Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro and the History of the Vuelta a Boedo Campaign – Part I

Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro and the History of the Vuelta a Boedo Campaign – Part I

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By Matt Hawkins – 

This article is part one of a three part series on Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro and the “Vuelta a Boedo” (Return to Boedo) campaign. In 1979, during Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship, San Lorenzo was forced to sell its stadium, the wooden terraced Gasómetro, and its club facilities in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Boedo. A small group of hinchas, as supporters are known in Latin America, began to plot the club’s return to Boedo in the early 2000s. Their efforts inspired tens of thousands to share in their dream and have since achieved legislative backing for the purchase of the property that San Lorenzo lost. On September 10, 2015, the Subcomisión del Hincha (Subcommittee of Supporters) is hosting a festival to remind Carrefour, current owners of the club’s tierra santa (holy land) of their legal obligations. The first part of this series covers the emergence of San Lorenzo as one of Argentina’s biggest clubs.

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We are a mass of bodies, part of the hinchada on the massive curving terrace of the Nuevo Gasómetro of Club Atlético San Lorenzo. The cheeks of everyone around me are wet with tears. The players of the Azulgrana during fifteen short minutes in the first half have let the match slip away. Two goals for the visiting Newell’s Old Boys, and San Lorenzo is sitting in direct relegation with only three matches remaining in the Clausura of 2012. As the referee blows his whistle for half-time, the visitor’s hinchada can be heard singing, “you belong in the B!” on repeat.

The moment described above was one of the most trying in the San Lorenzo’s recent history, and it passed by relatively unnoticed outside of Argentina. Standing at the precipice, San Lorenzo was on the verge of a dramatic transformation. Within a year Jorge Mario Bergoglio, San Lorenzo’s most recognizable hincha (supporter) would become the Pope, the club would win the 2013 championship, and then it would lift its first Copa de Libertadores in 2014.

Back in 2012, as the teams emerge from the tunnel to start the second, most on the terrace have already begun to imagine themselves travelling to the far off corners of the country to the homes of Argentina’s “small clubs.” The controversial figures of the barra brava, perched on the interspersed anti-avalanche bars, are trying to will the crowd to sing. Loud concussive waves from the base drums – boom-ba-ba-boom – are staccatoed by the crash of symbols. “Dale dale, dale dale San lore! Dale dale, dale dale San Lorenzo!” The crowd is yelling but is obviously struggling with its own disillusion.

Julio Buffarini, San Lorenzo’s energetic right back, hasn’t given up. “Ponga los huevos Buffa!”— put in your balls Buffa!—someone from behind demands. He drives towards the flag and comes out with a corner for San Lorenzo. Club idol “Pipi” Romagnoli, who came on at the start of the second despite an injury to his knee, stands over the ball. We pause, holding a collective breath. The ball is flicked on and a diving Emmanuel Gigliotti connects with his head. GOOOLLLLLLLLLL! A pure explosion.

No longer forcing themselves to sing, those on the terraces pour on, “dale dale, dale dale San lore!…” For ten minutes without a break, without a loss in volume, the song continues. The concrete vibrates with each beat, bending as the weight of thousands of jumping people comes down in unison. Playing alongside its eleven, the crowd reaches a crescendo as Buffarini again goes towards the corner. This time, his cross finds Carlos Bueno on the back post, alone and in the air. Tied at two!

Sensing a change of fortune, San Lorenzo’s strike pair of Gigliotti and Bueno are pressing, coming frustratingly close on several occasions. As the clock ticks down, the much-needed victory seems to be eluding the cuervos (crows, one of San Lorenzo’s many nicknames). The roaming Pipi bleeds blue and red. He appears everywhere in Newell’s half. He once again collects the ball probing a way forward. Carrying it past one defender, Pipi draws two more out to the edge of the box. A small gap is opened and at full stride Romagnoli pokes the ball over their heads to a once again falling Gigliotti.

