El Polaco appears brandishing his Stanley, as he lovingly calls his pocket knife. Five young hooligans huddle round him like classroom students. He leaves them gobsmacked with a dazzling display of knife skills: in under a minute, he unscrews the four bolts in the reading light and air-vent panel over seats 31 and 32. Much to the consternation (or cowardice, according to El Polaco) of those travelling with the barra for the first time, he then removes the casing from the roof, leaving everything exposed, everything being the jumble of wires and cables that are usually hidden from public view. Hidden and forgotten about, which is how the barra feel they’re treated by society.
‘Before we hide it, we have to wrap it up in something… We need a hat,’ El Polaco says, and one of his disciples snatches a cap off a younger barra’s head.
‘Everyone has to muck in here, compadre,’ the timid young lad is told, as he watches his blue cap, red ‘U’ embroidered on the front, disappear into a sea of twenty-year-old hands.
El Polaco carefully wraps the grenade up in the cap. That’s right, the grenade. A weapon of war. We have a miniature bomb on the bus with us. A genuine piece of munition that someone stole, we’re told, from the army when doing military service.
‘They’re amazingly easy to launch. You just pull this pin, release the safety catch with your teeth and chuck it,’ one of the more experienced barra adds calmly. Fear paralyses the rest of us: football fans who’ve left behind parents and girlfriends, neighbourhood friends, younger brothers, team posters on bedroom walls, a flag commemorating last year’s league title, a collection of match tickets in the bedside drawer. All left behind, at home, a place that seems increasingly far away. All to go on an away trip abroad for the first time. All for the team.
With the speed and dexterity of a practised pickpocket, El Polaco tucks the hat-explosive in among the cables and screws the panel back in place. He leaves not a trace. Nothing to suggest that above the reading lights of seats 31 and 32 is a bomb.
‘There’s no fucking way customs’ll find it,’ he says, putting his Stanley back in its secret pocket.
But peace refuses to return to the Chilebus, packed with travelling football supporters: just when we think the worst is over, something leaps out and grabs us by the throat:
‘So which one of you fuckers is going to throw it then?’
The question – in your face, pure adrenaline – is fired at us by one of the barra’s leaders. There are members of ‘the firm’’s hierarchy on all the buses. They tell us what to do and report back to the high command. This one continues:
‘Time to sort out the men from the boys, find out which one of you fuckers is the hardest. Who’s got the balls to take the grenade into the ground and throw it. Or are we all a bunch of fucking pussies in this barra?’
The business of who will launch the explosive is thankfully left unresolved. There are no initial volunteers. For now, the order of the day is to celebrate the fact that the piece of infantry equipment has been safely concealed. A bottle of pisco is passed around, followed by a carton of red wine and several spliffs. Normality is suddenly restored. The bus goes back to being a vehicle taking a group of football supporters to Buenos Aires: chants break out deriding River Plate fans – gallinas; banter flies back and forth, accusing people of holding onto the wine for too long, of hogging the spliff. Practically the whole bus ends up joining in with the songs.
The leader of our bus is San Martín: hacking cough, hands covered in scars, sunglasses, a walk that’s more of a shoulder barge, and too much jewellery for the circumstances. He tells us in a paternal tone – albeit that of a father who beats his son – that we’re going to war.
‘If we have to die for the team in Argentina, then that’s what we’ll do. I don’t want to see any pussies wimping out. We stand united.’
Someone goes up to the front of the bus and persuades the driver to put on a tape: Rage Against the Machine. For a while the sound of the US metal band takes hold of the Chilebus. A barra wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt rocks his head to the beat of the Yankee drummer. Outside the bus, the Santiago outskirts pass by: dirt football pitches, kids on street corners, stray dogs comatose in the sun. Inside the bus the music gets faster and louder, as does the passing round of bottles, a never-ending supply of wine and pisco, multiplying as if for our last supper. We’re going on a trip. We’re going to see a football match. We’re going to Buenos Aires, with a hand grenade inches above our heads.
The explosive is like any trauma: you forget about it for a while, but it never goes away. JG, the photographer travelling with me, looks at me with bloodshot eyes and whispers:
‘If they find out we’re here doing a story, we’re dead.’
