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

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

By Matt Hawkins –

This article is part two 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 have 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. Part one covered the club’s early history. This second instalment explores the transformation of San Lorenzo during the dictatorship.

When sitting down to chat with two generations of hinchas of San Lorenzo, I can sense how deeply the club was affected by the events that occurred during Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship (1976-1983). With the loss of its home, the Viejo Gasómetro, a seemingly broken club, found that its true heart lies with its hinchas. The actions through which supporters manifest their passion for their club lie at the core of a football club’s identity. One of these defining actions is the telling of the club’s stories—the club’s history.

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David is in his early twenties and starting a young family. His face lights up and becomes animated when talks about San Lorenzo. His excitement is contagious. But there is also evidence of pain when he talks about in his club’s history, “I never had the opportunity to go to the Viejo Gasómetro,” David describes to me. “But I have friends, family, and grandparents who went. I’ve seen the photos from inside the Viejo Gasómetro. I’ve seen what San Lorenzo was like in those times and it fills you with happiness. It’s the neighbourhood; it’s the identity.”

A whole generation has never experienced standing on the wooden terraces of San Lorenzo’s lost stadium in the neighbourhood of Boedo. Yet, from this generation has risen some of the most active militants within the Vuelta a Boedo campaign, which aims to raise a stadium in the very same location. There is a flame of vigorous determination, which typifies the character of a hincha of San Lorenzo. The initial spark was struck deep inside the club during its darkest moments.

José was born in 1960. Living just a few blocks from the old stadium, José regularly went to watch the Matadores in ’68 with his father. “The memory gives me goosebumps,” he says as he describes how he and friends would play papi-football below the terraces of the Viejo Gasómetro. Then in 1979 his childhood club, which had been such an important part of his early life, lost almost everything when it lost the stadium. Two years later San Lorenzo was relegated, the first of Argentina’s biggest teams to experience that fate.

David and José met in the Peña del Oeste, a supporter’s club in the western suburbs of Buenos Aires. Several dozen hinchas, men and women, young and old, attend the group’s weekly meetings. On match days, the peña organizes buses for a few hundred people to travel to San Lorenzo’s stadium in Bajo Flores, over 30 minutes away. The group has been very active within the Vuelta a Boedo campaign, raising money and bringing people to the marches in downtown Buenos Aires.

David points to San Lorenzo’s relegation in 1981 as a turning point for the club and an event that is a source of motivation for him and other hinchas: “Today people are proud to be a hincha of San Lorenzo. Before, you became a hincha of San Lorenzo because of your grandfather or your father. Today, you are proud to be a hincha of San Lorenzo because of its people. Because of what the people of San Lorenzo created in that moment and what they continue to create today.”

The transformation of a relegated grande, playing in the Primera B and without a stadium to call home, is one of Argentinian football’s greatest stories. As stadiums during the 1982 second division tournament were being filled by hinchas of San Lorenzo, one television reporter proposed, “this is a phenomenon for sociologists to study: why are so many people supporting San Lorenzo in this moment? Why are so many people happily coming to celebrate a meeting on this stage in the Primera B?” To understand what was happening within San Lorenzo at the time, we need to go back to the civic-military dictatorship and the loss of the Viejo Gasómetro.

Argentina’s Dictatorship and its Dirty War

A junta led by General Jorge Rafael Videla along with Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier-General Orlando Ramón Agosti took over Argentina in March, 1976. Backed by powerful conservative elements in the Catholic Church and the country’s business elites, they immediately launched the National Reorganization Process, a series of economic reforms that privatized state industries and curtailed worker’s rights.

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Open warfare against a left-wing insurgency was short lived and contained mostly to the province of Tucuman. Kidnappings and bombings in Buenos Aires, Rosario and Cordoba carried out by the left-wing Montoneros targeted elites, the military, and police. Behind the rhetorical veil of the need to provide security and to defeat terrorists, the government launched a dirty war that targeted activists in unions, student movements, political parties, and human rights organizations.

Disappearances, unreported by the major newspapers in Argentina, started to occur on the streets of the major cities. Mothers took to the Plaza de Mayo every week, carrying pictures of their lost sons and daughters, some asking for the whereabouts of recently born grandchildren. The few that returned from clandestine torture centres whispered horrific tales of violence and brutality at the hands of professional torturers in the police and military. As bodies began to wash ashore on the beaches near Buenos Aires, awareness grew regarding the magnitude of the human rights violations that were occurring.

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A chill enveloped public gatherings. Those involved in political activities feared for their lives. Officially, 9,300 people have been documented as victims of Argentina’s Dirty War. Human rights groups claim that the number is much higher—as many as 30,000 Argentinians.

