Argentina’s wilder side unleashed

The police came at a frantic space in vans, cars and motorbikes, all with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing.

Even in Buenos Aires, the scale of this operation was serious. They cordoned off roads, adrenaline was pumping and eight big men in riot gear jumped out of a van and took up position shoulder-to-shoulder, batons in one hand and six-foot plastic shields in the other.

They were outside the hotel I had stayed in a few nights earlier.

They paid me no heed as I went to the shop opposite. We had just arrived back in Buenos Aires on Sunday night after the first test in Resistencia. I was staying around the corner from my original hotel.

As I got near the hotel — there were now about a dozen police vehicles strewn across the road and 30 or 40 armed officers on duty — I discovered the focal point was a big double-decker bus from which some footballers were hastily disembarking with nervous glances.

I thought they might be an international team with something to do with the World Cup but couldn’t identify their red shirts. Turns out they were Independiente, one of couple of dozen professional clubs in Buenos Aires, who had blown automatic promotion a few hours earlier after a fall from grace in recent years which included relegation.

Their supporters, used to mixing it with the likes of city rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate, did not take the setback very well. They attacked the players as they came off the pitch (they also attacked the media, by the way) and word got out that they were going to storm the team hotel, which was now in lockdown. They take their football seriously in Argentina. Happily, Independiente are now back in the top flight after winning a play-off against Huracan on Wednesday night and the riot police can take a breather. For now.

We went to see Argentina play Trinidad & Tobago at the 1978 World Cup final venue Estadio Monumental last week and had to go through five ticket checkpoints, including a rather rigorous body search.

Violence is part of football here and football is life in this country, where it seems about 10% of the people have 90% of the wealth.

Messi is everywhere. If you want to buy an Argentina jersey — and the opportunity is presented to you every 50 metres — nine out of 10 of them will be his No.10 shirt.

Tucuman, where Argentina’s declaration of independence was signed in 1816, is regarded as ‘a hotbed’ of rugby.

We saw one billboard advertising today’s match at Estadio Jose Fierro.

The stadium is home to the city’s second division side. It is a small, concrete colosseum but will be rocking today.

The players will go into tiny dressing rooms, then go down steps and into a concrete tunnel which comes up on the side of the pitch. It is barely six feet in height. Yesterday, we were wondering would Devin Toner have to be carried out?

The World Cup has kicked off and that may keep the crowd down today. TVs have popped up everywhere. I stood in a queue in a supermarket a few blocks from our hotel on Thursday which came to a standstill as the opening ceremony started. Several minutes passed before the tills started again.

Very few mention rugby, the Irish squad has not created a stir even though lads are out and about for walks and coffees over the last few days.

A crowd quickly gathers outside a house where there is a telly facing outwards. The rules of the road don’t exist, you just press the pedal and try avoid what’s coming at you. Any wonder Argentinians are fleet-footed?

Tucuman is more developed than the Chaco region where we were last week. Or maybe we are just becoming more accustomed to it.

In fairness, though, seeing the riot police in action and the look of fear on the faces of the footballers was an eye-opener.

There shouldn’t be any need for the riot mob today but this is a country of surprises.

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