Passion Play : Wild Fans, Crazed Players And a Nation In Thrall--When It Comes To Futbol Madness, Nobody Out-Obsesses the Argentines.

Times staff writer Julie Cart is covering the World Cup. She also reported on the 1990 Cup

Buenos Aires is where Ford Falcons come to die. The car that has all but disappeared from the United States is thriving here, gleaming in anachronistic chrome and shift-on-the-column obsolescence. They are used mostly as taxis, and in Argentina, no less than New York City, a taxi serves as a microcosm of culture and color, a mobile commentary booth on the world at large. The driver warms up with politics; tango and pop music are worth a passing comment. But Topic A is futbol. The driver angrily dissects the Argentine national team's disappointing performance in World Cup qualifying. With each bitter description of a loss, the taxi swerves and seems to lash out at other automobiles.

For a decade and a half, Argentina has dominated the quadrennial World Cup, winning in 1978 and 1986 and finishing second in 1990. But Argentina struggled during qualifying matches and was the last nation to make the 24-team tournament, which opens next week in Chicago and ends with the championship match on July 17 in the Rose Bowl.

In the Falcon's front seat, a cigarette punctuates the commentary. "Too much defensive play." A stab toward the rearview mirror. "No one knows how to dribble the ball!" Smoke slaloms along the dashboard. "Beaten by Colombia! In Buenos Aires!" The driver's voice rises in outrage and the cigarette, mashed into a stub, gets flicked out the window.

Argentina and Argentines are futbol crazy. In a country of 33 million people, more than 6 million play regularly. The players from this South American country populate the best teams in Europe, the sport's premier locale. Men like Claudio Caniggia and Gabriel Batistuta are among the biggest of the big-money soccer stars.

And in a sport renowned for fan devotion, Argentines are in a slightly scary class of their own. They've all but institutionalized soccer hooliganism and even the most peaceful of fans blithely toss bottles and cherry bombs and incendiary chants around the stadiums. Second place might as well not exist for an Argentine fan, and even a victory isn't good enough unless it is accomplished with style and grace.

All of which makes Argentina a case study in what the United States has been missing. Neither Pele, the great Brazilian star who played in the United States in the 1970s, nor a thriving network of amateur youth and adult leagues could overcome Americans' well-known immunity to soccer fever. When the World Cup unfolds in nine U.S. cities over the next month, it will be this country's first real encounter with a sports passion that enthralls most of the world--and that Argentina defines.

In Buenos Aires, the cabby never lets up his lament about his country's showing in the qualifying rounds. When he pulls to a stop at the Argentine Football Association headquarters, he can't let this opportunity pass. He twists around in his seat to send a message to Julio Grondona, the AFA president. A new cigarette is in one hand and the car's glowing lighter is in the other. "Tell Grondona the team must do well in the United States," he says, waving the lighter. "We must reclaim our pride by winning the World Cup."

THE FIRST SMOKE BOMB EXPLODES just as the players from the preliminary game are dashing from the field. Noxious orange smoke billows from the projectile and follows the junior players. The crowd is pleased. From the stands, other noisy devices are set off: M-80s, cherry bombs and the odd homemade bomb.

On this night, as two Buenos Aires-based teams, Racing and Ferro Carril Oeste, are about to face off at Racing's stadium, security appears especially spotty: Although no glass is allowed, the field is already littered with broken bottles. The bottles occasionally fall short and shatter on the concrete embankment surrounding the field--it's a nice sound. In addition to the embankment, a moat and a 20-foot-high net keep the fans off the field. During the game, several spectators clamber up and hang there, suspended like spiders on a web.

From March to August, twice a week, followers of soccer gather as disciples at the altars of their religion, Argentina's dozen or so state-of-the-art futbol stadiums. The carefully tended fields are used only for soccer, and only by the 20 teams of the country's First Division soccer league. The teams are sponsored by athletic clubs, some with tennis courts, swimming pools and other facilities, but whose prime purpose is to operate the teams.

Each club and each stadium employ different methods for protecting players, coaches and officials as they go on and off the field. At Racing's field, the players enter from underground, up through what resembles submarine hatches on the sideline. Racing's 11 starters trot onto the field, but the rest of the team hunkers behind a blue tarp designed to intercept the stray bottle or citrus.

By the end of the first half, the home crowd is in a fine mood as Racing produces two goals to Ferro Carril's none. The teams leave the field, each down its own hatch. Moments later, the referees and players from Ferro Carril re-emerge. It seems that the power to the visiting locker room and the officials' changing room has been shut off. Strangely, there is no electrical problem in the home locker room. The players from Ferro Carril encamp in the middle of the field. Fans view this development as an unexpected but welcome chance for target practice. The players huddle closer and attempt to ignore the fusillade of debris glancing off the playing field around them. Moments before the game is to resume, club officials announce that the power "to the affected portions of the stadium" has been restored.

