Can Fútbol (Not Football) Save the Orange Bowl?

Argentina is out of the World Cup, but two of its teams played last weekend as if everything was on the line

"I don't care what others say/Boca, I'm with you." The chant, produced by a sea of blue-and-gold-clad fútbol fans and aimed at a smaller contingent of red-and-white-garbed fans, reverberates throughout the Orange Bowl on this, the third Saturday night in June. Buenos Aires, or at least Little Buenos Aires, the North Beach neighborhood so called because of its ever-increasing population of Argentine immigrants, has come to Miami's most famed and least utilized sports arena to cheer the Argentine soccer league's two greatest teams -- Club Atlético Boca Juniors and Club Atlético River Plate -- in their first-ever matchup on American sod.

"El Famoso River!" counter the fans of the team that has won 30 Argentine championships, more than any other club. "El Famoso River Plate!"

The match is an exhibition, the first of a series of preseason games each team will play in the United States during the next three weeks, in preparation for the start of the Opening 2002 soccer season in Argentina. (The Argentine soccer calendar is divided into the "Opening Season," running approximately from August to December, and the "Closing Season," which is usually played between January and May. Each season produces its own champion.)

The game, produced by the Chicago-based Latino marketing firm Cardenas/Fernandez & Associates, Inc. (CFA), may be more of an orchestrated event than an actual contest, but don't tell that to the faithful who have made the trek to Little Havana in search of a glimpse of the culture they left behind. To them it's a very serious matter, not as serious as the rhetoric from the stands would suggest, but close enough: "Un minuto de silencio para River," chant the Boca fans, politely asking for a moment of silence for the opposition, because, as they explain in the next chorus, "está muerto": They're dead.

If the game seems like a matter of life and death for Argentina's ardent fútbol aficionados, it may well be so for the venue in which tonight's match will be held. The 65-year-old Orange Bowl, as signature an institution as there is in Miami, sits empty more than 350 days a year; its only regular tenants are the University of Miami football team, which plays six games a year in the historic stadium, and the Miami Fury, a women's professional football team that plays four contests a year. The Miami Dolphins, for 30 years the Orange Bowl's premier resident, moved to Joe Robbie (now Pro Player) Stadium in 1987. In 1996 the annual Orange Bowl Classic, one of college football's biggest games, did the same (though it retains its original moniker).

With none of the amenities -- luxury boxes, full-service restaurants, exploding scoreboards -- that make modern stadiums so appealing to teams and fans alike, and with the University of Miami having only eight years left on its lease, it would appear the old orange lady's days are numbered. Unless, of course, it can transform itself into something else, a place of vital activity. In recent weeks, talk has surfaced of renovating the Orange Bowl for baseball and relocating the Florida Marlins there from Pro Player Stadium, where they are burdened by a bad lease and where for the past few seasons it has appeared they couldn't draw moths if they set fire to the place. The Marlins' move, however, as even the city maintains, is media speculation, more wishful than deep thinking. The Boca-River game tonight, on the other hand, is quite real. And perhaps, like the Argentine migration to South Florida itself, an indication of bigger things to come.

The stands are not full, but the crowd of 10,000 or so is excited, much more so than football spectators would be half an hour before kick-off. Historically Club Boca has been the preferred team of the Argentine working class; River Plate of the upper and middle classes. That distinction is less obvious among the people in attendance tonight. Working or middle class, what they are is young, mostly in their teens, twenties, and thirties. They're also willing to pay to watch their teams play: General admission for this game is $21.

Carina and Sebastian, who have been in the United States less than a year and work at a local Denny's restaurant, have brought their two young children to the game. All four applaud as the River team, dressed in white jerseys with red stripes across the front and black shorts, take the field for their pregame warmup. "After the World Cup," says Carina, a pretty blonde with green eyes, referring to the Argentine national team's devastating defeat in that international competition only three days before, "I didn't want to leave the house." Sebastian purses his lips and nods in agreement before exclaiming, "But we wouldn't have missed this for anything!"

Others in the stands are from out of town. Sergio and Diego, two friends who wear competing jerseys -- Sergio, that of the Boca squad; Diego, the colors of his beloved River -- drove from West Palm Beach. "No big deal," says Diego, brushing back long black ringlets of hair from his face, "we're used to driving." Both men work for a medical transport company, shuttling patients to and from a local hospital. "No emergency stuff, though," stresses Sergio. Next to them are Lejandro and Marcelo. In the United States less than two years, they live in Naples, and made the journey to Miami across the belly of the state despite the hard rain they knew was falling in South Florida all day.

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