Can Fútbol (Not Football) Save the Orange Bowl?

#$%$#&* the World Cup, it's River Plate vs. Boca Juniors!
Steve Satterwhite

"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.

By game time, the rain has given way to a surprisingly pleasant evening and a slight breeze that animates the homemade banners hanging around the stadium: "River y mi viejo son mi vida" ("River and my old man are my life"), "Miami es de Boca" ("Miami belongs to Boca"), and one, resembling an Argentine flag, featuring a tribute to "El Gran Ausente" ("The Great Absentee"): recently retired Argentine megastar Diego Maradona, once considered the greatest soccer player in the world and, before that, a member of the Boca team.

There may be no threatening clouds in the sky, but there is lightning: a quick score in the game's ninth minute by Boca's Nicolas Burdisso. Elation among the Boca partisans. But also the knowledge that River will no doubt respond before the evening is over. The first half gives way to the second. River is more aggressive. Angel Comizzo, the River goalie, a tall, striking man with a long black mane and the countenance of an Indian chief, exhorts his teammates toward the Boca goal from the other end of the field. Then, when all hope appears lost, in the waning seconds of the game: goooooaaal. The reigning Argentine champions waited until the game's final minute to tie the contest. An impossibly short span of time later, they win it, with a second score.

Those who have rooted for River, even more so than the Boca boosters, are temporarily stunned. Then a handful trickle over the security fence separating the stands from the field. Then a few more. Two, maybe three, hundred fans make their way onto the field, slapping their heroes on the back, begging to take game jerseys home as souvenirs. The players disappear triumphantly into the bowels of the stadium.

The following morning's Miami Herald coverage of the game will be brief and filled with inaccuracies: references to a "soggy" evening when, in fact, not a drop of rain fell; an estimated crowd size of 18,000 (a CFA rep pegs the number at somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000, pending a count of the gate receipts), and an exaggerated account of 2000 fans who "had to be controlled by Miami Police." By contrast the paper will run a long page-one sports section piece about how baseball just might work in the Orange Bowl.

Despite the cultural indifference and the bad ink from the big daily, CFA's Patricia Marchak remains optimistic about the prospects for fútbol in Miami. "For us," explains the company's director of sports, "building a fan base for these kinds of events is as important as anything else. We think everybody who came left having had a fabulous time." They had a ball. And Miami, for one rare night, had a Bowl.

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