The second half does not go well for Racing. One of its players removes his shirt and throws it to the fans in celebration of a goal--a rule violation that results in the player's ejection. Racing will not be allowed to replace him and must play one man short. The fans, who had encouraged the player's display of devotion to them, now turn against him. Ferro Carril scores twice, and the game ends in a 2-2 tie.

The fans storm out of the stadium but not away from it. They mill around outside, discussing again and again the stupidity of the player, cursing him. A mob forms near the Racing locker room. The team bus is parked nearby, and the swelling crowd rocks it, terrifying the driver. People shout at the players through windows that had been broken after some other loss. "You are a dead man!" is the general sentiment, which has been broadened now to include the entire team and the coaches. A couple of kids are hoisted up to the windows to relay the crowd's curses, close range.

A series of shots-- POP! POP!-- ring out. Police have fired into the air in a vain attempt to disperse the crowd. Two hours after the game, a journalist for the Buenos Aires-based national newspaper Clarin emerges from the locker room and works his way free of the crush of fans. He is asked if the players will be coming out soon. "No, no," he says, glancing at the angry mob. "They will not come out. They know what is waiting for them."

The bus driver toots the horn, his stab at shooing away the fans. Then he abandons the bus and fights his way to the locker room. The door opens and he hurries inside. In the midst of the roiling and shouting crowd, a fan begins to sob, overcome by anger and frustration. His T-shirt reads: "Racing. An inexplicable passion."

None of the events that took place after the game will merit so much as a line in the journalist's report. Nothing unusual happened.

SOCCER IS PLAYED EVERYWHERE IN ARGENTINA, BY EVERYONE, AT ALL times. At midday by shirt-sleeved businessmen on traffic medians and at night by children dodging parked cars under the glow of street lights.

"In Argentina, the first present for a boy is a soccer ball. The father wants to see his son with a ball, playing football. It is a dream," says Pholo Toledo, assistant to Cesar Luis Menotti, coach of the popular professional team Boca Juniors and a former World Cup coach. "It is unusual in the United States to see a boy kicking a ball. In our small towns, the children play with a ball. If they don't have one, they play with a T-shirt or with paper, rocks, anything, everything. Most of the time they place two rocks on the ground. The space between them, that is the goal."

In their dreams, those kids are playing in the big leagues, on one of Argentina's First Division professional teams, where fame and fortune--top club players make about $2 million a year--await. There are many tiers to professional soccer in Argentina. The highest level is the First Division. Below that are the B Division and C Division, similar to baseball's minor leagues.

Many of the best Argentine players compete in the even more lucrative European professional leagues, returning to Argentina only for international matches or for the few weeks before the World Cup to prepare. The national coach, now Alfio Basile, works full time, at least until he's fallen out of favor with the public--or the Argentine Football Association.

The AFA headquarters occupy several floors of a turn-of-the-century office building in downtown Buenos Aires. It is an important address, as befits the stature of the organization. The decor in the ornate wood-paneled offices--with scores of trophies and cups and withered soccer balls in glass cases--is meant to leave the impression that this is one of Argentina's most important places. AFA president Grondona, with his desk full of telephones and a photograph of himself with the Pope, believes this. He's spent virtually all his adult life in the hierarchy of Argentine soccer. Before heading the AFA, he was the president of the nation's largest soccer and athletic club, Independiente.

Interviews with Grondona are not so much question - and - answer sessions as lectures punctuated by pauses in which questions may be offered, but also ignored. At this moment, he is losing patience explaining the unexplainable: "Football is a sport which is passionate by nature. Do you know why? All the sports where you use the hands are easier. Yes? When you use your legs only . . . instead of sport, we can talk about dance. This is the main point." Pause. Then, as if to underscore the capriciousness of his job as the country's top soccer administrator, the knife-edge risk of it, he adds, "I think that the Argentines have two faces, two different ways. When we win, it seems that we are gods. When we lose, we are good for nothing."

Soccer was introduced to Argentina by British sailors who often played in Buenos Aires' port area. In 1901, British immigrants formed the River Plate team, and 12 years later, an Irishman and a handful of Italians assembled the Boca Juniors, the nemesis of River Plate. Their rivalry has long been marked by class divisions: The wealthy tend to identify with River, the much more numerous poor and working class with Boca.