Our bus is Bus Three of eleven that set off from ‘La U’ headquarters, or Corporación de Fútbol de la Universidad de Chile, as the team is officially known. We’re not on the bus with the really big fishes, the heads of the firm, but nor are we at the back of the caravan with the minnows, the least experienced. We’re going to the Argentine capital to cheer the team on in the semi-final of the Copa Libertadores. We’re going to get one over on the River Plate gallinas, and in their own back yard.
‘We’re going to die!’ someone shouts, and then gobs on the floor.
We’re travelling with Los de Abajo, the worst hooligans in Chile.
In the first leg of the semi-final, played in Santiago, a minor incident involving a few River Plate fans and the local police was blown out of all proportion. The sporting press exaggerated the extent of the confrontation until it snowballed into a gigantic chauvinistic scandal, worthy of the intervention of both countries’ foreign ministers. All of which means the Chilean newspapers have been warning of one thing all week: that hell awaits us in Buenos Aires.
There are thirty-eight men on the bus, two women, and two pens: JG’s and mine. For a moment, we worry this might give the game away. We’re saved by the panic to fill in customs and immigration forms, for in the mad rush the source of the pens gets overlooked. ‘You have to fill in these papers in order to leave the country,’ says the bus driver’s assistant, who everyone has started calling ‘The Man’.
We’re half an hour away from Paso Los Libertadores, the main border crossing between Chile and Argentina, when The Man hands out the forms. Trying to get forty sets of forms filled in with only two pens, while being asked the same question a hundred times and subjected to endless piss-taking, proves too much for The Man. He looks exasperated when he’s finished, at the end of his tether. His Chilebus company tie and cap still speak of a kindly travel assistant, but his brusque manners, his waspish attitude and the thunderous look on his face are the outward signs of an internal crisis: for the first time ever, he seems to be seriously thinking about quitting his job, a job he’s had his whole life.
We’re three hours into a trip that will last a minimum of sixty.
We reach the Chilean side. A tourist couple in a car take photos of the football supporters in their blue shirts. We pass quickly through immigration while customs officials take just over an hour to search the eleven buses. Neither process goes without a hitch: from our bus alone, three people are unable to travel any further: one because his ID card has expired, one because he didn’t bring any ID at all, and San Martín, our leader, because his ID card is what everyone calls ‘dirty’: he has a number of pending court cases and a restriction order to his name.
We enter the tunnel that separates the two countries. A sign goes past the window that says ‘Bienvenido a Argentina’, bringing the sudden realisation that there’s no easy way back from this journey.
‘We’ve left…’ JG whispers to me, but before he’s finished what he has to say, a fat joint is pressed into his hand, to see us through to the next stage of the border crossing.
There’s an immediate change of attitude on the Argentinian side. The hellish treatment promised by the press starts to become real.
‘Their police are bad to the bone,’ a friend warned me before the trip. ‘Thirty thousand Argentines died under their dictatorship, that’s a lot more than under Pinochet.’
On a routine crossing, formalities at the border rarely take more than half an hour. After five hours have passed and we still haven’t got through customs, rumours start to circulate. Someone says the sniffer dogs have detected a shipment of marijuana. Never mind the speculation, all I can think of is the grenade, which I know is real, for I’ve seen it with my own eyes, practically had to touch it. But our bus passes safely through, and I find this strangely comforting: El Polaco didn’t let us down, which is why we all pat him on the back as he walks by, full of smiles, asking to cadge a fag off someone.
The Argentine border police have forbidden any of the buses from leaving until every vehicle has been searched. At some point in the delay, some of the barra start singing the Chilean national anthem. There are Argentine flags everywhere, hanging from garage flagpoles and stuck to office windows, alongside posters of President Menem and his party. We get to the end of the first verse, singing at the tops of our voices in protest against the way we’re being treated, when a border patrol agent comes out of a reinforced door. He has a moustache like Videla’s, and a sub-machine gun.
‘No fucking singing!’ he screams.
It starts to get dark. Mendoza passers-by greet us with raised middle fingers, by placing hands on crotches and running index fingers across necks. You have to be mentally prepared for a journey like this, where violence is ever present. For some of us, the hostility we encounter whenever we get off the bus is a new experience. For others, the majority, it’s routine, something they’ve been used to since childhood, and without which they’d feel lost.
