The passion of football in a number of countries is all part of the rich tapestry of the game in these lands. The commercial orchestration of the larger European leagues has taken something away from the fan versus the action, sanitising it all taking the games ultimate colour away in the process.
Nowhere has managed to retain its passion in the stands as well as Argentina. The lunatic fringe may have brought national disgrace when the second leg of the Copa Libertadores Super Clasico final between River Plate and Boca Juniors ended up being played in Madrid because of the violent attack of the Boca team bus outside the Monumental in Buenos Aires a few weeks earlier. The game in Argentina, and a number of other countries has always had that edge, and if that disappeared completely these games would just become as vacuum packed as the corporate Manchester derby, or even Barca v Real these days. Things have in the past got completely out of hand in Argentina, and fans have tragically died. The solution within the Greater Buenos Aires area at any rate, where a large number of the clubs come from, was to ban away fans. Such an action you might think would have dampened the atmosphere in the stadiums, and while it is true that with no visiting fans, the home supporters have no one to abuse but it has opened the entirety of the stadium to home fans, and it has led a cacophony of partisan home support. These are Intimidating atmospheres for the visiting team, but supercharged encouragement for the home side as long as things are going well.
In February 2000 I was at the first of over 70 games in South America and it could only have been in one stadium, Estadio Juan Domingo Peron, or El Cilindro, Avellaneda, the home of Racing Club. Even before I ever got close to going to Argentina, yo soy de Racing (pronounced Ra-sing), I am Racing! “Would your love of Racing have anything to do with the World Club win over Celtic” I hear you cry! And to an extent you’d be right! I had no idea of these encounters in the late sixties, as I was far too young at the time, but once I learned of these matches, Racing became the epitome of exotic long before it was available to watch just about every kicked of any team, anywhere in the world online. I always felt the media furore here was rather one sided, and I dreamed of both seeing Racing play, and getting the other side of the story. The closest I ever got to an unbiased neutral viewpoint came from an unplanned encounter with an elderly Uruguayan chap at a Danubio match in Montevideo. In a short half-time chat, when he realised I was Scottish he paused momentarily then said, “I saw a Scottish team once”, and I knew which team that was, but he couldn’t recall their name!! “Two very bad teams”, was his recollection, and in a nutshell a mere soundbite adding credence to the notion it takes two, and Celtic did not come away from South America as the innocents as they’d like the spin on history to have you believe.
Jumping forward to November 2017, I had the great pleasure in hosting Jorge and Stella Lavrut, Racing hinchas (fans). Jorge had been in il Cilindro for the home leg in 1967, and now on the 50th anniversary of when Racing became the first Argentine side to be crowned as World Club champions he was in Scotland! On a day that started in Fort Augustus, we first visited Caledonian Stadium, Inverness for a photo or two, (becoming the 9th and 10th Argentines to visit my clubs ground, following in the footsteps of their sons!), then it was straight down the A9 as we had a booked tour of Hampden! For some reason the first leg of the World Club was played here and not at Celtic Park, and indeed the museum at Hampden houses souvenirs of these matches, and oddly nothing at Celtic, “they would rather not remember” said the guide! In the lead up to the anniversary Racing produced a souvenir “retro” football with the event embossed on it. I became one delighted recipient of one of these balls, and it now takes pride of place in my apartment. We had the ball with us for our trip to Hampden, along with Racing shirts for photos taken on the pitch side. It was a special moment for all of us, and personally it showed what a wonderful thing football can be, bringing people together from across the globe, from February 2000 my first game there without knowing anyone to November 2017, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a real high point in Racing’s history with true Racinguistas (true fans).
Avellaneda is just south of Buenos Aires city, over the river at Boca, and the first suburban town of what is known at Gran (Greater) Buenos Aires (shortened to BsAs). It isn’t a place you would make a particular effort to go as a tourist, it has nothing to offer in that sense, but if you are into football, it is home to two of the biggest clubs in the country, Racing Club and Independiente, known affectionately as “rojo no existe” (red doesn’t exist!). The two canchas (stadiums) are sat right beside each other, and unlike the proximity of the two in Dundee, these are colossal sized stadiums. Rojo no existe’s ground has been modernised and looks imposing, but while I have watched football in 14 stadiums in Greater BsAs, I haven’t been to a game there, and why would you?!! The real jewel of the all the stadiums in Buenos Aires though is Racing’s El Cilindro, as it is a perfect oval, hence the name, the cylinder. It has a capacity of 61,000, with its iconic tower, as well as the view of the skyscrapers of downtown BsAs from the upper tier at the traditional home end. Okay I am bias, but it is a thing of beauty, and the atmosphere is electric. The club have plans to develop and upgrade the interior, but the shape will stay and I hope they do a proper job.