For several seconds even the loud booms of the drums are drowned out under an incoherent euphoria, a primal roar. Random vowels fill the space between the g and the l. Slowly from underneath the noise an undeniable melody emerges, irresistible to the crowd:

“I come from the barrio of Boedo, barrio of murga and carnival! I swear to you even in the bad times, I will always be with you! Come on Matador, Come one Matador, Come on come on Matador!”

CCR’s Bad Moon Rising has become one of the world’s famous football melodies, reproduced on the beaches of Brazil to as far off as Western Sydney. La Gloriosa Buteller, the barra brava of Buenos Aires-based Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro, were the first to propel its popularity in 2010. So often sung during the 2011/12 tournament to buoy the crowd through losses, in this moment it becomes prophetic and undeniable. A carnival on the terraces, tears, this time of joy, are flowing as the final whistle blows.

Within a few minutes, most on the terraces are left just standing in emotional exhaustion. I’m told that matches like this mark the difference between San Lorenzo and all the other clubs. I am reminded that just a year before, when River Plate was relegated by Belgrano in it’s own stadium, some of River’s hinchas damaged their stadium and the surrounding neighbourhood. Cuervos believe themselves, motivated by their mythic history, to be different.

At the end of the season, San Lorenzo narrowly avoided relegation by defeating Instituto of Cordoba in a home-and-away playoff. The final matches demonstrated an unrelenting desire to alientar (support) el ciclón, no matter the situation. Hinchas claim to not only profess their support but also believe it to be part of the DNA of San Lorenzo, ever since the club’s first and only relegation in 1982.

A Broken Club

The on-the-field situation in 2012 was the consequence of a club in institutional disarray. In the month after the season ended, San Lorenzo’s club facilities were shuttered. Employees had not been paid for several months and refused to show up for work.

Like other clubs in Argentinian football, Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro is a member-owned association run by an elected president and board of governors. This does not mean, however, that such institutions are free from corrupting influences, which find other ways to infiltrate the clubs.

For San Lorenzo, one of Argentina’s cinco grandes (big five), the flow of money through the club has always attracted attention, though not always in the club’s best interest. Behind-the-scenes third party investments had produced championships first in 2001 and then again in 2007. In return, however, the club had run up debts covering the salaries of players who were not wholly owned by the club. Championships were used as a display window for San Lorenzo’s finest players and the large transfer fees did not end up in the club’s coffers. The trend had started under President Fernando Miele (1986-2001), who stepped down for health reasons after trying to privatize the football operations in 2000, and continued under President Rafael Savino (2004-2010).

Distracted by the illusion of a successful professional football team, resources were not always reinvested into San Lorenzo’s club facilities. Football teams often are only the most recognizable part of Argentinian clubs, which also operate social, cultural, and sport activities for their members.

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A short tour of San Lorenzo’s ciudad deportiva (sports city) in 2012 revealed a club with significant problems. The children’s playground belonged in a post-apocalyptic movie. A wind storm in April 2012 had collapsed the roof over the roller-hockey surface. The mangled mess of metal stayed on the site for months—a reminder for members of how broken their club had become. Probably most emblematic, however, were the torn and muddy football fields used by the club’s youth teams.

In 2010, members had looked to Carlos Abdo, who founded Estática Internacional, the largest advertising company in Argentinian football, to lead the club out of its decline. In the election he promised to expand club facilities and increase club memberships, which had fallen to around 20,000. Yet only a year and a half into his administration, with members of his board believed to be pocketing money from ticket sales and a football team that had gone through three managers, graffiti, “Chau Abdo!” and “Abdo” written across tombstones, began to appear in Boedo, the club’s historic neighbourhood.

