Renaldo, A Tale of World Cup Soccer, Terrorism and Love.
A TALE OF WORLD CUP SOCCER, TERRORISM AND LOVE
Córdoba Argentina, December 5, 1977
The young Porteñio had never been this terrified in his life. The monster surged from behind almost engulfing them at times. He knew he could easily outrun the deadly creature were it not for the slower members of his group who stumbled and groped their way down the narrow alley.
Gordo was the worst, far too obese to keep up the frantic pace. The red and black torrent was gaining on them hurling insults along with rocks and bottles. The boy knew all too well what would happen should they be overtaken, for this monster was both human and inhuman.
A narrow lane intercepted their path and he could see his amigos had swung off to the right, but Gordo had missed the turn and plunged straight ahead knocking over several refuse cans in the process.
It was hard to believe that just thirty minutes earlier this same corpulent straggler, now panting and pallid from exertion and fear, had taunted a stadium full of enraged Córdobans. With cocky bravado he had boldly questioned their mothers' virtue, the size of their cojones, and worst of all, their team’s penchant for dull, defensive football. The first two insults the locals could dismiss from this fat fool but the third, perhaps because it was bitingly true, set the mob upon them.
Gordo was a well-known lawyer back in Buenos Aires, a self-important, larger than-life figure with an overinflated ego. His sharp tongue had often gotten him into uncomfortable situations but this was by far the most serious.
Like the majority of his peers who had made the journey to Córdoba, Gordo was a Porteñio or "person of the port." He was an Argentine national, born and bred in Buenos Aires. Born and bred or not, all the men who had accompanied him this day were impassioned supporters of the Newton's Prefects Football Club. A trainload of fans had traveled the five hundred miles to this quaint provincial capital for the championship game of the Argentine premier soccer league.
The atmosphere had been electric as the Prefect partisans staked out their tiny corner of the menacing Córdoba Stadium. Deep inside the lair of the monster, seething with forty-five thousand rabid adversaries, the brave few hundred manifested their colours defiantly to the hordes on the terraces.
“Preeeeeefects! Preeeeeefects! Preeeeeefects!” was the call to battle that accompanied the brandishing of their inflammatory black-and-white flags, scarves, hats, and banners. This display summoned even louder venom-filled jeers, taunts, and shouts from their hosts. Gordo led the rebuttal with a boisterous Prefect fight song. That made him a man marked for special attention.
Throughout the game the Prefect supporters in general and Gordo in particular were subjected to bottles and smoke bombs, insults, and incendiaries. The visitors remained steadfast in their resolve, however, with an unflinching belief in the ultimate destiny of their team.
They had waited so long in obscurity for a chance to once again reach the pinnacle. That moment was now at hand and in the minds of each and every Porteñio the championship trophy belonged back in Buenos Aires, not in this city of peasants and farmers. Perhaps that is why the less refined Córdobans truly hated the arrogant, urbane boasters from the nation's capital. They were so impudent in their team's support!
It mattered little to the hometown fanatics that the Prefect organization was one of the most tradition-steeped clubs in the entire nation. As a founding member of the Asociacion Del Futbol Argentina in 1893, the Newton's Prefects Football Club was originally formed to offer a recreational outlet to the offspring of British scientists and investors who had played such a large part in developing and modernizing this vast country.
The very first teams were made up exclusively from the graduating class or prefects of the Sir Isaac Newton Academy of the Sciences. This renowned English language preparatory school in Buenos Aires was established in 1865 as an old-world safe haven intent on salvaging a proper English education for the male children of United Kingdom transplants.
Newton's all-British professional side was the dominant master of the game in the early years of formal competition. But as so often happens in sports, a glorious beginning eventually gave way to mediocrity, then near obsolescence as native-born players took to the game of football with unbridled Latin passion. The foreigners finally succumbed to using a sprinkling of homegrown Porteñio talent to increase fan support and stave off bankruptcy, but by the 1920s, the once proud side had been relegated to third division status, a place where it would remain for nearly five decades.
The team's fortunes began to change for the better with aggressive new ownership in the mid 1970s. The purse strings were opened to acquire more highly skilled players. This rekindled the long dormant interest and affection for the Black and White. The signing of two world-class professionals at the start of the 1977 campaign, striker Ruben Gitares from the River Plate Club and defender Jorge Calderone from the Boca Juniors, turned out to be just the tonic needed to raise the efforts of the team's supporting cast to their highest levels.
The Prefects had finished fourth in the premier division standings then upset the highly favoured first place Independiente club in a brutally rugged semifinal fixture that saw several people killed in its acrimonious aftermath. The victory over Independiente set the stage for this pilgrimage to Córdoba, whose heroes had disposed of River Plate in the other semifinal game.