Racing Club de Avellaneda were founded on the 23rd March 1903 and are nicknamed La Academia (the academy). Many teams in Argentina were founded by English settlers at the time, Banfield, Newell’s, Douglas Haig, and Almirante Brown all to this day carry English, or in the case of the latter, an Irish name. Racing were co-founded by a chap of French ancestry, German Vidaillic, a name that came from a French auto magazine! A number of sports clubs in France to this day have Racing in their name, Racing Club Strasbourg, Racing Club de Lens and Racing Metro ‘92 to name just a few.
The club colours are now well established since 1910 as light blue and white stripes like the national shirt of Argentina, having been adopted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the May Revolution. Thankfully amongst previous kits that were jettisoned, black and yellow stripes lasted merely a week as someone said they looked like Penarol across in Montevideo, and you wouldn’t want that!! A more unusual light blue and pink in four squares ala Bristol Rovers kit didn’t last too long either!
Just ten years after the clubs foundation it became Champions of Argentina in 1913 following two round robin play off wins with River Plate and San Isidro, and it would be 1920 before they failed to win it again, accumulating seven titles on the spin. A big hiatus of 29 years followed, finally ending in 1949 when Racing were to be celebrating a title win again, their first in the Professional era, backing that success up with another brace of titles in the subsequent two years. In 1950 during that Championship winning campaign the beating of Velez Sarsfield 1-0 heralded the opening of El Cilindro. The last of this triumvirate of titles came via a 1-0 aggregate play off win against Banfield. Another seven titles have arrived, and a win on Sunday away to Tigre will deliver an 18th on the penultimate game of this season, which will be the clubs first league flag in five years. Failure to gather the three points might bring a tantalizing last day showdown with second placed Defensa y Justicia at El Cilindro, but they need to better Racing’s result this weekend to have a chance of a first ever title!
The fifteen title in 1966 provided the club with a second entry in the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the European Cup/Champions League now. The first attempted at this relatively new International club competition saw a first round exit in 1961, but the second campaign brought Racing their only ever Libertadores title beating Club Nacional de Football from Montevideo 2-1 in the final with a double from Norberto Raffo. That victory took them to the notorious World Club matches with Celtic, going down 2-1 in Glasgow, and winning the return in il Cilindro 1-0. In the modern era they’d have won the competition on away goals, but in those days a third game was needed a few days later a cross the River Plate in El Centenario, Montevideo, a fantastic Juan Carlos Cardenas strike was a moment of beauty, worthy of winning any trophy amid the utter chaos of two bad tempered teams who had grown to detest each other. Rumours abound that while Racing were rightly celebrating this win, some naughty “rojo no existe” fans broke into El Cilindro and buried seven dead cats! In an area of the world where superstition continues to be rife, only finding six of them weighed heavily. Perhaps the curse of that missing cat is true, as it was only finally discovered in 2000, and it’s discovery coincided with a first title in 35 years the year after!! The coach Reinaldo Merlo became a hero, and a statue has been raised to this living legend who guided a team that included a young Diego Milito. In those barren three and half decades, the club had suffered a relegation in 1983, needing two terms in the second tier before getting back up again. In 1998 the perilous financial state of the club became public knowledge and led to bankruptcy, but the switch to Blanquiceleste SA Corporation in 2000 might have more been the catalyst to that 2001 title rather the discovery of the dead cat!!
They say you never forget your first love, and maybe that is true of a first game in a stadium that you have long held a desire to watch a game. In February 2000, I merely knew one local lass who I had met on the plane to Europe from BsAs the year before, but we weren’t as close friends then as we would become, so it was great that my good mate Martin from Edinburgh was with me that year, and especially to experience the full Racing effect in a “clasico” encounter with Boca Juniors. These were different days down in Argentina, the Peso was pegged falsely as it turned out, one to one with the American dollar, and it made Argentina an expensive country. The taxi to and from the stadium, and the match ticket for the game set us back £60, a trip that would probably cost a quarter of that price now! Racing’s new owners hadn’t signed up at that juncture, and the team were nowhere near the top of their powers, but when Boca or any of the other “big five” are playing, the atmosphere increases in volume and intimidation. What a welcome to Argentine football, and to life in El Cilindro, this was one of the great moments of my football life. The fans sang incessantly, and when Racing scored in the 37th minute through Maxi Estevez the whole place shook! It ended in a 1-1 draw courtesy a very dubious penalty, but Boca did strike the Racing crossbar three times in the game, so maybe a draw was a fair outcome. The result wasn’t important, the whole experience had sold me Racing as I had hoped, and in the years to come I would see them play a further 12 times and met a number of people that I am proud to call great friends now.