Native Argentines soon started their own teams and leagues eventually developed. The first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, was an exercise in humiliation for Argentina: They lost in the championship game to Uruguay, their poorer neighbor. Another lackluster showing in 1934 prompted Argentina to withdraw from international soccer competition until 1958.

The national team grew increasingly strong, winning and hosting the World Cup in 1978--and drawing unwanted global attention on the repressive military junta that had come to power in 1976. Some critics, such as Amnesty International, questioned the propriety of holding the world's single largest sporting event in a nation where kidnaping, torture and murder were common tools for silencing political opponents. The junta dismissed all criticism as "Marxist plotting."

Argentina spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade its infrastructure for the World Cup, including its antiquated mass communications systems. The Federation Internationale de Football Association, world soccer's governing body, mandated that all games be televised in color; Argentina did not have color TV in 1978 but nevertheless broadcast the games abroad in full color. Only inside Argentina did the matches appear in black and white. The Argentines were so hungry to host the World Cup that there was hardly a stir when the minister of economics made the somewhat alarmist announcement that projected costs were off by as much as $750 million.

Government officials would hardly be concerned about the costs of staging the tournament, since, to them, the ends more than justified the means: The exhilaration of winning the World Cup had the desired effect of numbing the populace. The junta probably gained a year or two's grace out of the soccer team's victory.

The drain of money and resources aside, some of the Argentine intelligentsia were disgusted that the ruling junta had skillfully equated excitement about the event with satisfaction with the government. During the tournament, the great writer Jorge Luis Borges reflected: "The fact that a game, and a commercial one at that, should be promoted to the rank of holy war, passes my understanding. I am a fervent patriot and, I hope, a good citizen, but I emphatically do not hold the uncanonical belief, now voiced by the press, and by the radio, of salvation through football. . . . I abhor or hate Communists, Nationalists and Fascists impartially, and I think the cult of football is hardly a remedy for these ailments."

But soccer in Argentina had always thrived independent of politics, notes Julio Cesar Pasquato, who writes for the sports magazine El Grafico under the name of Juvenal. "There were two paths--one for the country and one for football," he said. "They were parallel but they never crossed. The decade of the '40s was wonderful for football. It was a coincidence that (dictator Juan) Peron was the president. The decade of the '70s was a military dictatorship, a terrible tyranny, but the soccer was wonderful. Nobody can explain it."

This is the difficulty of understanding the Argentine passion for soccer: No one can explain it, but they all feel it. Interviewing soccer fans does not evoke great insight. The sport is such a part of the fabric of life in Argentina that few think to stop and reflect on its meaning.

For the poor and working class, though, futbol is a special love. "There is passion for football everywhere in South America. There's also a lot of poverty," says Eric Weil, sports editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. "All they live for, all they can be interested in, is football. That's their life. That's their passion. It gives them something to hang on to, something to live for."

ARGENTINE SOCCER CLUBS CAN BE HUGE--BOCA JUNIORS HAS ABOUT 70,000 members--and each one has a small but dangerous group of fanatic supporters. In Europe, these extremists would be called hooligans, but here they are known as the barra brava --the group of the brave. What 15 years ago began as obnoxious behavior and loud singing from the barra brava has today degenerated into violence, threats and extortion carried out on local businesses. At most clubs, it is an accepted practice for players to buy their own safety by "donating" money to the barra brava .

Boca Juniors' barra brava-- only a few hundred strong--is perhaps the most feared and most organized in the country. It has established a group called the Foundation of the 12th Player, which, according to published reports, receives up to $10,000 month from the players and a total of $80,000 a month from other sources. The money goes into the pockets of the leaders of the "foundation."

Boca's barra brava is out in force when the team meets its archrival, River Plate, in a tournament in Mendoza, along the Andean border with Chile. Mendoza's stadium is a simple bowl made of concrete and seems to have been dropped into a stand of poplar trees. Two hours before the game starts the stands are already half-filled. Directly behind the goal, in a sea of blue and yellow shirts, is a swath of beige--the bare chests of Boca's barra brava .

Later, when nearly all of the 47,000 fans have arrived, the crowd ignores the ragged drill team and flag girls the organizers provide expressly to calm them. Light whistling cascades down on the entertainers, who have been marching stoically around the field. The singing of the rival fan groups has long since drowned out the chirpy tune played over the public address system and, mercifully, the entertainers are hustled off the field and the teams trot on.

Here, as in every stadium in Argentina, rival barra bravas buy seats at opposite ends of the field. This arrangement keeps them physically at bay but does not quell the volatile verbal confrontations: the incessant singing. The songs are sometimes clever, they are often profane, they are always insulting and sung at full-lung bellow throughout the game. Nothing escapes the derision of the fans. When Boca scores, their fans taunt River Plate from across the stadium: "A moment of silence because River is dead. Cry, River, cry!"