Now, with the ultimate prize beckoning the event set to take place inside this boiling concrete cauldron was far more than just the playing of a football game. This was blood sport! The blood of Córdoban ancestors and family against the invaders. Pride and passion. And so it would be on this beautiful afternoon in Córdoba.
The home team, Talleres F.C., clad in their all red strip with black numerals showed a stubborn willingness to defend their honour and their goal with great spirit and courage. For a while, the "Reds" did manage to bring the Córdobans to their feet, but it was all in the realm of the negative . . . defence!
Little by little the tension in the ranks of the red defenders grew. Their goalkeeper, a gangly, mustached custodian named Puente made several inspired saves but he was also quick to chastise his cohorts. The finger-pointing and verbal dressing-downs escalated with every Prefect sortie into Córdoban territory. Puente pleaded for some offence from his teammates but the best the Reds could do was to clear the ball either out of play or far upfield, yielding possession to the waiting Prefect midfielders.
Finally in the twenty-first minute Gitares, the brilliant Prefect striker, was sent through on a pinpoint pass from Calderone. One on one with the keeper he feinted to his left then sure-footed the ball into the top right corner of the net from twenty yards out. The spirit of the huge crowd seemed to deflate en masse, except for that tiny corner filled with the now even more vocal visitors. There, Gordo was waving his monstrous all-black flag while shouting insults at his enemies just beyond the eight-foot-high, barbed wire topped barriers.
Three more Prefect goals followed in the second forty-five-minute half sending the majority of the local patrons on their not-so-merry way before the conclusion of regulation time. Not the Newton's Prefect supporters, though! They remained on the terraces to soak up every blissful moment.
At the final whistle Gordo managed to avoid the disinterested security forces standing idly on the warning track and marched onto the pitch, his huge flag waving defiantly to and fro above him.
His Newton's Prefects were the champions of Argentina and the celebrating would start right now! Taking the fat man's lead more and more Prefect supporters converged on their victorious heroes at midfield signing, hugging, dancing, and scavenging pieces of the lush green carpet.
From where he stood on the terrace Renaldo De Seta could see the trouble coming. In the far corner of the stadium a mob of vocal young Córdobans was also making its way onto the pitch, angered at the insult of having these buffoons on their sacred turf. The security forces remained stationary on the perimeter of the field, allowing the Córdobans to swiftly set upon the still revelling visitors.
In an instant elation became hysteria. An incendiary flare exploded in the midst of the Prefect supporters and the screams of the burnt victims could be heard by Renaldo fifty yards away. He could barely see the mêlée through the thick maroon smoke but he knew his compatriots were in serious trouble. The observer quickly looked for the nearest escape route, then leapt into action. Gliding over the barriers he soon reached what looked to be a senior officer in the National Guard.
"Why do you stand here and do nothing? People are going to get hurt, surely you have eyes, you must be able to see that yourself. Please do something!"
The officer looked at Renaldo with disinterest and disdain, shrugged his shoulders, then started to turn away. The commotion on the field was getting louder by the second and it was only the report of several gunshots that startled the officer into action.
“Please help them get out of the stadium." Renaldo pleaded.
There was a fire in the young man's eyes that the officer could not ignore. He looked past the youth out onto the pitch. At that very moment a Prefect supporter staggered out of the smoke, bleeding profusely from a gash to his head.
'The visitor is right!' the officer thought. If he didn't save these rabble-rousers, it could ruin his career, and they certainly weren't worth that.
A piercing blast of the military man's whistle brought several subordinates running to his side. Renaldo stepped back as the uniformed group held a brief conference. A lieutenant screamed into his walkie-talkie as the officer turned to Renaldo.
"We will try to separate them and cordon off an escape route through the nearest tunnel. After that, you are on your own."
The warning track that surrounded the field was now teeming with guardsmen, bayonets affixed to their carbines. A corporal handed the lieutenant a loudspeaker, into which he screamed several commands. As one, the soldiers then advanced toward the smoke-obscured chaos.
Renaldo, having done his best to get help, sprinted past the guardsmen to see if he could find his friends and get them started toward the escape tunnel.
It was pandemonium on the field. More smoke flares had been ignited and the boy could hardly distinguish the Córdobans from his own companions. Some groups were engaged in hand-to-hand combat while others stood staring each other down using verbal abuse as a prelude to a more physical display of their machismo.
Renaldo had wisely discarded the black-and-white scarf he had worn all afternoon and was able to streak through the midst of his would-be assailants without being detected as a Prefect invader. Confusion reigned supreme until miraculously through a clearing in the smoke, the boy caught a glimpse of what he thought was Gordo's huge Prefect flag surrounded by both friends and foes.
The Porteñio pushed his way further into the maroon mist until he found himself face-to-face with Gordo and a throng of his dazed blood-brothers. The men had formed a tight circle around Godo’s insolent object, for to lose the colours would be a great dishonour no matter what the outcome of the game had been.
