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Argentine Soccer Fans Seek New Stadium Worthy Of The Pope

With the backing of Pope Francis, himself a lifelong fan, supporters of San Lorenzo are fighting to rebuild in the neighborhood where their original stadium once stood.

Argentine Soccer Fans Seek New Stadium Worthy Of The Pope
Alice Pouyat

BUENOS AIRES — There is nothing more common on a Friday evening in Buenos Aires than a barbecue. It's a weekend ritual in Argentina, where people come together to grill soft pieces of meat on the parrilla. But on this June evening, there's a little bit more to the gathering of 450 people in a former church-turned-canteen, cooking a huge quantity of chorizo sausages, ribs and steaks on the grill. Dressed in vivid blue and red, they are all cuervos, or crows, the nickname of fans of the Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro, a sports club whose soccer team is one of the five most successful in Argentine history.

They've all paid 15 euros for this dinner organized by local volunteers motivated by the same dream, written on an enormous banner hanging from the wall: "The return to the Holy Land."

This promised land is Boedo, one of the city's most traditional suburbs and the cradle of San Lorenzo. Strolling along its streets, it becomes clear how closely the sports club is tied to the neighborhood's identity. Blue and red adorn every shop front and house window, while the walls are decorated with images depicting the finest moments of the ciclón, or cyclone, as the soccer team is known here.

"Boedo is San Lorenzo's home, where its heart has always been," says Ernesto Pierro, a tango singer and composer who organized the evening's entertainment.

The stadium in Boedo, called the "Gasómetro," used to stand at 1700 Avenida La Plata. The last match it held was against Boca Juniors, one of San Lorenzo's rivals from the capital, on Dec. 2, 1979. A stadium seating 75,000 people, it was destroyed to make way for a massive Carrefour supermarket in 1985, ironically painted in red and blue. The club's current home, nicknamed "the new Gasómetro," was inaugurated in 1993 in the nearby neighborhood of Bajo Flores.

The original stadium's replacement with a supermarket was blasphemy for the team's fans, who are known nationwide for their ardent devotion and inventiveness. Twenty-five years later, they have launched a crusade to buy back the land and rebuild their stadium.

A blessed beginning

San Lorenzo's history began in 1907, when a local parish priest named Lorenzo Massa opened the courtyard of his church to the street children and their balls, asking only that they take communion in return for having a place to play. The cuervos get their name from the color of Massa's black cassock.

"It was in the old Gasómetro that my grandparents and even my children went to their first concerts," says Monica Fernandez, who attended the barbecue with her two daughters. "For us, it's more than just a stadium." There are many like her who cherish family memories and joyful moments spent there.

Monica's children have been members of the San Lorenzo sports club since they learned how to walk, and still have access today to chess, drama and swimming lessons the club provides. But she would rather they be able to attend the classes in Boedo than in Bajo Flores, which is located near a dangerous slum.

On Dec 17., San Lorenzo beat Auckland City FC in the semi-finals of the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup, in Morocco. The Argentineans would later be defeated by Real Madrid in the final — Marcio Machado/ZUMA

The Gasómetro's crusaders argue that their stadium was taken from them by Argentina's military junta and that returning it to Boedo would simply represent an act of historical justice.

"We never chose to leave our home," says Claudio de Simone, president of a supporter group, a large crucifix hanging from his neck. "It was the army who chased us away to sell the land to Carrefour at eight times the price." He also claims that death threats received by the club's management accelerated San Lorenzo's expulsion from the stadium.

The reality is slightly murkier. The old Gasómetro, with its wooden seats, was too old to continue welcoming a growing number of fans, and San Lorenzo itself was also heavily indebted at the time of the stadium's sale.

"There could have been some pressure to expedite the sale, but some of the fans and managers supported and voted for the decision to repay the club's debts and start anew on land the state had been offering us since the 1960s," says Esteban Marquez, who runs a blog called "The truth of San Lorenzo" and is a member of a group opposed to a Boedo return.

Almost no one discussed a return to the club's former location when democracy was restored to Argentina in 1983. The turning point came in 2003, when the Kirchner government launched an ambitious reparations program for victims of the military regime. A small group of Gasómetro nostalgics saw an opportunity in a law that provided for the return of land seized by the junta. In 2011, almost 7,000 fans marched to the French embassy to pressure Carrefour to cede the land to San Lorenzo. A year later, more than 100,000 people took to the streets of Buenos Aires to demonstrate for the return of their "holy land."

Famous supporters and club members such as Lord of the Rings actor Viggo Mortensen and Argentine TV star Marcelo Tinelli helped publicize San Lorenzo's struggle, with the latter joining the crowds and rising to election as the club's vice president.

The Boedo crusaders also received a far holier blessing, from Pope Francis himself. The former archbishop of Buenos Aires is an avid San Lorenzo supporter, and fans have promised to name the new stadium after him if their dream comes true. Finally, the end of 2012 saw another development in the club's favor. Carrefour, which had always denied any wrongdoing in the land purchase, agreed to sell a majority of the site in return for the rights to build a narrower store with more floors.

The club launched an extensive funding campaign to pay for the land, raising almost two-thirds of the price by hosting large barbecues and selling square meters of the future stadium to fans for 250 euros apiece. Finding the $75 million needed to build the stadium itself presents a tougher challenge.

"Even if it's a huge sum, it's a win-win deal because returning to Boedo will help us gain many new fans," says a hopeful spokesman for the supporter group. They also count on receiving a loan and a helping hand from politicians, who tend to have close ties with Argentina soccer clubs.

San Lorenzo players celebrate after a victory over their Buenos Aires rivals Huracán, on March 15, 2015 — Telam/Xinhua/ZUMA

San Lorenzo is still a long way from winning its crusade, but the battles fought so far have revealed a sense of unease among the future stadium's neighbors on Avenida La Plata. "We are the victims of this project," says a disgruntled resident on a nearby street. "Our houses aren't built to withstand the vibrations of the matches and concerts that will be organized at the new stadium. The prices of our properties could collapse." She asked to remain anonymous because she says she has received threats from fans.

The return of violent hooligans to Boedo is the primary concern of area residents. The walk to the stadium, long a family ritual, is now made almost impossible by the barras bravas, mafia-like fan organizations that camp outside the stadium to fight each other, sell drugs and scalp tickets. "I may get more customers if they build the new stadium here, but I don't want to have to put metal bars up to protect my shop," says the owner of a local candy store.

Other San Lorenzo fans equally fond of Boedo find the move unreasonable. They would rather the money be spent on developing the club's social activities or to finance the purchase of better players. But the crusaders of San Lorenzo's return to the promised land are undeterred. "We will not give up now," de Simone says. "We will give our lives for Boedo."

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