The next time Boca players are at River's end of the field, a flare is heaved on the field. Play is halted while the flare burns itself out. When the teams change sides after the half, each opposing goalkeeper will be exposed to rival fans. River fans pelt Boca's keeper with oranges and Boca's supporters throw plastic water bottles at River's goalkeeper. Ignored on the stadium's scoreboard is the message: "Please don't throw projectiles."

Tournament organizers are serious about preempting any organized trouble. The seating area behind each goal is outlined in cyclone fencing topped with razor wire. Outside of the fences stands a line of young soldiers, each with a holstered side-arm and a baton or stick. Here, a week before, there had been trouble. Provincial police stopped buses filled with barra bravas at a checkpoint outside town. A gun battle ensued with 17 people wounded and 190 fans taken to jail. Asked if working at a soccer game is considered hazardous duty, one of the blue-uniformed soldiers rolls his eyes at such an obvious question. "Quite," he says, and goes back to watching the fans through the fence.

"I see something. It's a wonderful thing. It's Boca, Boca!" With each new song, usually sung to the tune of a popular hit, the fans erupt into a mass of noisy movement. Boca scores again. The player takes off and dashes to face his fans, who strain toward him. River's fans come to life and begin a derisive chant about their own coach. Each team scores a goal and the game is over. Boca wins, 3-1.

Security personnel herd the fans out the exits. On the field, police dogs strain against their leashes. As the River end of the stadium empties, the fans leave behind their traditional calling card after a loss--they have set fire to everything combustible. Dozens of small fires flicker. Outside the stadium, Boca fans begin singing and gather for their long march into town. It is nearly 1 in the morning--time for dinner.

Boca and River make up the country's most serious rivalry, and when they met again last month, the rivalry flared into tragedy after River scored a rare win on Boca's home field. After the game, six people were shot and two died in fighting between rival fan groups.

IN MANY WAYS, DIEGO ARMANDO Maradona, a former street urchin from the grungy town of Fiorito, is a metaphor for the lunacy that is Argentine soccer. Maradona was a soccer prodigy. He was already performing dribbling and ball-juggling feats at age 10, began his professional career at 15 and the next year represented his country in his first international match. At 17, he was the last player cut from the 1978 World Cup team. He played for Argentina in the 1982 Cup, but was sent off the field in the closing moments of a losing game after kicking an opponent in the stomach. His temper had yet to be tamed.

His maturation as a player came quickly after that. No player in the history of the game has dominated a World Cup as Maradona did in 1986. His most spectacular moment came on a predictably emotional stage: The quarterfinal match between Argentina and England. It was the first time their soccer teams had faced each other since the 1982 Falklands war and emotions were boiling: British fans rival the Argentines in belligerence.

The game was played amid high security at 114,000-seat Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. After a scoreless first half, Maradona began a penetrating attack, dribbling into England's penalty area. His dangerous run was halted when a defender stripped the ball and lofted it toward the goal and the safekeeping of English goalie Peter Shilton. Shilton never got it. Maradona darted toward the goal, leaped high, intercepted the ball in the air and deftly knocked it into the goal with his head. Or so it appeared. The English protested that Maradona had hit the ball with his hand--highly illegal in soccer. The referee didn't agree and the goal stood. Only later, after careful analysis of the televised replays, did it become obvious that Maradona had in fact punched the ball. Maradona never acknowledged the foul, saying only that if there was a hand involved, it was "The hand of God." And so the goal has forever been named.

Maradona's career has been characterized by acclaim and controversy of operatic proportions. He is known as a master ball handler and a bold, creative strategist who, like a chess player, plans several moves ahead. He has no qualms about putting his body in harm's way.

In 1984, the diminutive midfielder went from the Spanish club Barcelona to Napoli in Italy for the then-record transfer fee of $10 million. Maradona's salary was to be $2 million a year, making him one of the world's highest-paid athletes. He began his career in Naples by reporting to preseason training camp one month late. Maradona flourished in Italy in all the wrong ways: He loved the women--and was hit with a paternity suit. He loved the food--he gained weight and was fined by his club. He loved the climate--he refused to train with the team, preferring to lounge with his entourage at his villa. Other players in the league referred to him as "that tub of lard."

Some thought his marriage in 1989 to Claudia Villafane, his longtime sweetheart and the mother of his two daughters, was a sign that the bad boy was maturing. Those signs faded, however, as the wedding plans grew absurdly. Maradona chartered a 747 to shuttle pals from Italy to Buenos Aires and rented a basketball arena to hold the reception for more than 1,000 guests. The tab: more than $3 million. The groom wore black and punched out a photographer before the service.

