Stadium offers a chance to dream
FORGET the pilgrimage to Eva Peron's grave in Recoleta's cemetery or even Buenos Aires' most famous square, Plaza de Mayo - if you're a football fanatic (of the round ball variety) or travelling with one, top of the sightseeing list in the city is going to be La Boca.
I admit, until the Boca Juniors came to New Zealand last year, I'd never heard of them but for my husband, a chance to see the once-home ground of Maradona (yes, I had heard of the 'Hand of God') was always going to be the highlight of a brief stop in Buenos Aires.
As we'd been staying in Recoleta, one of the city's most expensive neighbourhoods (in one of the cheapest hotels) our arrival in La Boca was something of a culture shock. While Recoleta reeks of money and privilege, La Boca is more in the realm of the have-nots, where people live not in multi-million-dollar apartments but in crowded tenements and shantytowns sheltering under highway fly-overs.
This is a working class (for the lucky ones) neighbourhood, a place where football is not simply a sport, it's a dream of escape, where rags to riches tales can come true.
There's a vitality and a sense of community in La Boca that is missing from the better-heeled side of town.
Even so, the first sight of the environs around La Boca's stadium - which can house up to 49,000 screaming, cheering weeping fans - is a reality check after the excesses of Recoleta. There's graffiti on the graffiti; rubbish lies in drifts in the side streets and people prop up doorways while smoking in the shadows. Tourists are warned not to leave the main streets and not to explore anywhere at night; when we veer off into a side alley even in broad daylight we meet a trio of well-armed policemen on surveillance duty.
Rising up from the suburban decay is the stadium, La Bombonera (the candy-box), itself adorned in Boca Juniors colours of blue and yellow, the rallying point for not only its neighbourhood but thousands of fans from the rest of the city (Buenos Aires seems about evenly split between Boca and River Plate supporters). The walls of the stadium tower like cliff faces above the surrounding houses just as some of Britain's most famous club grounds do. I find it fascinating, as a Kiwi more used to sports grounds lapped with hectares of carparks and open space.
Boca Juniors was formed in 1905 by a group of young Italian men (La Boca itself has a strong Italian heritage and is named after its location at the mouth - boca in Italian - of the nearby River Chuelo.) Its blue and yellow colours also have an aquatic link - the club's founders were arguing over what strip to have and when they reached an impasse decided to go down to the docks and wait for the next ship to dock. Whatever' nation's flag was flying would be the new club's colours. The first ship they saw was Swedish.
It wasn't a match day when we visited La Bombonera but the shop immediately opposite the main entrance was still doing a brisk trade in La Boca merchandise. Behind its window display featuring a young and athletic Maradona - the Argentine football genius had two stints with Boca Juniors - and replicas of the World Cup were piles of jerseys, t-shirts, shelves of mugs and glasses and, appropriately for Latin America perhaps, La Boca g-strings.
While it's football that lures in many visitors to this neighbourhood it's not the only drawcard. Nearby is Caminito, a street dedicated to murals, street artists and tango. It's a tourist trap par excellence but the exuberant colours of the buildings, the ever-present throb of the tango beat and the flash of dancers' thighs are still beguiling.
Although now seriously tarted up, Caminito's vibrant paintwork and those of the surrounding streets have authentic origins. When La Boca's earliest residents, Italian and other European immigrants, first arrived in Buenos Aires they had little money to spend on house painting. But then they built in cheap and readily available wood and corrugated iron which needed protection from the elements. The solution was found at the nearby docks - leftover paint from ship maintenance - and the result was a kaleidoscope of colours.
This background is now further enhanced by local artists who have adorned walls with murals and added life-size models of Eva and Maradona to balconies. At ground level women in high heels, fish net stockings and skirts artfully designed to expose as much thigh as possible entice male tourists to pose in tango stances, while men in white shirts and fedoras pursue female travellers.
The tango dancers only rise languidly to their feet when visitors come into view but even though this is performance for pesos some of the best dancers can't help being caught up in the passion of the tango. It could be something in the air - although tango is now part of respectable ballroom dance repertoires the world over it traces its origins back to Buenos Aires neighbourhoods such as La Boca - a dance said to reflect the interplay between the girls of La Boca's brothels and their clientele.
In La Boca today, the women tango dancers are working it in the hope of a good tip, but as their stockinged legs slide up the thighs of grinning male tourists, it's a little more problematic what their dance partners might be thinking.