Gordo, although sweating profusely, had lost none of his loud aggressive bearing. He continued to insult his detractors all the while taunting them with his sacred cloth.
"We must get out of the stadium now or we won't have a chance!" implored Renaldo.
“ I would not give these peasants the satisfaction of driving us from this place. This is our field of victory! “ spat the fat man defiantly.
"It will be our field of doom if we do not leave right now!" the newcomer retorted.
Gordo did not stand convinced but just as he was about to resume his verbal tirade against the provincials, the first jet of water slammed into the group of men immediately to their left.
"Water cannon!" screamed one of the combatants.
All at once it seemed as if the sky had opened up and let loose a torrential downpour. Men were thrown to the ground or propelled into one another with terrifying velocity. The National Guard officer had made good on his promise to separate the antagonists, but he was employing a most vicious method of doing so.
A water cannon mounted on an armoured military vehicle was randomly sweeping the pitch with devastating effect. The National Guardsmen had halted after advancing only a few paces, then formed a corridor leading to the escape tunnel. The officer in charge was no fool. He would not risk the safety of his soldiers by sending them into the smokey fray. Besides, the water cannon made for great spectacle, something to amuse his troops and take their minds off the sad defeat the home team had suffered.
Renaldo knew he had to act quickly or his friends would be separated and left alone to make their way to safety. In one swift motion he grabbed the flag from Gordo's grasp, pushed him around, and pointed in the general direction of the tunnel.
"Brave amigos, follow me to glory!" he shouted.
To think he was leaving the field in glorious fashion was somehow satisfying to Gordo and he motioned for the group to follow Renaldo and the fluttering standard. That was not altogether an easy task through the jumble of men, the spray of the cannon, and the dissipating smoke. The flag, however, served as their beacon and most of the Porteñios made it to the warning track where the guardsmen stood nervously await ing their arrival.
Only Prefect supporters were allowed though the corridor of soldiers formed where Gordo's pennant swung proudly as a rallying point for the men from Buenos Aires. Many of those assembling there had been bloodied but their wounds were looked upon as proud souvenirs of a great and glorious victory.
When Renaldo was satisfied that a full complement of the Prefectos, as they called themselves, were in the narrow tunnel he led hem swiftly down the passage and out into the stadium concourse. From there it was an easy walk past the entrance gates and into an open-air plaza.
Relief swept over the rescuer as he watched his fellow Porteños file into the bright sunshine. It was an emotion that would be short-lived.
Renaldo still held the giant battle colours in his right hand. As he stood surveying the ranks of the rescued and talking to a member of his group the flagpole was suddenly torn from his grasp. A young street urchin clad in Córdoban colours sped away down the plaza into a gang of hostile ruffians. Instantly the flag was set ablaze then waved defiantly at its owners as it disintegrated into flaming pieces.
The stunned Prefectos could only watch in silence as their colours turned to burning embers. But mute disbelief was soon replaced by Gordo's booming voice chiding and chastising the vile arsonists. The locals returned Gordo's salutations with their own invectives and it was all too evident the situation could rapidly deteriorate into more violence. As the tension mounted the words of the military officer flashed in Renaldo's mind.
“Once you are out of the stadium, you are on your own.”
There was neither a policeman nor a guardsman in sight. The situation inside the stadium was still the focus of their attention. This was not the time for more of Gordo's verbal contempt. This was the time to save themselves.
The mob of Córdobans was growing in size by the second and projectiles started to rain down into the midst of the wary visitors. The hunters were now edging closer to their prey and a repeat of what had just occurred inside the stadium was all too likely.
The men from Buenos Aires had chosen to travel to Córdoba by train, primarily to allow themselves the freedom to party as a group on both legs of the journey. But that decision was now responsible for their present peril.
No motor coaches stood at the ready to whisk them away to safety. Most of the Porteños had walked the mile from the train station to the stadium in a large vocal mass. The remainder had hired taxicabs, not one of which was anywhere to be seen now. With absolutely no means of transportation available the conquerors had no alternative but to swallow their pride and flee to safety on foot.
But where? None of the visitors were intimately familiar with the lay of the land, for a police escort had herded them along the route to the stadium before the game. It was glaringly evident they had to go somewhere for to do nothing and wait for help to arrive at their present location would be suicide.
"We must go now!" Renaldo shouted emphatically to the group.
Gordo was about to offer some resistance to that plan when a piece of brick grazed his left shoulder.
"Mother of Jesus!" he cried out, clutching his collarbone.
"Do you believe me now? Let’s go!"
The only escape route available to the Prefectos lay behind them in the narrow passages of an open-air marketplace. This confined space would offer some form of protection to the swift, should the Córdobans try to follow them in an unwieldy posse.