“Ah,” he says with a laugh, switching languages. “Carlos Tevez. Very funny.”
At the very least, I had been anticipating a different comment – that near-three-decade-old chestnut about Diego Maradona and ‘la mano de dios‘. But my new friend has found a fresh jibe with which to tease English visitors to Buenos Aires. He is referring, of course, to the errant Manchester City and Argentina striker, whose reaction to an argument with his club manager last September was to flounce home and wait out the European winter from the safety of a South American summer (and a few rounds of golf). The errant forward eventually returned to Manchester, but not before his Latin sojourn had caused his employers considerable discomfort – and my companion in chatter much amusement.
And yet, while the precise details of this conversation are a surprise, the overall theme is not. In Buenos Aires, everybody wants to talk football. It bubbles up on street corners. It filters into the subte underground network, where the shirts of the city’s key teams are visible on passengers of all ages. It dominates the headlines in the daily newspapers.
And it is certainly no surprise to find it on the agenda in my lunchtime location. Where I sit, in the darkly atmospheric confines of Bar Britanico, on Calle Brazil at the lower edge of the bohemian San Telmo district, I am barely a mile from the city’s temple of football.
La Bombonera (which translates as ‘the chocolate box’) is the home of Boca Juniors – the current Argentinian champions, Tevez’s alma mater and the heartbeat of the defiantly blue-collar La Boca district. When I pull up outside the stadium in a taxi (the barrio has a reputation for street crime) a little later, I am greeted by a bright swirl – the club’s iconic combination of blue and yellow daubed across hundreds of souvenirs for sale at stalls outside. Even though this is a random afternoon, and Boca will not play for another three days, there are plenty of onlookers milling around. A visit to the club museum and a tour of the ground ushers me into a cauldron of sport where the high tiers of seating create an ambience that frequently intimidates opponents.
Such is the popularity of Boca Juniors that the club has recently branched out into accommodation, opening the Hotel Boca on Calle Tacuari in the central San Nicolas district. But if all is smiles for the blue-and-yellow side of Buenos Aires, there is less to laugh about for fans of Boca’s great nemesis River Plate. Based in the Belgrano district, in the north of town, this team supposedly supported by the city’s wealthier denizens is currently skulking in the Argentinian second division after relegation last year (the equivalent of Manchester United dropping out of the Premier League). An air of despondency hangs over River’s aptly titled ground El Monumental, but its tour is neatly revealing of the club’s rich history.
There are, of course, other matters than football to interest visitors to Buenos Aires: the busy cafes and laid-back air of San Telmo; the heady nightlife of Palermo, not least in the bars on Plaza Cortazar (known by the locals as Plaza Serrano); the superb steak eateries laid out on the perimeter of the Cementerio de la Recoleta in Recoleta (though, in truth, you can find excellent parrillas just about anywhere); the wealth of major monuments and buildings in and around the main Plaza de Mayo, where the unflinchingly pink walls of the Casa Rosada, the government palace, occupy the end of this long, crowded square.
But even here, football has its moments. When I walk through the Plaza, I am drawn to the posters and placards at the heart of what is the city’s traditional place of protest. Many of them refer to the hot topic of the Falklands (though the subject of pensions for veterans is as much an issue as the ‘ownership’ of the islands) – and the blue and white colours of the Argentinian flag are much in evidence. But when I gaze around, I notice that this two-tone spectacle is equally down to the number of people wearing the national football kit, the name of Lionel Messi – Argentina’s captain and the sport’s global superstar du jour – printed on the back. You don’t have to be a football obsessive to enjoy Buenos Aires. But you might soon discover that the city’s enthusiasm for the ‘beautiful game’ is infectious.