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The Vuelta a Boedo

At the grassroots within San Lorenzo, however, a relatively unique campaign was gaining momentum. Known as the “Vuelta a Boedo” (Return to Boedo), the campaign was being organized by everyday hinchas and members of San Lorenzo. The goal was modest at first: to host social and cultural activities in Boedo in the name of San Lorenzo. In 2005 over a hundred hinchas came together to form the Sub-committee of the Hincha (SCH) to organize presentations on the club’s history, barbecue dinners, an annual 5-km marathon named after Argentina’s 1948 Olympic gold medal runner Delfo Cabrera (a member of San Lorenzo), and carnivals. The group purchased a house in Boedo to host night-classes in subjects like English, art, history, and chess. By 2011, the hinchas had set their sights on a much larger goal: to rebuild a stadium on the property in Boedo that the club had once owned.

San Lorenzo had been forced to leave Boedo in 1979. The City of Buenos Aires, then under the control of Brigadier-General Osvaldo Cacciatore of Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship (1976-83), had demanded the sale of San Lorenzo’s stadium and club facilities on Avenida La Plata. The City claimed that the land was needed to connect neighbourhood streets and to build an elementary school, amongst other projects. San Lorenzo, in debt, was threatened with losing their larger ciudad deportiva located 3-km away. The club received US$900,000. In 1985, French multinational retailer Carrefour purchased the property for US$8 million and opened their first large box-store in Argentina.

From the Forzosos to San Lorenzo, the making of a grande in Football

Avenida La Plata had been San Lorenzo’s home since 1915. That year the club purchased the land from the sisters of María Auxiliadora. Six years earlier, Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro had been formed by teenagers who played under the name of Los Forzosos de Almagro (The Forceful-ones of Almagro) with the help of a local priest, Lorenzo Massa.

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The young men had met playing under a gas lamp on the street corner of México and Treinta y Tres Orientales. Sons of immigrants, most of them worked in low paying jobs. Their captain Federico Monti, at the time fifteen, delivered coal. Others worked in the small leather factories and artisanal iron works in the neighbourhood. The twenty or so players had needed to collect small coins amongst themselves to purchase their first ball.

The Forzosos were part of a revolution that was taking over Argentinian football. The sport was originally brought to Argentina by the British-modelled private schools for elites and expats. The Argentinian upper classes, in an effort to emulate British society, took up playing polo, rugby, and football. Learning to play a team sport was seen as part of a modern gentleman’s education. The most important team in Argentina at the time, Alumni, was composed of graduates from one such private school.

New types of teams, however, began to emerge at the turn of the century. Football historian and academic Julio Frydenberg notes that these football teams would radically transform the character and importance of the sport in Argentina by starting a process that would see football increasingly played by the popular sectors of the society. They would also change how the game was played on the field.

On the one hand, companies in Argentina’s growing industrial sectors formed teams for the participation of their workers. In particular, the British funded railways had a big role to play. One such club is Buenos Aires’ Ferrocarril Oeste, which continues to operate close to where its namesake company had its rail-works.

Many other organizations, in particular parts of the Catholic Church, helped to organize teams as an activity for working class men. Many of these teams played in structured leagues; their sponsoring company or organization providing the regulation field and facilities needed to host matches.

Even these types of teams, however, were out of reach for the vast majority of the new residents of Buenos Aires and the industrializing city of Rosario. Migration from the interior of the country and from across the ocean—mostly Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe—led to rapid urbanization. Space for housing, warehouses, and factories was in high demand. Municipal governments had only set aside small tracts of land for parks and plazas, and few were large enough to host the growing popularity of football amongst neighbourhood friends.

Boys and young men took to playing in the streets, which was illegal. Challenges were issued through community papers to rival teams. Symbolic battles for control of the park, street corner, and neighbourhood were played out. Argentinian football, from this point forward, developed a strong sense of territory. The deepest of rivalries were often forged between neighbours.

One man, Father Lorenzo Massa, transformed the Forzosos from a street team into Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. History has come to be very important to hinchas of San Lorenzo and the club’s foundation is widely retold. A definitive version came in 1973 from Francisco Xarau and Luis Giannella, the last surviving members of the Forzosos, through an interview with football journalist, author, and hincha of San Lorenzo, Osvaldo Soriano.