Some hinchas of San Lorenzo claim that their club was targeted by the dictatorship, in part, some believe, because Perónist slogans and songs had been heard on their terraces. Milanesa, the nickname of the leader of San Lorenzo’s barra, was a well-known sympathizer of the left-wing Perónists and had refused to collaborate with the police and military. Silvio Aragón, an Argentinian social-anthropologist, notes that in this period, hinchas of San Lorenzo were singled out by the Federal Police and faced increased violence outside of the stadium on match days.

Nine hinchas and members of San Lorenzo are known to have been among the disappeared. Daniel Marcelo Schapira, who had been a tennis player and instructor in San Lorenzo, was a student of law and member of the Peronist University Youth when he was detained and disappeared on April 7, 1977. Others were tortured and later released. Victor Basterra, who was detained and tortured in 1976, has since spoken about his experiences at events organized by hinchas of the club and is an example of club supporters who have become involved in the politics of memory in Argentina.

Football during the Dictatorship

Football in general, however, was not a site of mass protest. From a historical perspective, very little documentary evidence suggests that football crowds openly resisted the dictatorship. Racing Club and Nueva Chicago, both with deep Perónist histories, along with San Lorenzo are among the few noted exceptions. Major media, aligned with the dictatorship, did not cover acts of resistance, so it is difficult to know the exact climate on the terraces. Evidence does suggest, however, that the leadership of several barras collaborated with the dictatorship and traded political favours for discipline on the terraces and intelligence on fellow hinchas.

BUENOS AIRES - JUNE 25:  Mario Kempes of Argentina celebrates scoring a goal during the FIFA World Cup Finals 1978 Final between Argentina and Holland held on June 25, 1978 at the River Plate Stadium, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina won the match and cup 3-1 after extra-time. (Photo by Getty Images)

The 1978 World Cup hosted by Argentina reveals the dark side of the spectacle of football. At the start of the tournament, human rights groups attempted to leverage international media to direct attention to the disappeared and tortured. The civic-military dictatorship used the national media to argue against a so-called international prejudice that wanted to see the country fail.

The World Cup was to be a demonstration of Argentina’s modernity—brand new stadiums, efficient infrastructure, and a strong government capable of providing economic leadership. Argentina’s winning football team was to embody all of this. Controversy, however, surrounds Argentina’s path to the final and their 6-0 defeat of Peru. Many believe that the military influenced the Andean country’s players before the start of the match. There are different versions of how and why Peru lost, but none have been proven.

Argentina went on to the win its first World Cup by defeating the Netherlands. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Argentinians poured onto the streets to celebrate, ignorant of what was happening in the country’s dark corners. The final, played in River Plate’s Monumental Stadium, was only a few hundred metres from the most notorious clandestine torture centre: the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy School of Mechanics, ESMA). Stories are told of how prisoners were taken from their basement cells, put into cars, and driven around the stadium while final match was being played. Their torturers used the anonymity produced by the spectacle in a further psychological assault on their victims.

It is ironic that a well-known leftist, César Luis Menotti, managed Argentina’s national team. Before the final match, Menotti had told his players, “We are the people. We come from the underclasses, we are the victims, and we represent the only thing legitimate in this country: football. We do not play for the official boxes filled with the military; instead we play for the people. We do not defend the dictatorship but rather liberty.” The World Cup juxtaposed two aspects of football’s political nature. On the one hand, football was a public celebration and a symbolic expression of a state that the dictatorship could not control. On the other, the World Cup could be seen as a mass distraction, from the ongoing human rights violations. These two features have been debated since the end of the dictatorship and, although contradictory, are both true.

The Loss of the Viejo Gasómetro

For the hinchas of San Lorenzo, the civic-military dictatorship also marks the loss of the Viejo Gasómetro. The last match was played in the historic stadium on December 2, 1979 against Boca Juniors. Some hinchas held out hope that the stadium could be saved.

VISTA PANORAMICA DEL VIEJ0 GASOMETRO CANCHA DE SAN LORENZO 12/12/79

The wooden terraces were showing their age. Unlike other large clubs, San Lorenzo had not received public funds to refurbish their stadium. A complete move to the Ciudad Deportiva had been debated within the club for over a decade as a potential solution. Some within the club believed that San Lorenzo should focus almost entirely on its football operations. Lacking money for either a new stadium or the reconstruction of the Viejo Gasómetro, San Lorenzo was stuck.