My second game in El Cilindro would be three years later when I went along with Laura’s family friend Juan Pablo, who’d become a good friend of mine too by then. We have shared a number of games together over the years, starting with Chacarita v Boca in 2002. This particular Racing game was relatively low key in comparison to the Boca game, but they dug out a 2-0 win against Talleres Cordoba. What I didn’t know then was this would be my last Racing home win I would see until 2015, a twelve year passage of time, albeit, despite seeing 8 games in that period, only three were at home! One was a distinctly underwhelming 0-0 draw with Gimnasia Jujuy, but when that long overdue win came against Guarani Asuncion 4-1 in the Libertadores in February 2015 it was a joyous removal of a monkey off my back. By now I was a regular with the Lavrut family, great Racing fans one and all, introduced to me through Juan Pablo, with the elder brother Emanuelle his work colleague. This was to be the first time we had experience a win together at El Cilindro, albeit dad Jorge was on holiday, and we have still to share a win with us all collectively gathered!
Perhaps I should have retired that trip on the 4-1 high, but two weeks later I was back, craving back to back home wins for the first ever time at home, but Sporting Cristal from Peru did a number on Racing and rode out of Avellaneda with all three Libertadores points in a 2-1 win when Racing had already qualified. It was also a poignant farewell to Diego Milito, a great servant to the club in two separate stints at Racing. It was the second great hero of the club I saw play their last game! After one of the losses at El Cilindro in 2006 to Velez Sarsfield a number of us went for a late evening meal in the amusingly named Museo De Jamon in the centre of BsAs. As we were ordering it transpired that Diego Simeone was upstairs eating! The waiter was sent away to tell Diego a fan from Scotland was across to watch Racing, and it appears he agreed to meet me, but only me! I was wheeled upstairs clutching both my camera and Matais’ Racing shirt (the younger Lavrut brother) to get a signature. He was very offhand, acting as if forced into such an encounter, and while his wife was more inquisitive, after he’d posed for a photo, he threw a hissy fit at being asked to sign the shirt and I was led away by the waiter having been unsuccessful in getting my friends shirt signed. Six days later I was down in Quilmes with another friend watching Racing lose 2-1 to Estudiantes La Plata, who were using the stadium in Quilmes while a new ground was being built in La Plata. It was the last ever time Simeone played, the very next week he was Racing’s manager, off and runnning on his new career path that has seen him become a very long serving and successful manager at Atletico Madrid. One footnote to my meeting with Diego, these were still the days of film rolls for the camera for me, and somehow the film with the photos of that encounter never made it home, lost in the hotel room before the journey home, perhaps poetic justice!
The away Racing days have not been excessively more impressive to my win rate, but the only two successes on the road in six games are the most prized of them all! Having met another Racing fan in El Bolson in 2001, Juan Manuel, he was to become one of life’s great friends. In 2003 he came across to Montevideo to join me for a few days to coincide with Racing playing a Libertadores match in the city. It was no ordinary match, it was a tie against Nacional who they had beaten to win the Libertadores trophy in 1967, and the game was being played in the Centenario, where Racing had last played 36 years earlier to win the World Club title! It was thrilling and momentous to be amongst the Racing faithful and watch them carve out a 2-1 Centenario success where a crazy three goals in a seven minute period midway through the second half saw Milovan Mirosevic score the winner. Seven years later I was literally wading through **** in the stairway to the top tier of the away end at Boca’s La Bombonera with the Lavrut boys on our way to the top tier. What a fabulous view of the stadium you got from up there, crammed in like sardines as we were! But hey, who was caring as Racing put on a stunning performance and won 2-1, coming back from being an early goal down almost immediately through Gabriele Hauche, and when he thumped home the winner just before half-time the away section went crazy. Hauche was absolutely imperious throughout and could have scored a third. The **** had become a sea on the way down, but we were floating on air, and a mere change of shoes in the car and I was off out for a meal in Puerto Madero at 00,30 with Laura, and all of this on my first day in the city after a 13 hour flight, but it was a treasured night!!
They say that to follow Racing is to suffer, and they do put us through the ringer, 4 wins in 13 games isn’t a great return, but when they do win it is all so worthwhile. If they can get that 18th title over the line in Tigre on Sunday night it will be a wonderful occasion, and open up the Libertadores in 2020, when as luck would have it, I will be back for the first time in five years to see if my wins record came improve! Yo soy de RACING!