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The first thing Federico Peretti sees as he looks out of the balcony of his Buenos Aires apartment is the slogan “You’re in the B”. Crudely daubed in large black letters on the roof of a neighbouring building, it is a message aimed squarely at the 31-year-old photographer, director and River Plate fan.
He has learned to see the funny side of this daily reminder of his team’s relegation to the Primera B Nacional, Argentina’s second division. After all, the clubs he has visited for his book and documentary, ‘El otro fútbol’ (The Other Football), make teams in La B look like Barcelona and Real Madrid. In a 50,000 km odyssey by car, bus and plane, he has visited over 180 lower league, or ascenso, football clubs. But, as he is quick to point out, this is not your average football documentary.
“Football is the excuse,” says Peretti, “what caught my attention was everything that goes on around that rectangle on which the game is played. It’s a look at how people live in places like La Quiaca and Ushuaia. That’s why in the book and the documentary you won’t see any pictures of goals or barras bravas.”
What you will see are half-painted stadiums, dusty pitches, and fans braving the elements to follow their team. He describes the project as being: “about people and the places they go to meet every Saturday with their family, their friends, their colours and their past.” It is this social element, the football club as the beating heart of the community, that is the essence of the other football.
“’El otro fútbol’ is the feeling that goes beyond win or lose. People want to see their team win championships and get promoted to the primera división, but if they don’t, they support them anyway. Because their parents supported them, because their kids support them. They turn up to the game two hours early, eat an asado, and help to paint the stands. It’s not just for the dream of sporting glory.”
To journey to the four corners of Argentina visiting forgotten or unheard of football clubs sounds like the kind of challenge that started out as a bet, but the project’s origins are far more organic. While covering lower league games as a photographer for the magazine Ascenso, Peretti’s lens began to stray from events on the pitch.
“In reality the goals, the moves, it’s all of a lower standard to what you’ll see in the Primera División. The stadiums are older, the players are fatter, so I started looking at everything going on around the game. Like the picture I took at Deportivo Armenio, a whole stand with just one fan in it, sitting there in the beating sun as if he were at the beach. I started to bring my old Russian Logica camera along to the games as well as the digital one I use for the magazine. Whenever I saw something interesting, I took a picture, and after a while the idea came to me that it could turn into a book.”
The book idea led to thoughts of a film. Barring Fox Sports’ fly-on-the-wall documentary following the highs and more often lows of bottom-league strugglers, Club Atlas, coverage of the smaller clubs is almost non-existent. Where the Atlas scenes sometimes have the feel of a staged soap opera, Peretti was aiming for something far more authentic.
“When Fox arrive at Atlas, they have an entire film crew, but we were just two people. Sometimes it was only me, with my camera, in the dressing room. They presumed I was only taking photos so the players didn’t take any notice. Not once in the documentary does a player look directly into the camera and we get to see what really goes on in a dressing room, with no one acting up for the cameras.”
After winning funding from the National Institute of Cinema and Audovisual Arts (INCAA) on the back of their initial footage, Peretti got more ambitious: “Up to that point we were focusing on Capital Federal and Greater Buenos Aires but with the funding I said, no, let’s widen it, and so we went to San Juan, La Rioja, Santa Fe, Ushaia, Córdoba, La Quiaca…”
In a journey to every stadium from the Primera B (the Argentine third division) to the Primera D, and over 100 clubs in regional leagues below that, Peretti amassed over 300 hours of footage, of which only an hour and a half has made it into the final cut. After three years covering lower league games every Saturday, the director has a few new favourite stadiums.
“There’s the Estadio Único in La Quiaca. You hear the name and you think, ‘wow, this is going to be something’. But really it’s a badly cared for, half-painted pitch which doesn’t even have lines on it. In Chilecito, in the province of La Rioja, the ground where they play most of their games has two normal stands and on the other two sides there are mountains. When the ball goes out it bounces off the rock and people who don’t have tickets just climb onto the mountain to watch the games.”
As surreal as these places sound, the idea of the project is not to display remote stadiums as eccentric outposts, or the fans that visit them as oddballs to be pitied. Peretti explains: “The voiceovers on coverage of these teams usually say things like, ‘look at these poor people, who barely have money for shoes, who have to play on these terrible pitches…’ But that’s not the reality I saw. In La Quiaca there’s a team called Inter de La Quiaca, who play in one of the lowest leagues in the country; it’s almost like having a kick-around with your mates. And because they can’t afford their own kit they play in the shirts of Inter Milan. One of their players told me, ‘Inter is my life, it’s my dream to play for them’, the guy was serious, he thought he was playing alongside (Esteban) Cambiasso and (Javier) Zanetti in the real Inter. But he was happy, he’d fulfilled his dream.”
They may be a long way from the dizzy heights of the Primera División but these players take things just as seriously as the professionals, even down to pre-match preening, as one remarkable story covered in the documentary shows. “There’s a team of prisoners, Pioneros, who won the league of Campana and were promoted to the Torneo C, a much bigger league. For the first time they played outside prison walls. There was a policeman for each member of the squad and the team bus went to games escorted by four police trucks. The matches were played behind closed doors and the only spectators were policemen with rifles, but it didn’t matter, in the dressing room the ritual was the same. They combed their hair and put in gel just like the River players do before a game.”
While games played behind closed doors are a rarity, games without away fans are the norm in the ascenso. The murder of a fan at a game between Nueva Chicago and Tigre in 2007 led to a ban on visiting supporters that still stands. This is something Peretti admits takes some of the shine off lower league football. “There have been protests and complaints since it came into action but I think fans are used to it now. It’s a shame because the fun of the ascenso is if you watch a game in the D, there are probably about 200 fans for each team and you can hear exactly what they are saying to each other.”
While that banter between fans may be missing, he believes violent incidents have decreased because of the ban. That is not to say he did not encounter any unpleasantness during his journey. Towards the start of his stint working for Ascenco, Peretti covered the Defensores Unidos versus Villa Dálmine derby. After changing ends to cover a penalty for the away side he was accused of being a visiting fan. The shouts turned to threats and when leaving the stadium he was met by a punch to the side of the head and dragged into a crowd of 50 local fans baying for his blood. The head of security intervened and he eventually managed to persuade the club vice president he was just an impartial observer, there for a work assignment. Unsurprisingly, the incident made him question the entire endeavour.
“I had a fever and was in bed all week after that. Part of me thought, that’s it, I’m not going to a game again, but at the same time I’d started something and taking these pictures at matches fascinated me. So I decided to go to a game the following week, regardless of whether the magazine sent me or not. As it happened they sent me to Comunicaciones, and to get to the pitch you have to pass the big local stand. I thought everyone was staring at me and that I might have a panic attack but I got through the game. After that the season ended and there were two or three months off, but if I hadn’t have gone back immediately, I might never have.”
Scores of clubs and thousands of fans will be grateful he did. A celebration of Argentina’s vast network of historic football clubs and the people whose lives revolve around them, El Otro Fútbol seeks to educate as well as entertain. “Generally people who don’t follow the ascenso think the people who go to these games are crazy. I wanted to make a film that could interest a Boca fan, for example, who would watch it and think, ‘there’s something interesting going on here, I never knew.’”
A long way from Boca and River this may be, but it’s still football, the other football.
The book, El Otro Fútbol is out now and can be purchased by contacting Federico Peretti through the official website. The documentary is due to premiere at the end of March. Here’s an excerpt to tide you over until then: