Tens of thousands of ecstatic fans jump up and down in unison, roaring modified cumbia classics to the beat of carnival drums; crazed supporters sway atop 10-foot fences between the stands and the field as they drape the barbed wire with their team's flags; showers of confetti and sulfurous smoke from colorful flares fill the air. The occasion? Just another day's fútbol (soccer) match in Argentina—and all this before the game even begins.
For most Argentineans soccer is a fervent passion. The national team is one of the world's best, and the World Cup can bring the country to a standstill as workers gather in cafés and bars to live out the nation's fate via satellite. Feelings also run high during the biannual local championships, when rivalry between hinchas (fans) gets heated. In a country where people joke that if soccer great Diego Maradona were to run for president he'd win hands down, fútbol is the source of endless debate, fiery dispute, suicidal despair, love, and hate.
Matches are held year-round and are seriously exciting—and sometimes dangerous. You're safest in the platea (preferred seating area), which starts at around 60 pesos and increases depending on location and the importance of the match, rather than in the chaotic 25- to 30-peso popular (standing room) section. Be careful what you wear—fans carry their colors with pride, and not just on flags and team shirts. Expect to see painted faces, hundreds of tattoos, and even women's underwear with the colors of the best-known teams: Boca Juniors (blue and gold) and their archrivals River Plate (red and white), as well as Independiente (red), Racing (light blue and white), and San Lorenzo (red and blue). The no-man's-land that separates each team's part of the stadium, the drum-banging antics of hooligan mafias known as the barra brava, and the heavy police presence at matches are a reminder of how seriously the game is taken.
You can buy tickets at long lines at the stadiums up to four days before matches or from the teams' official Web sites.
Skip the lines and the hassle by buying match packages through Tangol (4312-7276 www.tangol.com). These include well-located platea seats, transport, and a soccer-loving guide. Expect to pay more to see the most popular teams.