In the outskirts of Mendoza we’re detained again. While we’re waiting, the new leader of the bus passes a hat around, in case anyone would ‘like to chip in with a few pennies’, as he jovially puts it, though it’s clearly an order rather than an option. We’re essentially forced to empty our pockets into the makeshift collection box, and when the leaders have raised sufficient funds, they disappear.
They come back forty minutes later, laden with wine and beer. Just after midnight, after more than fourteen hours on the road, the caravan restarts its journey to Buenos Aires.
A group of police patrol cars accompanies us as far as the city limits, sirens blaring, officers hanging out of open windows. Inside the bus, toasts are made, there’s shouting, music and smoke. Outside the bus there are mean faces, rifles pointed at our heads.
The night brings calm. On the bus, ‘The House’ as it’s been christened by the group, the cold is kept at bay by denim jackets, cartons of Mendoza wine, bottles of beer, marijuana, chocolate and cigarettes. Young Guns I and II play on the Chilebus television screen. Protests at the poor quality of the entertainment on offer only abate whenever there’s a knife fight.
Some people – those in the seats nearest to the driver – are already asleep. Others put headphones on and listen to Walkmans, resting heads against windows and watching the white lines of the motorway go by, perhaps thinking about what lies in store or what we’ve already been through; about the relentless police aggression, the way we’re treated as dangers to the public; about the music thundering in our ears, the giant stars hanging in the pampas sky; about blue woolly hats on our heads, a present from a girlfriend, or the warmth of team shirts under jackets.
The Man appears at the back of The House, carrying a pillow. He has cotton buds in his ears and a tired look on his face, a look that would easily get to the final of a South American tired-faces tournament. A hatch suddenly opens by the toilet, revealing a secret compartment. The Man climbs in and curls up like a foetus, ready to get some sleep. He barely says a word, but he’s visibly furious. He’s angry because this is no regular run to Buenos Aires, and because even on regular runs, his bedroom is a narrow metal coffin over a Chilebus toilet, a coffin he enters alive.
‘My brother lives in Buenos Aires. Motherfucker’s lived there for years,’ El Polaco tells a small gathering by the toilet. ‘He’s an international gangster, know what I mean? Motherfucker’s made it big.’
Someone else chimes in:
‘Son of a bitch, I’ve an aunty in Buenos Aires – I didn’t even think to bring her address. Apparently she works in some millionaire’s house,’ he says, before tipping back the wine box.
‘We’ve got to fucking win tomorrow,’ says Jorge, changing the subject. Jorge has taken two days’ leave from the printers where he works. ‘It’s the first time we’ve ever got this close to the final.’
The first predictions come in.
‘Two-nil us. One from Marcelito Salas, the other from Huevo Valencia,’ says Citroneta, a biology student from Valparaíso University, who’s been naively trying to pass himself off as a bad boy.
Jorge is in his thirties, same as the friend he’s come with. His friend says:
‘It’s amazing to think we might reach the Copa Libertadores final, when you think back to the bad old days, going to the ground and knowing we’d lose.’
‘Son of a bitch, it was like that for fucking years! When we went down to the second division we were always going on trips like this, though there was less aggro of course. You lot’ll never experience any of that. You guys have it easy, with the team winning all the time.’
The vehicle gently rocks from side to side, though with all the wine and weed, it seems to rock that little bit more. The Man pokes his head out of his secret compartment and yells for people to let him get some sleep. A hand reaches round and slaps him in the face, whose hand it’s impossible to say. Los de Abajo’s hand.
Morning breaks at six. The sun pokes out over the prairie like the flicker of a brain-dead eye. Most people contemplate the landscape in silence. The windows are steamed up – you have to wipe them with a sleeve to see out. Drops of condensation run startled down the glass as the endless plains of the Argentine pampas open up before us. Someone sparks up the first spliff of the day. The smoking’s not raucous now: it’s more like background music, the strumming of an acoustic guitar. We wake up slowly, on our way to Buenos Aires.
By general petition – ‘we’ve got to piss and splash some fucking water on our face, man’ – we stop at a Repsol service station. The little shop is overrun by football supporters. JG, who has been snapping away, pretending to be a student who takes photos as a hobby, nudges for me to look. Here they come, swarming back to the bus, great bulges under their coats. People did go to the loo and wash their faces, but the main purpose of the stop-off was to loot the Argentinian store.
