning golden hour drive through Buenos Aires, we pulled to a stop in a poorly lit parking lot. Our guide huddled us together and reminded us of the rules before setting off towards a dark, brutalist structure in the distance. Basically, if the Eye of Sauron’s tower was a soccer stadium.

We pass by streets and storefronts. Streets are quiet.  No one else around except for a few Argentines wearing jerseys walking in the same direction.

After a few blocks, more and more people appear. Ice cream carts hawk sweets on the corners. We are now walking as part of a crowd, bustling with energy.

At this point, I have no idea where the dark shape in the distance—what I presume is our destination–is. We turn a corner, walked down an alley, and turn another corner.

Vendors are screaming at us to buy kit and food on one side. On the other, a group of men stand around an upright oil drum with flames pouring out the top. The scene is 50% street celebration, 50% post-war bombed out urban hell.

We walk onward.

50 yards later and we see the stadium. Our guide distributes the tickets, directs us through the metal detectors, and weaves us through the maze that is the stadium. A few stairwells and winding paths later, we settle into hard, concrete seats.

The girls in our group ask for the bathroom.  Our host explains how to find it. Turns out it’s not too complicated. They return a few minutes later with not much to report other than there was no toilet paper.

Which makes sense. It appears there is nothing else in this entire stadium but hard concrete, except for patchy green grass on the field.

We wait for the game to start. The atmosphere is electric and we are totally pumped.

Stadium staff on the field had set up a massive inflatable tunnel stretching from the field entrance to the sideline. Our guide explains that this is for the visiting team and the referees. Thanks to the tunnel, they can walk on the field without the crowd pelting them with bottles and cans.

That mere fact alone has got me hyped up. I grew up in North Carolina, the land of college basketball, and while fans there are passionate, I’m eager to see for myself if soccer fandoms get as wild as I’ve heard about.

Start time is minutes away. I scan the entire stadium: the energy rising, palpable, bubbling. The referee emerges from his tunnel and walks to center field for kick off.  

Seconds later, the game begins. After one or two passes, something happens: beautiful white streamers launch from the bleachers onto the field. It’s breathtaking. Radiant, brilliant arcs the color of clouds sail through the sky and drape on the grounds.

The players play on, the crowd erupting with joy.

It was at this moment that two things occured to me: I knew why they called it the beautiful game.

And I knew why the bathrooms didn’t have any toilet paper.