Argentine fans return to stadiums after 20-month absence

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — There’s a game going on at the Diego Maradona Stadium and two fans outside are desperate to see their team, Argentinos Juniors.

Victoriano Villamil and Agustín Beldo, wearing jerseys of the national team and the club side, race around the stadium looking for a gap in the wall, some glimpse. A door swings open, giving a glimpse of the green field. But a menacing guard appears before they can dash through.

Few places in the world have soccer fans more passionate than those in Argentina, and few have been so long denied a live view of their teams due to the pandemic. It’s been 20 months since the government banned spectators at stadiums.

“I miss everything. Screaming after a goal, insulting visiting players,” Villamil said. His friend Beldo said the two thought they might find a way into the stadium on a weekday, perhaps with less security.

Such fans will finally get their chance next week when Argentina plays a World Cup qualifying match against Bolivia. President Alberto Fernández has authorized spectators for the Sept. 9 match, though fans will be allowed to fill only 30% of the usual 70,000-spectator capacity of the Monumental Stadium, home to the River Plate team.

It will be a test of whether fans can safely return as the pandemic appears to wane in Argentina, which had counted more than 110,000 dead from the virus and 5.1 million cases.

“We are in a good epidemiologic situation, with a sustained fall in the number of cases for 13 weeks,” said Health Minister Carla Vizzotti, who argues in favor of a reopening. “This wouldn’t be only for soccer; it is for the rest of the sports. We hope that this test goes well and that the epidemiologic situation keeps allowing it.”

Argentina is one of the few countries in the region where all professional soccer is still played wholly without fans. Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Colombia have all hosted a limited number of supporters and guests when local authorities agreed.

The pandemic’s impact is heavy in a country where soccer is far more than a pastime and supporters groups are famed — when not notorious — for their passion and many hold tailgate-style parties, grilling meat before games. Many chant so hard during games they lose their voices.

“Argentinian fans do crazy things to watch a match,” said Lautaro Mazza, who supports middle of the table team Lanus. “There are people who mortgaged their house to see Lanus in Japan. I missed my daughters’ birthdays, my mother’s. I tell them I see them everyday, but that match I will never be able to see again.”

With the stadium closed, Mazza and other Lanus fans frequently gathered to watch games in front of a small shop near the stadium with a television set to the match. Many Argentines can’t afford the roughly $9 pay-per-view fee charged for each game by cable broadcasters.

All that Argentinian soccer supporters have been allowed to do during the pandemic is to enter stadiums several hours before a match and drape flags over the stands where they used to cheer.

The government hasn’t yet set rules for fans at the Sept .9 match. Many refuse to take the most reliable PCR tests because they cost nearly $50 each. A vaccination card doesn’t seem like a viable alternative for most because only 30% of the population is fully immunized.

Once the government eases restrictions, teams will decide who gets the limited seating. That is expected to trigger a confrontation between registered club members, supporters groups known as “barrabravas” and regular fans.

As she stood in a bar watching her Boca Juniors play rival Racing, Mery Vernaza said she doesn’t want only the privileged to enter stadiums. Hardcore fans like her “are the 12th player of the team,” she said.

Regardless of the fuss expected with the reopening, Health Minister Vizzotti made a perhaps vain appeal to fans who can get in: “If there’s a goal, don’t have too much contact,” she said.

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