Enter in 1978 the plans of the City of Buenos Aires, then under the control of Brigadier-General Osvaldo Cacciatore. Already in the process of expropriating houses for a master plan of eight new raised highways that would cut through the city, Cacciatore’s government resurrected the idea of connecting arterial roads in Boedo through the Gasómetro property. On the remaining expropriated land the City had proposed to build an elementary school and plaza.

As San Lorenzo’s board of directors debated over what action to take, Cacciatore reportedly became impatient. José María Muñoz, spokesperson for Cacciatore, made the phone call to the board of directors. “The Brigadier is very disappointed in San Lorenzo,” Muñez is reported to have said. A letter to San Lorenzo’s president reportedly mentioned his family. The threat was felt by the dissenting voices. After the Boca match, an inspector from the municipality presented San Lorenzo with an order to close the stadium, citing safety concerns. The report basically required the complete reconstruction of the stadium.

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In 1980, 4,500 m2 of the property was given to the city. Two years later under continued pressure by the city to finally liquidate the majority of the property, 35,667 m2 was divided into three parts. Banco Mariva and Agrovías SA and Calder SA., two phantom companies based in Montevideo, created days before, purchased the property for a total of US$900,000. In 1985, following the return to democracy Carrefour, the French multinational retailer, purchased the property for US$ 8 million and built one of the first large format box-stores in the country. Only two small parts of the property remained in the hands of the club.

Journalist Enrique Escande, in his history of the Viejo Gasómetro writes, “What is clear, though there are few that know the whole truth about what happened, is that the military took it upon themselves to definitively crush San Lorenzo by accelerating the closure and dismantling the stadium.”

San Lorenzo was broken. Without a stadium, the team was forced to rent from nearby rivals; a massive indignity in a football culture where territory and home carry such symbolic importance. A half-built ciudad deportiva in Bajo Flores provided a small base of activity for the club’s members. For years after the construction of the Carrefour, which coincidentally shares the colours blue and red, hinchas of San Lorenzo would hear the insults: “Cuervo, oh what an idiot, I went to your stadium and I found a supermarket, a blue and red flag, and a kid who said Carrefour. Bread and wine, milanesas, and fish I stole, River has a stadium, San Lorenzo a store.”

The Unthinkable: a Grande is Relegated and Sparks a “Revolution” in Football

In 1981, amidst the political struggles over the fate of the Gasómetro, the unthinkable happened. Los Matadores were relegated after losing to Argentinos Juniors in the stadium of Ferrocarril Oeste. San Lorenzo became the first grande in the professional era to descend to the second division.

“I remember the game,” José tells me. “We filled the stadium; people were outside still trying to get in when the match started. San Lorenzo only needed to tie the game but ended up losing one-nil. The feeling was terrible. We then had to play in Ferro against Ferro knowing that San Lorenzo was already relegated. In the stadium were singing, ‘Ciclón, Ciclón, it’s only one year. We will follow you, wherever you want to go!’ till the end of the game. We were all crying. The players from Ferro came over at the end of the match and applauded us. The Viejo Gasómetro must still have been standing, they hadn’t taken it down yet, because I remember we marched down Avenida La Plata all the way to the stadium. Some of us broke through the gates and got up on to the wooden terraces where we used to watch San Lorenzo. They were in rough shape; we were still singing, ‘Ciclón, Ciclón, it’s only one year, we will follow you, wherever you want to go,’ the tears were rolling down our cheeks.”

The following year, in the face of devastation, the hinchas of San Lorenzo sparked what a major football paper at the time called a “popular revolution.” Few other moments articulate the defining characteristics of Argentinian supporter culture so well. For most hinchas, their relationship is best described through three verbs: a sufrir (to suffer), a aguantar (to withstand), a celebrar (to celebrate). No celebration is truly meaningful without having first to withstand the suffering that comes with passionately supporting your team. Football does not always deliver victories; rather it is in los malos momentos (the bad moments) that a club’s hinchas are defined.

On the first match of 1982 Primera B, San Lorenzo once again had rented the midsized stadium of Ferrocarril Oeste. A young hincha described to me how the President had imagined that no one would want to see San Lorenzo in the second division and feared a larger stadium would be left empty. As kick-off drew near, however, the crowd waiting to enter the stadium only grew thicker. It was not until well into the second half that the crowd waiting outside had either dispersed or entered the stadium.

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This situation was repeated two more times before San Lorenzo was able to renegotiate the use of larger stadiums in Buenos Aires. El Ciclón took over the stadiums of Veléz Sarsfield, the iconic Bombonera of Boca Juniors, and the Monumental of River Plate, which had been expanded to host the World Cup finals in 1978, the last time the stadium had been filled to capacity. It was once again filled when San Lorenzo came to play. Officially, 69,876 people attended the ninth match of the tournament against Tigre (even though only 46,059 tickets were sold), a record for the second division.

