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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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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