In bed with Maradona

“Maradona or Messi?” was a question I was frequently asked in Argentina. It was hard to answer, but Buenos Aires was undeniably the greatest city I had yet to visit. And Argentina was something of an incongruous name on my list of 106 countries, having only spent a couple of days in Puerto Iguazú before the Brazil World Cup. I had to visit it properly.

I bounced around the country on eight internal flights, from waterfalls in the tropical north to Patagonia in the wild south. I celebrated my birthday in Salta and, the following morning, took a plane to the wine capital of Mendoza. I had not banked on the Zonda, a strong Andean wind that felled trees and tossed around small aircraft. Our landing was aborted just metres above the runway which did nothing for a stomach filled with raw llama and too many drinks.

My stomach had settled when Alex, our River Plate supporting driver, reflected on Argentina’s victory at the Qatar World Cup. Like my time in Mendoza, La Albiceleste’s tournament had not started well. I watched Saudi Arabia beat Argentina with a plate of sauteed liver during Eat the World Cup. “It was like the Zonda. It was the shock necessary” said Alex. The Zonda is an important part of Mendoza’s climate. The wind helps create snow in the mountains that then melts and irrigates the leafy desert city through a system of acequias.

Lucas, another River fan, hosted me at Bodega Domingo Hermanos. I was focussed on the excellent wines but Lucas asked, as I was English, which team I supported. Unbelievably, Lucas followed Wycombe Wanderers in England, first attracted by their style of play and then impressed by the underdog history of the Buckinghamshire football club. “Now they have stars like Vokes and McCleary and their coach is the great Matt Bloomfield” said Lucas. His love for English lower league meant he could rattle off the names of Salford City and Forest Green Rovers players alongside tasting notes for Malbec and Torrontés wines.

I had some initial reticence about mentioning my nationality, given the political and football history between the two countries, but I should not have worried. Argentinians love the pace of the English game, and have respect for the country that invented it. “Chapeau” said a Racing Club fan to me in a downtown Buenos Aires café after explaining the role English football had in developing the sport’s popularity in Argentina. This made me smile. The expression hawks back to the time when men used to take their hat off as a sign of admiration.

Buenos Aires is a football goldmine, with more professional clubs than any other city, and I was desperate to watch one of the big five: Boca Juniors, River, Racing, Indepediente and San Lorenzo. Kick off times are only confirmed about a week in advance, and they fell nicely over my football weekend. I took a bondi, a super-fast bus with giant numbering on the front, from downtown to Racing’s stadium in the southern suburb of Avellaneda for 50 pesos, the equivalent of five pence. The Argentinian economy had nose-dived again, making Argentina a very cheap place to visit. But I was impressed with how resilient locals were in the face of the world’s highest inflation. They were used to it. As Claudio, the owner of Bodega Benegas in Mendoza, had said, “Argentina produces three great things: wines, football players and economic crises.”

Porteños, residents of Buenos Aires, must also contend with one of the lowest levels of green space in any major city. This might explain why dozens of children played out mini-matches on the concrete alongside the pitch in Racing’s enigmatic El Cilindro. Racing at least tried to play progressive football during their 1-1 draw against Central Córdoba in La Copa de la Liga Profesional. Argentinos Juniors, the previous day, resorted to retrospective English tactics and pumped long balls to two big men in a 2-1 defeat against another Córdoba club, Instituto. Only young Federico Redondo, playing in the same deep midfield position as his father Fernando, showed guile that suggested a successful career.

Argentinos Juniors are famed for developing youth like the Redondos. Their museum displayed a counter which recorded that the club had fielded at least one academy player in their last 1,863 matches. The most famous graduate was Diego Maradona, who scored 116 goals in 166 matches for the club before leaving for Boca. The stadium, like Napoli’s, is named after their legendary former player. And, in October, Fiorentina and former Argentinos Juniors striker Nicolas Gonzalez became the first player to score at both Diego Maradona stadiums in a win over Napoli. At Argentinos Juniors the teams run out, without parody, through an inflatable Diego Maradona tunnel before every game and fans sing “olé, olé, olé, olé, Diego, Diego” during the 10th minute of every match.

Diego made me cry. His goals against England at the Mexico World Cup led to the first crushing defeat of my football watching life. I was hardly going to buy an “Argentina 2-1 Inglaterra” t-shirt. But he was a brilliant maverick, and I was intrigued to visit his family home, now a museum called Casa de D10S, just a few hundred metres from the Argentinos Juniors stadium. Inside, the décor was virtually unchanged. There were photos of Diego with his family in their kitchen, others showed him lying with his record collection on his bedroom floor and soaking in a pink bath. The family bathroom was now the museum toilet. It was somehow cathartic to take a leak in the same toilet that Diego had used over four decades ago. I even laughed at the unfinished ‘Hand of God’ jigsaw puzzle on the lounge table.

Argentina and its people had treated me well. But it was their passion for football that had turned me, a passion so fervent that away fans had been banned from stadiums for over a decade. I ventured to the beautiful island of Tierra del Fuego. After five hours hiking, I asked the bus driver to stop at la cancha outside the adjacent National Park. I was so excited to see fans for a fifth-tier match between trucker teams from Ushuaia and Rio Grande, I cracked my head on the bus door. The home team, Camioneros Ushuaia, were backed by the flares, horns, and drums of noisy hinchada, livening up amateur football in the world’s most southerly organised league. I felt there were always going to be more mountains than goals, and was more surprised that the referee was accompanied by police escorts after this fiery goalless draw.

Back in Buenos Aires, I took an Uber to Ezeiza International, perhaps the only airport with a code (EZE) that matches the name of a current international player, for my flight home. Nicolas, driving a dark Fiat with darker glasses, wore Boca shorts. They triggered a final football chat in my improving Spanish. He was a socio at Boca, paying the equivalent of £60 for a year behind the goal wearing blue and yellow. Nicolas pointed out the national team’s training centre, surrounded by graceful trees and boards advertising Argentina’s World Cup win. Lionel Messi was there ahead of a qualifier. But Messi was unlikely to be around next time I visited. Buenos Aires is the greatest city I have yet to visit twice.

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