Money was flowing into the club. The match in the Monumental raised more money than the whole first division matches played that weekend combined. Television audiences of San Lorenzo’s matches consistently dwarfed those of the first division. As a result, AFA began to require that teams hosting San Lorenzo find stadiums capable of holding a minimum of 30,000 people.

In retrospect, the hinchas of San Lorenzo talk about the celebration of their club as representing a response to the climate of repression that had taken over Argentina. Each match, while not overtly political, expressed a powerful contrast to the fear inspired by the civic-military dictatorship. The matches reflected a country tired of its leadership. Massive public disenchantment following the disastrous military campaign in the Malvinas/Falklands, which also occurred in 1982, eventually brought down the dictatorship in 1983.

Rebuilding San Lorenzo in Bajo Flores

After returning to the first division, San Lorenzo’s celebration continued on the terraces of rented stadiums. One club, Velez Sarsfield, eventually began to refuse to rent their stadium to San Lorenzo. At first Velez attempted to curtail the drain of its youth to San Lorenzo by banning the blue and red jerseys on match days. People from other parts of the city were exposed to the phenomena and became hinchas of the club.

San Lorenzo, despite its popularity, continued to experience mediocre results on the field. President Fernando Miele promised to rejuvenate the institution of the club, and under his leadership, San Lorenzo was able to end a more than a decade of disgrace. A new stadium was constructed in 1993 in the Ciudad Deportiva in Bajo Flores. The nicknamed Nuevo Gasómetro architecturally recalls its predecessor with its exposed concrete pillars and massive curving terraces behind both goals where 14,000 standing fans produce San Lorenzo’s iconic choral performance at each match.

A championship was celebrated shortly after in 1995—San Lorenzo’s first in the Primera División since 1974. And, on the corner property that San Lorenzo retained on Avenida La Plata, the club built a small facility with an indoor swimming pool, weight room, studio and club-store. In small increments, San Lorenzo began to return to the neighbourhood from which it had been displaced.

More recent times have revealed the typical ups and downs of modern football. Championships came in 1995, 2001 and 2007, along with two international trophies—the Copa Mercosur (2001) and the Copa Sudamericana (2002). Each period of success, however, was not far from a crisis within the club.

In 2000 after years of managing the club, President Miele proposed a private a contract with International Sport Leisure, a Swiss marketing companied tied to FIFA and Sepp Blatter. Under the deal, ISL would control San Lorenzo’s marketing and television rights as well as a percentage of the gate-receipts for ten years in return for a promised increase in general revenues.

On November 30, 2000, a mass protest organized by hinchas took place outside an emergency meeting held in the Nuevo Gasómetro. The club’s board of directors called in the police who used tear gas to disperse the club’s own hinchas from their stadium. The club’s leadership passed the agreement but legal challenges launched by the government halted its progress until ISL collapsed in 2001. Miele, in the wake of the controversy, stepped down from San Lorenzo’s presidency. Today, every November 30th San Lorenzo celebrates the Day of the Hincha.

Always thinking about Boedo

While Nuevo Gasómetro became the new home for the club, waves of nostalgia rippled through an older generation of hinchas who remembered the “golden decades” when San Lorenzo was an unrivalled social and sporting institution. This older generation, who continued to share its memories of a different San Lorenzo, began to influence younger hinchas to dream of a full return to Boedo.

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While sitting with David and José, I’m reminded of how influential this intergenerational desire has become. “For me it is in the roots of every hincha of San Lorenzo to have the stadium on Avenida La Plata,” José tells me. “For whatever political reason they took the stadium on Avenida La Plata away from us and it’s like we lost a part of our identity.”

“The hincha of San Lorenzo is always thinking about returning to Boedo, to return to their neighbourhood, to their home,” David is as emphatic as José. But he is also realistic about what happened to the club. “Yes, okay, we sold our home but it was wrong. A club’s home is not something that you should ever be able to sell. San Lorenzo went into debt and did lots of things wrong, had a bad championship. Everything wrong… But when [the City] told them we need to take away the stadium there wasn’t a discussion. The military said, ‘this is mine and you cannot argue with us’ and San Lorenzo gave them the stadium. I think that San Lorenzo today is returning to Boedo because that’s what its people want; without anyone giving us anything.”

The third and final segment of this three part series will look at how the Vuelta Boedo, a grassroots movement, organized over the past decade by common hinchas, has transformed San Lorenzo.

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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