Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Boca, Boca de mi vida!

So, my first sup of the feverish brew that is South American futból. Despite a tepid first forty five, in which barely a decent opportunity was worked by either team, Boca answered their fans' imploring cries for victory with three second-half goals, and an entirely more composed performance. Although Gimnasia did score late on, giving Boca a winning margin of 3-1, the fans were able to pour out into the neighbourhood that holds football clutched tight to its breast knowing that league leaders San Lorenzo's advantage remained just three points.

Standing in the south terraces, we were actually in our places a good hour and a half before kick-off, a point at which the stadium looked decidedly empty. However, as more and more people poured in, and banners began to unfurl along the tiers, La Bombonera swelled its chest and prepared to exhort onward the eleven blue and gold figures below. Whilst the advertising and pre-match paraphenalia slowly cleared (and this was a laborious process, nothing like the players and officials running out onto the pristine greensward at a Premiership game), and the players lined up opposite each other, the rumblings began. The north stand seemed to be the heartbeat, with a low, thudding drumbeat counting the time for the massed choir. And as song broke out, it seemed that everyone knew the words, and no-one, except us, was humming along. Unlike the majority of English terrace chants - verbally minimalist, repetitive, two-toned - the ballads that sprang forth from the Boca crowd were nuanced and harmonious, rising and falling as the melody and pace of each different chant changed. It was (almost) orchestral! Admittedly, I couldn't understand a word, but it wouldn't half of spurred me on.

With kick-off approaching, flurries of torn-up paper sprang from the stands, like miniature squalls of snow, heralding the expected storm to come. The Boca team, however, perhaps contemptuously familiar of the devotion of their following, allowed themselves little inspiration in an opening display that brought frequent anguished howls from the stands. Although Gimnasia were by far the more agricultural in the approach, hoofing the ball towards advanced wide men whenever the opportunity arose, Boca's attempts to stroke the ball around often went awry. Misplaced passes and ill-judged stepovers frequently allowed possesion to be squandered, and there was a suggestion that the Juniors may have initially taken their task a little lightly, with Gimnasia sitting in the bottom two of the division. Certainly the pitch wasn't to blame, despite it looking like a council allotment. The one moment of excitment arrived when the visiting keeper dallied on the ball some twenty five yards out on the left, was tackled by Bruno Marioni, only for his angled shot to cannon out off of the post. South American glovemen are, after all, a special breed.

In a classic game of two halves reversal, though, Boca snatched a scrappy opener at the start of the second half, with the skilfull Palacio heading home from no more than five yards after a looped cross from Marioni. Despite the humdrum nature of the goal, the stands errupted, as the crowd danced as one, hopping up and down as the drums beat louder. It's a good job concrete doesn't flex, else there would have been a noticeable (and severe) trampoline effect. A second, equally unedifying, followed, with the ball cannoning in off Sebastián Battaglia from a set-piece. His passing and industry had been impressive, but with his goal coming via what looked like a deflection from his posterior, it was entirely appropriate that he had indeed worked his arse off.

The offside law clearly transcends language barriers, and I was impressed to hear the sacred word called many times by the home support. They were treated to something a little less workaday late on though, as the attacking right-back Rodriguez smashed home a peach of a volley, right in front of our stand. With the introduction of Martin Palermo and the hunched Juan Roman Riquelme from the bench in the last half hour, a classier edge was added to the team's efforts, and a couple of delightful through-balls by the probing Riquelme were only just short. All of which made for the greater surprise when Gimnasia bashed one on off the post with five minutes left. A match that was littered with bookings (and some rather shameless diving) had become something of a cracker, and it was not only the Boca faithful that left the ground pleased, with their team placed second in the Clausura. In my newly-purchased blue and gold livery, I felt pretty entertained too. Now, I just need to start learning some of those songs...

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Allrounder Abroad

As I write this from a Buenos Airen t'internet cafe, it looks like keeping track of events back in the English sporting world may be difficult for the next few months...

However, I will do my best to chip in here and there; and with a potential visit to see the Boca Juniors play at La Bombonera on Sunday in the pipeline, I shall definitely record my thoughts on the quality of Argentinean football, and the passion of its supporters, after I've experienced it first-hand.

Watch this cyber-space, amigos...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reds delight in face of Blue might

It's not often that I'd feel compelled to toss verbal confetti towards Sir Alex and his Red Army, but after one of the more enthralling title races in recent years, I'm happy to say that Manchester United deserve whatever praise comes their way.

The sense of schadenfreude weighed heavy as Arsenal held Chelsea at Ashburton on Sunday, thus finally halting the Blues' creaking title challenge in its gold-plated tracks. As a proud Gooner (I normally try to keep party politics out of these posts, but you'll forgive me the odd slip), serving up a championship on a plate to the team with whom we have most vied for supremacy since the late nineties is bound to smart. They even had their feet up at the time. But then, after the breathtaking pace of some of their football this year, they probably deserved a short repose.

It's the love of a truly beautiful game that urged me to put tribal loyalty aside, ever so briefly, and root for Red over Blue in the final reckoning. Chelsea's dark arts have brought them their fair share of recent success, and, driven on by the increasingly monomaniacal Mourinho, one had to admire the unstinting commitment of the likes of Terry and Drogba, Essien and Cech. Despite the paucity of their resources, Chelski's challenge was this time little-augmented by raids on Abramovich's piggy bank; instead it was brutally elemental, as if hewn from the very rocks of Mourinho's formidable self-confidence.

Yet when it came to the blinking contest, Ferguson and his charges seemed unfazed. The verve that has been the hallmark of his team's play in 2006/07 was not dimmed by the relentless efficiency of their pursuers (9 consecutive wins between 31st Jan and 18th April, including 8 clean sheets), as if United's desire to prove the worth of their precocious talent above Chelsea's mental resilience galvanised them to greater levels of endeavour. Two behind to Everton at Goodison became 4-2 to the Devils, while Chelsea's concentration was distracted by Bolton's aerial threat. At one time, I checked the scores to see United behind and Chelsea ahead - but as those fortunes turned so did the chances of a third Premiership trophy making its way to Kensington. Tonight's anticlimactic 0-0 affair saw steely resolve pitted against youthful flair, Chelsea's ice against Manchester's (somewhat throttled) fire. Ice may have edged the contest on balance, but the flame still burns. United need only inject the appropriate fuel to create an inferno at Wembley come 19th May.

These may appear the empty blandishments of a supporter whose own team checked out of the silverware hotel months ago, but in all honesty, I think that there is much to applaud in Ferguson's refusal to settle for the pipe and slippers. I cursed his soul when he reneged on retirement a few years back, and wished him nothing but bitter failure for his trouble. But after Arsenal's fleeting exposition of enlightenment football during the invincible campaign was crushed by Chelsea's utilitarian grit, United's response has been laced with the most sweetness.

For that, I can ignore the past antagonisms... at least until next year.

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