As we speed away, The Man and the driver say out loud how such behaviour makes them ashamed to be Chilean. Through the bus window we see the salesgirl talking to someone on the phone, presumably the police, her head bowed, her weak fist pounding the plundered counter.
Once we’re back on the motorway, Citroneta, the university student with the long hair and John Lennon glasses, gets out his booty, excited that he’s finally about to be accepted by the group.
‘Anyone want some wine?’ he says, and produces a carton of red from the depths of his jacket. Behind him another haul is unveiled: a litre of gin, a bundle of pens (‘so we never run out of these bastards again’) and a bottle of perfume (‘now the missus will let me shag her for weeks without any dramas’).
Citroneta goes quiet, lost for words, crestfallen. Someone opens a bottle of whisky. Someone else opens a box of cigars.
‘I told you, Argentina’s ridiculously cheap,’ says El Polaco, before he takes a deep tug on his Havana and almost punctures a lung. We all splutter with laughter, laughter that tastes of Scotch.
The next stop is Luján, forty miles outside the capital. It’s eleven o’clock on match-day morning, though by now time seems as irrelevant as La U’s starting line-up. We’re surrounded by police again. For a joke, a sergeant pulls his gun on the group I’m standing in: he motions as if he’s going to shoot and laughs his head off when we throw ourselves to the ground. Someone produces a football, and a fat guy from Bus Seven plays commentator, describing in a grizzly voice the goal that Marcelo Salas is going to score to take us into the Copa Libertadores final.
‘Back on the bus you bunch of fuckwits, we’re off!’ shouts El Polaco, leaning out of the bus door, proudly showing off the sunglasses he stole at the service station.
‘I can’t believe you fell for that fake shit,’ says Jorge, the print worker.
‘Fake? You off your fucking rocker? They’re Bollé originals. Look, it says Bollé right here!’ El Polaco takes off his shades to show us all. ‘I wouldn’t have robbed the fuckers otherwise, would I?’
The Buenos Aires clocks strike three in the afternoon as a column of buses bearing La U and Chile flags enters the city. The match will kick off in a few hours’ time and nationalist insults fly back and forth between Los de Abajo and local passers-by.
As our caravan crosses Avenida General Paz, we’re stopped by the Policía General Argentina. A full brigade of riot police has been waiting for us, with all the humanity of a metal detector. Out of the window we see two blue armoured cars, a riot van and three patrol cars; all have their sirens blaring. A television crew wearing PFA (Policía Federal de Argentina) jackets and military boots gathers footage of every bus, a swirl of cameras and police helmets bobbing up and down outside. The whole ceremony lasts for over an hour, and as we’re ordered to keep the windows closed, the combination of the heat, the lack of air and the smell of the detritus on the bus starts to become asphyxiating. While we wait for permission to move on, El Polaco taunts a couple of policemen, opening a window at the back of the bus and throwing an empty beer bottle at the camera.
‘That’s how you provoke them, dipshit. There’s no need to ask for it,’ says Citroneta, who like many people has taken off his shirt to mop up his sweat.
The Man, in the cabin up front with the driver, dressed in his immaculate shirt and tie, shakes his head from side to side, cursing the day his boss told him he was to take Los de Abajo to Buenos Aires. Worse still: cursing his life, cursing his job and his future.
We’re given the order to advance, which marks the start of a strange tour of Buenos Aires, with two armour-plated anti-riot vans for guides. It’s the first time many of the barra have been outside Chile. They glue their faces to the windows and make the most of the opportunity to get to know the city that has produced the most fearsome and legendary barras bravas on the continent. A city whose hooligan firms, like so many things in Argentina, are inspired by the English. The capital city of a country where 9.5 fans die on average every year due to football violence. A country where most firms rely on the direct support of political bigwigs, who employ them to go on marches, to administer beatings, to wave banners, and to cheer the team on every Sunday. But we can only sample the most important city in the Southern Cone, only taste the quaint European pretensions of its citizens, from on board the Chilebus: due to orders from above, we’re not allowed to get off.
Instructions have come in from Bus Two, on which the Los de Abajo inner council are travelling, that the only permitted stop-off will be in La Boca. The plan is to join up with members of La 12, Boca Juniors’ barra brava, who are going to ‘borrow our clothes’, that’s to say, help us fight against their eternal rivals, River Plate.