The 1990 World Cup in Italy was to be Maradona's glittering stage. He was at the height of his skills, the captain of a strong Argentine team that was the defending champion and would be playing in front of fans in Naples, his adopted city, where he is known simply as "The King." With characteristic bravado, Maradona said of the championship trophy: "Those who want it are going to have to tear the World Cup from inside Argentina's heart." But he spent the tournament picking himself up off the field after incessant fouls, his opponents' strategy being, if you can't beat him, beat him. Maradona was the most fouled player in the tournament and played with a grotesquely swollen left ankle that needed painkilling injections before each match. Nevertheless, Argentina advanced.

The final, one of the ugliest, most mean-spirited games ever played in the World Cup, was marked by frequent fouling and brutal play, atypical of a sport where grace and finesse are prized. West Germany won, 1-0, on a controversial penalty kick, and Maradona insulted his adopted country by saying the whole tournament had been tainted by "Mafia influence."

Maradona returned to his Italian club team after the World Cup. In 1991, during routine post-match testing, he came up positive for cocaine. FIFA suspended Maradona for 15 months. He returned to Buenos Aires, declared his intention to retire and entered a drug treatment program. Not much later, he was briefly held on drug charges after a police raid. After serving his suspension, Maradona un-retired to play for Sevilla in Spain but was fired after various offenses, the worst being the alarming deterioration of his skills. Again he returned to Argentina, where he joined a club called Newell's Old Boys.

Four months later, in February, he was sacked for skipping practices and the media staked out his five-acre estate in suburban Buenos Aires. That so enraged Maradona that he grabbed a compressed-air rifle and sprayed pellets at journalists. Five of them were slightly injured. Five days after that, Maradona smashed a camera into the face of a photographer.

And the troubles continued. Last month, Maradona was barred from entering Japan for a World Cup tuneup match because of his drug history. The entire team refused to play and, in Buenos Aires, fans exploded a bomb in front of the Japanese Consulate.

"Maradona is still popular," says Weil of the Buenos Aires Herald, "but there are more and more people saying he's crazy and he needs treatment. But this is a football country and he's done a lot for Argentina. Even now, lots of people feel sorry for him."

Maradona is virtually certain to be named to Argentina's World Cup team, but no one expects him to perform as well as he has in the past; some doubt that he will even play. But his presence alone will lend the World Cup a measure of dash and danger that the sport thrives on.

EVERY FOUR YEARS, ARGENTINES REAFFIRM their love for their national team. But in this year's World Cup qualifying, the bond was tested by the team's overreaching arrogance. In one humbling week in late August, Argentina played to a 0-0 tie with lowly Paraguay and lost, 5-0, to Colombia. The worst part: Both games were played in Buenos Aires. The team failed to qualify outright in its South American group but there was another, longer road. Argentina would play Australia, the winner of the Oceania qualifying group, for the last berth in the World Cup finals.

The first game ended 1-1 in Sydney. The decisive game was played in River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires in November. Argentina dominated but could not score. It began to look like another disaster. The Argentine team got the winning goal, but it was inadvertently scored by an Australian defender. This is what is known as an "own goal," unsatisfying, yes, but a goal still, and Argentina was through to the World Cup finals.

Despite its struggle during qualifying, Argentina, along with perennial favorites Italy, Germany, Brazil and Holland, should be in the running for the Cup. The challenge will be to jell as a team and for Basile to merge his squad's natural inclination to attack with his own more conservative philosophy.

Argentina will be playing in a group with some of the tournament's weakest contenders, Greece, Nigeria and Bulgaria. Argentina will play two games in Boston and one in Dallas in the first round, with the most difficult of those matches coming against Nigeria on June 25. If, as expected, Argentina wins its group, it will stay in Boston for the second round.

For the emotional Argentines, the U.S. World Cup holds one challenge that they have never faced before: Will the passion and tumult that the team thrives on greet them here? And if not, can soccer's great performers spin their magic in a vacuum? Are the crowd and the noise and the danger necessary parts of the recipe?

Julio Cesar Pasquato of El Grafico has covered nine World Cups and admits to being concerned about that aspect of this summer's games. He shakes his head over the fact that the United States is hosting the world's greatest sports spectacle without sharing the world's mania for the game. What will it be like?

"It is a difficult question for an Argentine because we can't separate football from passion," says Pasquato. "Football is a feeling. I can't imagine that: no passion in a stadium. The magic of football is the quality and intelligence of the players, their love of football. If all that happens in the middle of silence--I don't know. How can I feel in that case? It is difficult to know how to feel in the sound of silence."

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