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“San Lorenzo was born the day that Juancito Abondanza fell in front of the streetcar,” Giannella told Soriano. The Forzoso’s street corner was in front of the Oratory San Antonio and the parish priest Lorenzo Massa had become a regular spectator. Abondanza was one of the younger players, bold and wanting to show off to his older friends.

Juancito took the ball, Giannella remembers, and began to play with it in front of an oncoming streetcar. Tripped up by the tracks, Juancito fell and was struck by the breaking streetcar. Juancito leapt to his feat yelling obscenities as he ran away from the infuriated driver. Giannella remembers standing beside the priest as the scene unfolded. “Che, what barbarity, what a poorly educated kid,” Massa commented. He then asked for the team’s captain Federico Monti. Feeling a sense of responsibility for the young men, Massa offered the grass behind the Oratory to the Forzosos to built their first football field. In return, the priest asked Monti to ensure that the team attended weekly mass.

It was clear that the Forzosos were a skillful team, honed by endless evenings playing on the streets. On April 1, 1908 and with the help of the priest, the team was officially registered to play in a Catholic football league, under one condition—that the team change its name. The young men joked about naming the club after the priest but the discussion quickly became serious. The Battle of San Lorenzo had been crucial to Argentina’s independence and therefore the name San Lorenzo was proposed. Father Massa was at first reluctant and then relented. The club then took up the name San Lorenzo and also Almagro to keep their attachment to the neighbourhood of Almagro. The iconic blue and red striped jerseys, in the colours of Massa’s Salesian order, were gifted to the team by the priest in time to compete in their first organized tournament.

Building a club on Avenida La Plata

By 1915, Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro had ascended to the first division Liga de Honor, which required a proper field with dressing rooms and space for spectators. Father Massa made one final contribution. He helped the club negotiate the purchase of land from the Sisters of María Auxiliadora on Avenida La Plata. The modest stadium they built that year, in time became Buenos Aires’ largest, nicknamed the Wembly of Argentina.

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At its peak, 50,000 fans occupied the wooden terraces that were built on exposed steel trusses. Its impressive height towered over the two story houses, warehouses and small factories of Boedo just to the south of Alamgro, and gave the stadium its most famous nickname—the Gasómetro.

Football was professionalized in Argentina in 1931. A few years later, San Lorenzo became one of the the cinco grandes alongside CA Boca Juniors, CA River Plate, CA Independiente, and Racing Club de Avellaneda. The denomination, initially created to influence AFA, continues to demand the majority of media attention in Argentina.

By the 1940s San Lorenzo had become a model club with nearly 40,000 members. In the shadow of the Gasómetro, San Lorenzo built an olympic-sized swimming pool, a small arena for basketball, tennis courts, an auditorium, offices, bowling alleys, and a movie theatre. The list of organized sports offered to members expanded rapidly. Yearly carnivals hosted in the Gasómetro featured performances by some of Argentina’s most important musical acts. Young boys learned how to play football between the Gasómetro’s support columns. Many men in Boedo, now in their senior years, reminisce about making life-long friends while playing “below the terraces” and meeting their first girlfriends at the carnivals.

Over this period San Lorenzo was given many nicknames: Los Cuervos, Los Gauchos de Boedo, Los Santos, El Ciclón, Los Carasucias, Los Matadores. Each name is from a moment in the club’s history and is remembered and part of the lyrical vocabulary of the club’s hinchada.

A very young Jorge Mario Bergoglio went to the stadium with his father, a basketball player, to see “el ciclón” (the cyclone) play in 1946. The aggressive, fast paced attack of el ciclón won the championship that year and the club subsequently toured Spain and Portugal. One Lisbon paper wrote, “football, in is purest form of artistic expression, was interpreted by the famous players of San Lorenzo de Almagro.” Today hinchas chant “el ciclón” at the start of every match.

The next decade brought no footballing glories to the club. On the basketball court, however, San Lorenzo was dominant, and won eleven trophies in three tournaments in ten years.

