World Cup celebrations: postcards from the heart of the beast

Among the thousands of photographs taken during the festivities surrounding the center of Buenos Aires on Saturday afternoon, following Argentina’s heart-stopping World Cup victory, perhaps the most breathtaking were aerial drone shots of the Obelisk taken from hundreds of meters up in the evening sky. 

There, you could see the size of the spontaneous gathering that could not truly be fathomed at street level. An extraterrestrial intelligence would compare this sight to a complex system such as an ant colony or a massive swarm of bees congregating around their queen. A foreigner unfamiliar with Buenos Aires and Argentina’s passion for football would imagine that the scene was a disaster waiting to happen. 

But that was not the case. Other than minor disturbances towards the end of the evening the beautiful anarchy unfolded in a spirit of joy, collective release and good will. We were there, on the ground, within a stone’s throw from the Obelisk. There were no hooligans (at least not disruptive ones), no violence, no police, no panic, no security forces (at least until the very end of the evening, when things got a bit unruly). 

The massive crowd, shoulder to shoulder, for various kilometers, sang a classic repertory of football chants, jumped up and down, smiled incessantly and threw their hands in the air as in a religious rapture. Infants and small children rode on the shoulders of their fathers, appearing to levitate over the thousands of people. 

The processions were also an object lesson in different social classes, not to say divisions, in Argentinian society. To explain this we should describe two separate routes taken, one after the semifinal match against Croatia on Tuesday December 13th and the other on Sunday in celebration of the historic win against a powerful and youthful French side accompanied by the president, Emmanuel Macron. 

At the conclusion of the semifinal match, the Herald walked down Corrientes Avenue towards the Obelisk. The mood was inclusive and everyone seemed absolutely at home, accustomed to popular celebrations and taking to the streets. Informal vendors offered cans of beer from styrofoam coolers at elevated but reasonable prices (about ARS$500 for a  large can). A street artist lay prone on the pavement drawing an enormous chalk portrait of Messi with the phrase “Together until the end” reflecting the sentiment at that time. No matter what happened in the final, the team had lived up to its country’s most urgent demands: that they honor the traditions of football and represent Argentina with an unrelenting competitive spirit. 

Moving closer to the Obelisk, now blocks away, steel barricades barred the procession. The pedestrians walked left on the street Libertad and then doubled back on a Diagonal Norte with the Obelisk in their sights again. It was gleaming bright white in the diaphanous blue sky much like the pattern of the national team’s journey. 

Reaching the Obelisk wasn’t too difficult as long as you didn’t mind squeezing sideways through a mass of people

In this trajectory, down Corrientes, most fans were teenagers and people in their early twenties. Countless men were bare-chested, tattooed and with haircuts shaved close at the side similar to the players on the National Team. The proportion of men and women seemed to be equal. 

Once at the very heart of the beast, in the inner sanctum of the hoard, right next to the Obelisk, one was able to commune in song with the hardcore fans, some toothless, some wearing plastic Messi masks, all waving flags. Everyone let themselves be photographed and indeed the multitudes raised their cellphones in the air recording the historic event. Despite the recent rise in Covid cases absolutely no one was wearing a mask. 

Walking down Santa Fe Avenue, the main commercial street of the posh Barrio Norte neighborhood, it was a different story. From Coronel Diaz, down Santa Fe to the 9 de Julio, the crowd was joyful without being euphoric but spaced out with more families taking part including older couples. Children walked freely without concern of getting lost or separated from their parents. From the balcony of a large church, a priest stood on the balcony as if blessing the passing crowd. A small congregation, surely parishioners, sang innocent songs gazing at the priest. 

Closing in on 9 de Julio the scene was markedly different from Correntes. Family units of mostly blond and well dressed individuals, drinking mate and singing the same songs as the crowd near the Obelisk, but without drumbeats and ecstatic dancing. In addition, the crowd maintained a clear social distance from one another leaving wide open spaces to move towards the center of the festivities.

Startlingly, crossing Cordoba Avenue, near the Colon Opera House, a strange buffer existed, a open space separating the Barrio Norte hinchas from the more boisterous and, some would say, more genuine fans of the newly consecrated world champions. 

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