We get off the bus down by the waterfront. According to official communications, we’re to meet back in the same place in half an hour. But as we make our collective way up Calle Caminito, waving blue flags and shouting ‘La U’, some members of the barra scrawl graffiti on the multi-coloured walls, sullying the neighbourhood’s iconic architecture with the words ‘Los de Abajo’. And so the trouble begins. Those members of La 12 who live in La Boca see the graffiti as an affront and quickly get organised: soon the supposed barra brothers of La U and Boca Juniors, who were meant to unite against one common enemy, are fighting among themselves. The street brawl that follows results in various injuries and thefts, and includes the loss of numerous flags through abandonment and confiscation. Several La U fans are mugged and lose wallets, while a guy from Bus Five is also relieved of his shirt, his watch, his cigarettes and his penknife.
The police act like referees at a boxing match, albeit referees only interested in penalising Chilean blows below the belt.
‘Boca folk don’t have friends,’ a sergeant snarls through gritted teeth, as he leads a member of Bus Four away in handcuffs.
La Boca is in uproar: fat old ladies demand the Chileans be thrown in jail; poor kids dressed in Maradona T-shirts spit out insults.
‘The bus is family!’ our leader cries when we’re all safely back on board. ‘A little scuffle with a few Boca sons of bitches and look what happens! Tonight we’re going to be up against 70,000 gallinas. We’ve got to stick together. The bus is family!’
Jorge, from the printing firm, tried to make the most of the pit stop by going off to buy souvenirs for his work colleagues. He gets back to the bus with his head split open, blood pouring down his face. Finding himself all alone, he was pounced on and took a beating. He now sits sprawled out in his seat, wishing he were back at the office. El Polaco offers him his T-shirt to wipe the blood up and Jorge wraps it round his head like a turban. For many passengers, the threat of finding hell in Buenos Aires has become a reality.
Off we go again, our caravan of eleven buses, leaving La Boca behind and making for the stadium. One of our number has a bleeding head, several others have been mugged and/or threatened with knives, two have been arrested – though they’ll later be released – and everywhere we’ve been the police have flocked to us like flies to shit. Off we go again, bound for the stadium, and I haven’t forgotten we’ve got a hand grenade on board.
Our last port of call before the stadium is Avenida Figueroa Alcorta, across from the airport. The caravan parks along one side of the road, and a few barra fling themselves on a grass bank to rest. Others nurse their wounds, smoke a final spliff or swig the last of the beer. Walter, the queen bee, leader of the supporters’ club and head honcho of the barra, shows himself for the first time.
He’s the most formally dressed of all of us. He looks more like a McDonald’s employee of the month, a cool teacher at an IT training college or the local church’s guitar player than he does the head of a hooligan firm. His hair is neatly combed, his shirt is tucked inside his trousers, his trainers are pristine white – they’ve obviously never kicked a football. It’s possible Walter never even dreamt of being a footballer: he perhaps fantasised about becoming a club director, treasurer or chairman. But somehow he’s ended up in charge of the toughest barra in Chile, and as leader of the supporters’ club he gets to interact with the club management. Maybe it was the only way for him to follow his dreams.
Walter wanders through the crowd, appealing for calm, saying that the tickets are on their way, reminding everyone to be careful and alert to provocations later on.
‘It’s all sorted,’ he says, ‘a club director left on a flight out of Santiago three hours ago and is meeting us here with the tickets.’
On average we’ve paid the equivalent of US$70 each for the trip, for travel and a ticket to the game.
‘But only the newcomers pay that much,’ El Polaco tells me, adding that he travels for free because he spent two months passing the firm’s collection pot round at home matches.
The directors of the barra don’t pay anything either, while those lower down the pecking order pay half, or whatever they can afford.
The first cars of River Plate fans pass along Figueroa Alcorta on their way to the ground. They hurl abuse at us, sound their horns, shout, ‘Die starving Chileans,’ but we haven’t the energy to respond. The print worker, El Polaco’s shirt still tied round his head, tells his horror story to passengers from Bus Six. A member of Bus Eight shows everyone the knife slashes in his forearm. The voice of someone clearly still in shock proclaims that we’re all going to be savaged by 70,000 gallinas. A long silence follows. JG puts his camera away and lies back on the grass, experiencing the historic moment through nothing but his own fear.
