Argentinos Juniors 0 Atletico de Rafaela 0
Game Nine and the first one I’ve attended this season. OK, I was present last month at that scintillating 3-0 victory by Leo Messi and his gang over Venezuela in the World Cup qualifiers and I did have my butt frozen to the seat at a bitterly cold Craven Cottage in February to see Dimitar Berbatov break sweat, almost, as he blasted a volley into the Stoke City net.
Then there was our regular visit to the West Ham shop in the Boleyn Ground to stock up on Hammers pencil cases, slippers and the like. We also paid a non-matchday visit to Anfield and trekked around the very impressive National Football Museum in Manchester.
So I’ve not exactly been lacking football. It’s just that this is where it’s truly at. The bread and butter, the nitty-gritty, the bare bones of live, league football action on the terraces on a chilly Friday evening whinging and moaning about the quality of the play, the referee, the price of soft drinks and swimming in a cacophony of foul language.
The game was truly awful. It started badly and steadily deteriorated. The first-half ended with barely a shot on goal and the fans reduced to celebrating the one corner. The atmosphere was lively among the home fans. The huge away stand opposite hosted a mere straggle of Rafaela supporters, like Wigan followers at a Wembley final or Thatcher diehards at a miners’ meeting.
We consoled ourselves at the break that the second half couldn’t possibly be any worse than the first. Could it??!
It could and it was. Passes went astray, goalkeepers blasted their kicks into touch, defenders collided with one another. “What is this? Anti-football?” shouted one wit from the stands.
Then the home side brought on their little number 17. Diego Maradona was short, Kevin Keegan wore stacked heels and a puffed up mullet to hide his lack of stature and plenty of other quality players feel themselves fortunate if their eyeballs are on a level with Peter Crouch’s nipples when marking him for corners. But Daniel Villalva was tiny, a pocket-sized 152cm. I don’t know if he’s finished growing. I hope for his sake he hasn’t. His headers were met with ironic cheers, he scurried and hurried around the ankles of the Rafaela defenders, on one occasion nipping in below their field of vision to steal the ball and hit a rare strike on goal.
But the high point for me, on an occasion when the bar had been forced dangerously low, was when one disgruntled fan threw his false teeth over the railings at a Rafaela player about to take a throw-in.
It landed in a pink plop at his feet, the saliva glistening in the creamy glow of the floodlights.
To what depths of frustration must a fan have sunk to feel moved to rip his plate from his mouth and fling it angrily out of reach? Did he have no coins or lighter or half-eaten sandwich? Did he not consider the consequences? Would he now have to sit out the Sunday afternoon asado, trying to suck molten beef fat through a straw while the rest of the family munched their mandibles on prime cuts of bife de chorizo?
One of the Argentinos trainers picked it up, realised what he was handling and flung it disgustedly back into the crowd. It was thrown back on to the pitch.
What if the toothless one were arrested? For I’m sure there’s a sub-clause of a paragraph somewhere in the Argentine constitution that forbids the flinging of dental accessories onto the field of play. Who knows where it could all end? Would disgruntled fans next start tossing artificial limbs, colostomy bags and wigs onto the pitch?
“Mr Lopez, how to you plead to the charge of throwing your dental plate onto the pitch?”
“Sorry Mr Lopez. I didn’t get that.”
“I’m afraid, your honour, that my client is totally unintelligible without his dental plate in place. But in his defence, he felt moved to protest in the strongest possible terms at the failure of his side to string more than two passes together. He was frustrated that having spent 70pesos of his hard-earned cash, he didn’t see his team mount a single coherent, threatening attack on the opponents’ goal and was particularly angry at the cynical delaying tactics employed by the Rafaela players who were quite blatantly playing for the goalless draw.”
I would willingly stand as a witness for his defence.
In the absence of goalmouth action, we took to analysing the performances of individual players and focussed on the Rafaela number nine, a lithe, athletic figure with a shaven head who, in full flow chasing after loose balls, was as graceful as a gazelle. In short, he looked the part.
However, on the few occasions that Diego Vera Mendez came close to the ball, an expression spread across his face like that of the average Argentine when answering the door to the tax inspectors.
He didn’t like it one bit and the ball didn’t much like him either, bouncing off his knees, ankles and shins in every direction but the one his team mates were anticipating.
You remember matches like this one as the low-water mark against which future games will be judged. It’s performances like this one that bond and bind the fans together in common disgruntlement.
“I was there for that awful Rafaela game.”
“Yes, me too. Wasn’t it dreadful. Still, could have been worse. At least it didn’t rain.”
“That’s true. And d’you see that geezer who threw his false teeth on the pitch? Never seen anything like it.”
“Remarkable. See you in two weeks for the Lanus game?”
“Si señor. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”