The San Lorenzo soccer team has just scored the decisive goal to qualify for the Libertadores Cup. But in the stands behind one of the goals, fans of the Argentine team barely notice.
In those seats, reserved for the most passionate followers, nobody is paying much attention to the match. Under a sea of the team's blue and red banners, so many that they make it almost impossible to see the pitch, the fans dance, jump and sing. They play trumpets and crash cymbals and chant pop songs with the lyrics changed, turning them into odes to their team.
Carolina Rutkoweski waves her arms and shakes her hips as she sings: "San Lorenzo, what I feel I can't explain / I'll be with you always / Because the blue and red runs in my soul," to the music of Luis Fonsi's hit "Despacito."
"You feel the football match in your body, through your veins. No need to watch it," says the 44-year old woman with her young son at her side, both dressed in blue and red San Lorenzo shirts, at halftime of the game against another Argentine team, Chacarita.
San Lorenzo is not a powerhouse like Boca Juniors or River Plate, but its fan base is known for its talent in rewriting local hit songs, turning them into stadium anthems. Despite intense rivalries that sometimes turn violent, other teams acknowledge San Lorenzo's creativity and often adapt the chants for their own cheers.
Only weeks before the start of the World Cup, San Lorenzo fans have written a new song for the Argentine national team, hoping it will become as popular with players and audience as the one sung in stadiums during the last World Cup, a put-down to host country Brazil based on a melody by Creedence Clearwater Revival that went "Oh Brazil, tell me how it feels."
"San Lorenzo's songs tell a story, it's not just throwing together some lines that rhyme," said Sergio Peljhan, one of the chant's writers.
"In soccer culture there are battle songs, they're like a call to arms. But our songs don't have many insults or references to drugs. Our intention is to celebrate, not to inspire violence."
San Lorenzo achieved some renown in 2013 when one of its fans, an Argentine cardinal called Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became Pope. Then it shot to fame again when soccer fans chanted its soccer-themed version of "Despacito," composed by a small group of devotees called "Escuela de Tablones" ("School of Wooden Planks"), in honor of the wooden seats in many stadiums. The chant went viral on social media and then was taken up by stadium crowds in Spain, Portugal, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Uruguay and Ecuador.
Surprised by the phenomenon, Fonsi thanked San Lorenzo: "You were the first to take 'Despacito's melody and turn it into an anthem to cheer on your team."
The new song was recorded by the Wooden Planks in a house outside Buenos Aires and was released last month. The song is based on "Échame la culpa," another track by Fonsi. Wooden Planks said they contacted the Puerto Rican singer's recording label and it agreed to let them record the soccer-themed version.
San Lorenzo, one of Argentina's top five soccer clubs, was formed in 1908 in a middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires. Initially the team played in a stadium dubbed "El Gasómetro" because it resembled an industrial gas field, until in 1979 the country's then military rulers seized the land that would later be sold to a French supermarket chain.
During the 14 years that San Lorenzo lacked a home base, it played in borrowed stadiums and was often the butt of jokes and object of disdain by its rivals. It was then that the fans became inspired to answer with homemade chants.
A group of fans, their arms covered with tattoos, raise the cymbals. Others put trumpets or trombones to their lips. Their leader, imitating an orchestra conductor, gives the signal. In minutes the crowd joins them, including women and children, chanting the lyrics they already know by heart, soccer-themed versions of hits by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Oasis, Enrique Iglesias, Maluma and others.
Just as the players in their changing rooms stretch their muscles before the game, the musical fans prepare their vocal chords and practice the lyrics that have been bouncing around social media and WhatsApp messaging groups the past few days.
"It's just like multiplication tables, you work hard to memorize them," says Andrea Epifanio, a nurse who is a fan of San Lorenzo. I play the songs on my phone and sing along with them, and I don't give a damn what other people think."
As they rehearse under the stands, "we try to figure out if people are going to like the song," says Diego Jerkovic, a member of the Wooden Planks. Less than ten percent of the anthems they write make it to the stadium, he says.
Violence has cast a shadow over Argentine soccer in the past few decades, with at least 323 killed in clashes, according to the advocacy group Salvemos al Fútbol ("Let's Save Soccer").
In 2013, officials banned fans from the visiting team from entering the stadium, but instead of eradicating the violence, the decision provoked rivalries between the fans over the multimillion dollar businesses related to the sport.
"Some people think soccer fans are full of passion for the game, but I think they are no more than merchants of that passion," says Gustavo Grabia, a journalist who covers violence in soccer. "They are people that make money out other people's supposed passion for a team, and they have no qualms about harming others, even forcing a game to be cancelled if they don't get what they want."
The most radical fans usually handle illegal businesses such as ticket scalping, extra parking spaces, and reserving spots for advertising and food stands, Grabia says.
The Wooden Planks say they have nothing to do with all that, insisting that "we may be rivals, but we are not enemies."
"I wouldn't be doing this if we were just writing songs about how we will defeat or destroy the other team. That's something else entirely, that doesn't make sense," Peljhan.
Text from AP News story Argentine soccer fans write stadium anthems by Rodrigo Abd and Deborah Rey
Photos by Rodrigo Abd
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