As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, FrontRowSoccer.com will run stories about players, coaches, personalities and situations related to the month. As a companion piece to our first story, editor Michael Lewis talks about his experience at El Monumental in 2009. This story was posted on BigAppleSoccer.com Feb. 23, 2009.
By Michael Lewis
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Before the advent of MLS and when my schedule was not as crowded, anytime I needed a soccer fix for a real good fixture or game, I flew to England.
I’d go on assignment for a free-lance piece on an American player, a mini-vacation or busman’s holiday. I’d fly in mid-week and watch whatever match was on tap, whether it was Chelsea (pre-Abramovich days) or Tottenham Hotspur or another London club.
I would sit in the stands — yes, I bought a ticket — as a spectator and took and in the atmosphere.
On Sunday night, I got my fix — albeit an unexpected one – at El Monumental. Only minutes after I had checked into the Sheraton Pilar, I discovered the Red Bulls would be heading for El Monumental to watch the River Plate-Banfield match. I certainly could not miss getting an opportunity to be in one of the best football grounds in the world.
A visit to the home of River Plate certainly was worth it, even if I was still tired from an 11-hour flight.
After all, you don’t get an opportunity every day to visit an historic futbol ground such as El Monumental.
Most Argentine fans know it as the home or River Plate, one of Argentina’s great teams, one half of the world’s greatest derbies (Boca Juniors are the other half). The stadium also hosted the opening and final game of the 1978 World Cup and for the most part, is the National Stadium these days, where the likes of Diego Maradona played and where Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and their fellow countrymen have toiled to book a spot for soccer’s promised land — the World Cup.
A quick history of the stadium.
El Monumental was built in 1938 and holds about 66,000.
It looks like it has seen better days and could use a fresh coat of white paint.
I was told by Red Bulls vice president of communications and community relations Andy McGowan that there were 17 radio broadcasters at Sunday night’s game and that as many as 350 media outlets are at the River Plate-Boca Juniors classico, according to team Spanish communications director Ernesto Motta.
The stadium is far from high tech with the most basic amenities for football fans. There were no food courts, only food stands that sell hamburgers and hot dogs. Souvenir stands? You have to hit up someone who is selling scarves.
In the stands, roving vendors hawk soft drinks. Because there is no price on the drinks, these vendors look for marks so he can jack up the price per cup. They might be six instead of four pesos a cup (one dollar equals 3.54 pesos) That might not sound like a lot. But if you nickel and dime 33 cents or so from unsuspecting customers, it certainly can add up, especially down in this neck of the woods.
The stadium was quite a sight and certainly gave me my fix.
Seated with the rest of the team behind one of the goals, the stadium was awash in red and white banners, supporting the team, the areas in and around Buenos Aires who live and die for the team and players, of course.
There were several barriers of security to stop fans from invading the pitch.
A barbed wire fence was situated around the field.
If the fans managed to get around that obstacle, there was a small moat.
If they got around that, there was a track.
And if they got around that, policemen (four were wearing riot gear) with German Shepherds were prepared to deal with the worst.
Above us, we were told, the Banfield supporters, wearing green and white and twirling umbrellas in those colors — it rained on and off on Sunday — exhorted on their heroes.
It was to no avail.
While I am supposed to be impartial, I have to admit that part of me wanted to see the home team score so I could be in the middle of a spontaneous combustion of an emotional outburst.
Late in the opening half, I got my wish. Defender Cristian Villagra was fouled some 25 yards out, giving the home side a free kick. Matias Abelairas powered a shot into the upper left corner as goalkeeper Cristian Lucchetti did not move.
The stadium erupted as the near capacity crowd (the stadium holds 66,000) jumped to their feet, cheering the goal.
For a good portion of the rest of the game, they sang songs to their heroes, some R-rated, about how their team had the “balls” to play such a hard game.
The game was special for Red Bulls striker and captain Juan Pablo Angel, who forged his reputation as lethal goal-scorer for the Argentine club from 1997-2000. In a little more than two seasons before his transfer to
Angel had been back to Argentina before but never to a River game since departing for Aston Villa some nine years ago.
While the Red Bulls were shown their seats, Angel visited the team locker room, spoke with current players and watched the game from the other end of the stadium.
Not surprisingly, Angel was besieged by River Plate fans for autographs and photos and needed a police escort to get back to the team.
Oh yeah, the team never got an opportunity to watch the second goal. About the 70th minute the team left, wanting to avoid the post-game crush, although they listened to the final goal on the radio.
The team was taken to a series of restaurants near the hotel where they could have dinner — from steak to fast food. The communications department and some of the other staff chose a steak place called Siga la Vaca — Follow the Cow.
Not bad for $13 a person.
While I wrote this piece, I realized that I have visited all but five of the 18 World Cup grounds that hosted the final match. I still have see Sweden (1958), Switzerland (1954), France (1938) and (Montevideo, Uruguay) 1930. Stadio Nazionale del PNF, which was used for the 1934 final in Rome was demolished in 1953, replaced by Stadio Flaminio, which yours truly has visited.
Hmmm. Perhaps I will get the opportunity to visit the other five.
Right now, I am basking in the moment of seeing what a real football atmosphere is all about. I’ll worry about visiting the other stadiums sometime in the future.