Walter, our supreme leader, disappears up the road in a taxi. Half an hour passes. Finally he returns with a full batch of tickets. He seems happy at having hobnobbed with the club directors in their five-star hotel and maybe a little sad to be back among such a band of ruffians.
He hands out the tickets, one by one, telling people to keep cool, to try and relax. El Pelluco, El Krammer, El Traitor, El Jhonny and El Mono, other legends of the barra, help him in the distribution. The time has finally come to go to the ground.
The hordes are drawn like moths to the bright floodlights of River’s Estadio Monumental. We’ll soon be inside the ground, hoping La U can reach the Copa Libertadores final for the first time. We’re ready to give it our all, to lay our lives on the line, to beat the bloody Argies in an important game for once.
As our caravan of buses approaches the Estadio Monumental, the mass of River fans outside gets thicker and thicker. For every yard we advance, the crowd grows tenfold. Our movement becomes increasingly sporadic, until we flounder like an overturned beetle. The Man decides to switch off the lights inside the bus. Outside, the anti-Chile chanting can be heard loud and clear, too clear. We struggle to make any progress at all, run aground in a sea of white shirts with red sashes.
The River supporters we’ve been trying to weave our way through start rocking the bus, trying to turn it over. There are now thousands and thousands of them out there. Our leader shouts for us to draw the curtains and duck down behind the seats, then the windows of The House start to shatter, one after another, as rocks ricochet down the passageway. Lying on the floor, broken windows above our heads, the cries of the gallinas echo in our ears like the roar of a lion moving in on its prey. El Polaco sighs, takes a deep breath, opens a window and shouts, ‘Argentinian motherfuckers!’ and hurls out two large empty beer bottles. And again: ‘Argentinian cunts!’ followed by two more bottles. He ducks back down and a rock explodes against the side of the bus, right where his head had been. The insults are now coming from very close quarters, but we can also make out the sound of spurs on mounted police. Finally they step in and escort us to the ground.
Kick-off is only minutes away.
The stadium is packed. The police have held us on the stairway leading into the Centenario and Belgrano blocks. We’re awaiting an order from on high that is slow in coming. When it finally arrives, the police shove us forward by striking us with their truncheons. We enter the inner sanctum of the Estadio Monumental, coming out into the middle of the stand, an insignificant speck among 70,000 fans who pay us not the least bit of attention. The police, though, continue to lay into us, as they herd us forward. Los de Abajo spontaneously start singing, at the tops of their voices and full of rage: ‘Argentinian pussies, lost the Falklands cause they’re wusses!’
When La U take to the field, all eleven players run over towards us and raise their hands. We respond to their gestures with chants that, paradoxically, are practically identical to the ones the River fans are singing. All twenty-two players are now on the pitch, twenty-two South American millionaires, almost all of them from the same poor neighbourhoods as the barras.
The match itself is like a giant vacuum. Most of the 70,000-strong crowd watch the game without getting out of their seats. Sometimes it even seems you can hear the players insulting one another down on the pitch. ‘The fuckers don’t sing at all!’ says Citroneta, feeling disorientated and cheated, wondering whether all the talk he’s heard down the years of Argentina’s notorious barras bravas being the maddest and baddest on the continent was maybe just Argentina’s notorious love of talking the talk.
But we’ve come all this way to take them on and Los de Abajo’s ringleaders are neither disheartened nor intimidated. They ask us, will us, urge us, to sing our hearts out and silence the stadium. The Monumental goes on watching the game in a giant hush and doesn’t even notice us. At least not until the end of the match, when the game’s over and they’ve won and suddenly they find their voice.
We lose one-nil. We’re denied a blatant penalty for a foul on Valencia, and Silvani, our Argentine striker, misses an absolute sitter. We’re out of the Copa Libertadores; the dream is over. All we can do is watch as swathes of Argentinians laugh in our faces and celebrate victory over a Chilean team for the umpteenth time.
