Argentina vs. Bolivia: an historical world cup qualifying game. And an historical mistake: wearing an Argentine jersey to El Estadio La Paz.
The score line is probably old hat by now. 6-1 Bolivia. 6-1 Bolivia. Argentina has not lost this bad to anyone since 1958. And they lost to a team near the bottom of the South American qualifying table, a team considered to be a disappointing group of drogos y borrachos.
We filed into the North Curve of the stadium and awaited kickoff with anticipation. Down on the field, we pointed out the Argentine stars excitedly – Messi, Teves, Aguero. We were in the presence of some of the greatest players in the world. And then there was Diego Maradona in the flesh – or more literally in a black tracksuit – sporting his legendary mullet and earring. The infamous hand of God was folded modestly behind his back.
45000 fans were stuffed into the esophageal stadium like a force-fed goose destined for fois-gras. And 45000 thousand throats could be heard bellowing a thundering warcry:
“BO”…”LI”…”VIA” “VIVA BOLIVIA!”
It was human voices become rolling thunder; it was the blood lust of the Roman coliseum. Except that the mob yearned for a marriage of ball and mesh, not steel and flesh.
The Argentines were well represented, even sporting a banneresque flag with the word “Malvinas” written across it in threatening black. They wanted to win, they expected to win. They also wanted to have the Falklands back. But you can’t always get what you want, and at high altitude, sometimes you don’t get nuthin’.
Behind my seat, a group of belligerent Irishmen were feeling at home in their green Bolivian jerseys. Despite their genetically programmed drunkenness, they managed to fashion a chant of scathing genius: “Maradona is a wanker! Maradona is a wanker!” they jeered. The Bolivian fans looked up in admiring incomprehension, struggling to comprehend the foreign word.
As a trickle of Bolivean goals turned into a flood, it was impossible not to get caught up in this sporting Cinderella story. When the Bolivean’s earned a penalty to have the chance to go ahead 2-1, there weren’t any press behind the goal to capture the moment. They had all been waiting expectantly behind the goal at the Bolivean end for the likes of Messi to score. In a wave of panicked herd movement, they all decided to run to the other side at once. Jackets flapped and huge zoom lenses wobbled in apologetic desperation down the sideline.
After the game, Maradona said: “Cada gol Boliviano fue como una puñal en el corazón.” Every goal was like a dagger in his heart. I think his analogy failed to capture the violating quality of his first defeat. I think we can all imagine where he really felt each goal.
My post game experience was no better. Walking out of the stadium in my Argentina jersey, I carried the shame of a nation on my shoulders. I was interviewed on camera, and my off-guard Spanish was mocked by the camera-man. I was punched and booed by young children. A homeless man made a serious threat to stab me six times. I was sure I had it worse than Diego.
Oh, the fever of soccer in South America.