A Decade of Domestic Footballing Success

A generation of players later, at the beginning of the 1960s, laid the foundation for the most successful period for San Lorenzo’s football team. Five young boys: Doval, Areán, Veira, Casa and Telch; rose through the ranks of the club’s youth teams and were given the name carasucias (the dirty faced kids), recalling the Forzosos in their street-inspired play. Two remained with the club—Roberto “Oveja” Telch and Héctor “Bambino” Viera—and in 1968 they were joined by Sergio “El Sapo” Villar, a diminuative Uruguayan right-back. Tenacious in his tackles, Villar also liked to get forward, a style of play echoed by current right-back Julio Buffarini.

The 1968 team went undefeated for the first time in Argentinian football and won the Metropolitana tournament. The press called them Los Matadores, the killers. Another first for San Lorenzo, the double Metropolitana and Nacional came in 1972 (Buenos Aires-based clubs held a separate championship). Another Nacional was won in 1974.

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Other club legends: Victorio Cocco, Agustín Irusta, Rafael Albrecht, Rodolfo Fischer, José Sanfilippo, Alberto Rendo, Rubén Ayala, and Héctor Scotta contributed to the championships. In all four championships, Telch, a dominant central midfielder, Irusta, Cocco, and Villar were a constant presence. El Sapo wore the Azulgrana jersey in 461 competitive matches, more than any other player.

Despite its domestic dominance, San Lorenzo never won the Copa de Libertadores, a stain on the club’s history that remained until 2014.

At the beginning of the 1960s, San Lorenzo received a large parcel of land in the south of Buenos Aires in an area called Bajo Flores. River Plate to the north and Boca Juniors to the east of the city centre embarked on similar projects. A fourth club, Velez Sarsfield, was also expanding in the west. Each club planned for club facilities anchored by a large stadium. San Lorenzo’s president presented fantastical pictures of a new concrete stadium capable of holding 110 000 surrounded by a modern club. Construction started with swimming pools and leisure space for San Lorenzo’s members as a financial plan was outlined for the construction of the stadium. The plan was, however, divisive.

Argentina’s turn to darkness

Debate about the move ended when the project was delayed then scaled-back. A global economic crisis at the start of the 1970s had a devastating effect on Argentina. Unfortunately for San Lorenzo, the club had neglected its property on Avenida La Plata. The Viejo Gasómetro was in a state of disrepair. Memberships in the club had declined, part of a broader trend in Argentina. And year after year San Lorenzo fell further behind in its financial obligations.

Argentina was about to enter one of the darkest periods in its history. The economic crisis was accompanied by a political crisis. Juan Domingo Perón, a populist figure who had led major reforms during his presidency in 1945-54, returned from exile to contest the 1973 elections. On his return, right-wing peronist paramilitaries with the aim of intimidating left-wing factions attacked the crowds that had gathered at the airport, killing 13 and injuring 365. Elites who had backed the paramilitaries feared that Perón would ally himself with the leftwing factions of his party.

A small left-wing insurgency had grown alongside the more conventional activism of unions and students. Kidnappings and bombings targeted banks and police officers. In a climate of insecurity, the government of Isabel Perón, who had assumed the presidency after her husband’s death in 1974, began to lash out at the left-wing dissidents. As the situation became more violent and inflation in the economy spiralled out of control, elites conspired with the military to overthrow the government.

The civic-military dictatorship that took over Argentina in 1976 would have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of San Lorenzo, and transform the club in unexpected ways. Part two will look at how Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro lost its stadium and facilities on Avenida La Plata under nefarious dealings by the City of Buenos Aires. The club’s subsequent relegation in 1981 created a “revolution” in Argentinian football.

Matt Hawkins is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research covers the intersections of football and politics in Argentina. His dissertation focuses on the Return to Boedo campaign by supporters of Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. He writes infrequently on supporter culture for stonymondayriot.com and can be followed on twitter @mhawkin2.

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