As soon as the final whistle blows, it’s announced over the loudspeaker that the home fans must stay in their seats while the visiting fans leave. We start to file out. Not even four minutes have passed since the end of the game – less than four minutes to digest defeat – when the police pile into us and start swinging their truncheons. The blows are relentless, indiscriminate and totally without provocation. Plain-clothes officers appear on the scene, many of them sporting long hair, and kick the wounded as they lie on the ground. Guns are brandished. Truncheons are aimed at elbows, to demobilise your whole arm, but there’s no time even to flinch, you have to keep moving, or you might fall. If you fall, you have to cover your head straight away and protect it from being stamped on, and you might see, as I do, an unconscious policeman being carried away. ‘Throw the grenade!’ I hear someone cry. We’re underneath the stands, in the toilet area, getting a brutal police beating. But if they launch the grenade, we’ll be skinned alive in a Buenos Aires jail. I’m scared. I’m stuck in a whirlwind of truncheons and shouting and pushing and shoving and swearing and shrieking and being kicked from behind and dogs barking and River fans roaring from the other side of the fence and helmets charging into us, and it’s difficult to know what the hell’s going on or what the hell to do, other than to keep your head down and keep going, onwards, to get this thing over and done with, as quickly as possible.
Respite comes only when the police realise that television cameras have arrived and are filming them. Final score: four fans with head wounds, one with a bloodied eye, a policeman with a broken nose and two fans under arrest (though they’re let go once everything has cooled down).
As ever, a sizeable police contingent accompanies us out of the city. The ramshackle caravan crosses the pampas at night: the windows on the buses are now all broken and the pampas air rushes in at us, insufferably cold. The fresh air does at least hide the festering smell, and besides, the cold is nothing compared to the violence we’ve just been subjected to.
We’re back at the Paso Los Libertadores border crossing, with the peaks of the Andes hidden in dark cloud. The Argentine border patrol don’t even bother to stop us to check our papers: they want us out of their country as soon as possible. As we enter the tunnel, the bus breaks out in spontaneous applause. The Man sounds the horn. We’re in Chile. The immigration staff welcome us home like heroes, a show of raised hands and thumbs. Two policemen get out of a car to come and shake our hands. The whole country has heard about the police beating we suffered on our way out of the stadium and our return to Chile is being hailed as triumphant. Never mind the fact that we lost: we’ve come back as winners. Three television channels, several radio stations and a big round of applause from customs officials lift Los de Abajo’s spirits no end. We’re the main news item of the day.
‘Come here, you fags… Mind if I have my photo taken with you?’ asks El Polaco. He’s refused to be photographed the whole trip, and now suddenly he asks us for a photo. And in a nice voice too.
After the photo’s been taken, he tells us it’s been an unforgettable trip. Everyone laughs, thinking he’s taking the piss. What nobody suspects, not even for a moment, is that in a few months’ time, Walter, the leader of the barra, will be diagnosed with a serious medical condition, on account of all the blows he took to the head in the Estadio Monumental. Much less that he’ll die from it a few years later. Nor does anyone suspect it will be El Krammer who takes control of the barra, and that in no time at all he’ll have divided the group and be accused of profiting financially from Los de Abajo, and then be arrested for hitting the female owner of a shop in an incident captured on CCTV, and then be arrested again, this time for disfiguring the face of a rival fan, and then finally be put behind bars as the ringleader of a gang wanted for a number of armed robberies in the Santiago area. Nobody suspects that after this trip to Buenos Aires La U will fail to get beyond the first round of the Copa Libertadores for several years. Nor that the journey we’ve just been on will go down as the most memorable away trip in supporters’ club history.
On board the bus, the future doesn’t exist. All that matters is the here and now, hence the laughter when The Man says once again:
‘It’s been an epic journey, lads, truly epic.’
This prompts another round of applause, as ridiculous at it might sound. In fact, applause rings out across Chile. And on the bus we feel proud, happy, brave – heroic like never before.
When we get off the Chilebus in Santiago, El Polaco looks sad for the first time. He asks for our phone numbers and says we should all meet up the next day, and he tells JG to take his photo, as if he knew all along that we were doing a report on the trip, on them. The buses start to leave and there are hugs all round, because of what we’ve been through, or achieved, and because it’s all over. When The House is empty, the driver pulls away, relieved, breathing in the tranquillity of no longer having a bunch of football hooligans on his bus. Of course, what he doesn’t know – not he, and not The Man – is that there’s a hand grenade on board.