Buenos Aires’ glamorous downtown remains dotted with Mansard roofs, a holdover from the turn of the 20th century. These roofs are designed to facilitate vertical growth in dense cities, as well as to drain off melting snow in colder climates. They are, in other words, entirely inappropriate and unnecessary in the sprawling, warm Argentine capital, where they served a much more urgent function in its golden age: keeping up appearances. They conjured the glitz of Paris, whose architecture they reproduced, and endowed the swampy port with an atmosphere of European upper-crust success. Most of all, they conveyed frivolity, decoration, disposable income, even leisure—the kind of luxurious concepts that new-world money could buy.
One such roof adorned the Monserrat block bound by Calle Victoria (now Hipólito Yrigoyen), Calle Perú, and Avenida de Mayo, home to the department store A la Ciudad de Londres. Owned by entrepreneurs and brothers Jean and Hugo Brun, the store sold both men’s and women’s clothing in addition to home goods. While the store’s name invoked fashionable British textiles, its products were locally manufactured. It was the physical building and business practices that lent the store its European grandeur.
“From 1878, [the business’s] presence was emblematic of an age,” Historian Luis O. Cortese tells us. “Sumptuous interior architecture, with a grand staircase, sculptures, and modern gas lighting, in addition to well-kept shop windows looking out on the three arteries, all led ‘A la Ciudad de Londres’ to be considered one of the most elegant shops of Buenos Aires in its day.”
The store was a pioneer in modern retail, being among the first to offer commissions, accept returns, and fix prices rather than haggle. They also catered to families, giving toys and balloons to children whose parents visited the store.
However, A la Ciudad de Londres would become best known for a practice becoming increasingly common among businesses: establishing a soccer team for its employees. Back in Britain, plenty of clubs got their start this way—Arsenal was founded by workers at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, for instance—but rarely with such a degree of formal patronage as the Argentine corporations took on. Coworkers would play against other company or factory teams in friendly tournaments that became incredibly popular among the urban upper-middle class.
The Bruns’ shop was no exception. Though they had begun their business with just seven employees, their Monserrat branch grew to be quite a sizeable operation, so much so that the company team, Maipú Banfield F.C., had more employees than roster spots. The apprentices were the first to be cut. Their membership fees afforded them a chance to watch the matches, but not to play.
The apprentices had none of it. They turned their backs on the Brun brothers’ shop and walked across the street to an establishment belonging to two locals, Telésforo and Policarpo Fuertes, and talked strategy. In the end, a group decided to break from Maipú Banfield and form their own club, with apprentice Rosendo Degiorgi as interim president.
At first the group met in the Degiorgi family’s home in upscale Recoleta, but decided to officially establish the club at the Monserrat home of another early member, Daniel Bevilacqua, on January 1, 1905. The club’s immediate orders of business were to elect a first president (the commanding, mustachioed goalkeeper Arístides Langone); select their colors (blue and white, inspired by Argentina’s first soccer champions, Saint Andrew’s Scots School); firm up their name (“Independiente Football Club”); and secure a playing field. The latter proved complicated, and Independiente eventually settled in neighboring Avellaneda in 1907.
The century of success that followed, turning Independiente into one of Argentina’s premier soccer teams, was largely a matter of elite connections, good financing, and even better luck.
You would be hard-pressed to find a fan of today’s Club Atlético Independiente who tells the story that way—myself admittedly included.
“In those days, major stores supported local workers in forming new soccer clubs that would unseat the dominating teams of British companies and schools,” the official club history reads. It’s a point of pride for Argentines, who have long seen Britain (and more specifically England) as a cultural and sporting rival. Amateur-era soccer rode on social capital, the idea that the game should be played for love, not money.
Teams like Independiente, formed by Latino Argentine gentlemen, allowed the new nation to show off that capital. They let Argentines associate themselves with quality British education (where soccer originated), bourgeois affluence (which provided for the possibility of leisure time), and the cutting edge of modern industry (that sponsored the teams). By setting themselves up as the direct competitors of British expatriate clubs, Latino Argentines were making a statement: we can and will beat you at your own game, in every possible sense.
In The Allure of the Foreign, anthropologist Benjamin Orlove described the impulse to create a “local version of modernity” by adopting new cultural practices in order to symbolically renounce the past: “Foreign goods are often tokens of such modernity because of their association with Europe, the center of modernity, and because of their evident contrast with local practices.” Soccer performed this function just as the fine suits and dresses in the shops of A la Ciudad de Londres did, giving Argentines a space to lay their own claim on a modernity over which Britain had claimed a monopoly.
As it has so many times over the decades, soccer served as a tool for nationalism—or, put a bit more softly in this case, the formation of national identity. The British made for a good “other” against which to develop that identity: not only did they invent the sport and bring it to Argentina, but they had a domineering presence in the country at the turn of the century. Canadian historian H.S. Ferns characterized Britain’s presence in Argentina in that era as “informal imperialism,” including military bases, special legal privileges, and an overwhelming economic interest.
The club history continues by describing the reaction when A la Ciudad de Londres’ younger employees were cut out of the squad.
A group of young friends who worked as apprentices and salesmen were particularly affected by this since one of them, Marcelo Degiorgi, was the starting back in the roster and was supposed to just leave without much in the way of explanation. This, coupled with the fact that they were supposed to continue paying the same fees as the adults who monopolized the spots on the roster, left them fed up with the situation and they decided to press through on their own. The boys of the home-goods, shoe, and fashion departments began to sketch out the formation of a new soccer team, so that they could play without depending on adults’ decisions.
The mutiny began with eight boys between the ages of 14 and 17: Fernando Aizpuru, Luis and Nicolás Bassou, Antonio and Nicolás Cabana, Marcelo and Rosendo Degiorgi, and Francisco Ipart. At their first meeting, the club history says,
Some of them suggested joining Atlanta Athletic Club, but in the middle of the debate another of the speakers reproached them angrily… ‘We have to have an independent club!’ And Rosendo Degiorgi elatedly shouted, ‘There’s the name: Independiente! We will call ourselves Independiente.’ … To all those young men, eternal gratitude for having created this rebellious, enthusiastic team that we now know as the Rey de Copas [King of Cups] and Orgullo Nacional [National Pride].
The key word in that beloved account is “rebellious.” The popular narrative emphasizes the founders’ radical behavior whenever possible. For instance, much hay is made of the fact that the breakaway group slashed the membership fees in half—from Maipú Banfield’s 50 centavos to Independiente’s 25—presumably attracting more workers to the team. “Taking advantage of the marginalization of apprentices in other shops, the project transcended the walls of A la Ciudad de Londres,” Cortese narrates. Sure enough, they were joined by 17 others, among them brothers Arístides and Edelmiro Langone, who had played for Plate United F.C. in Barracas al Norte.
Independiente used Plate United’s white shirts in their first games before switching to blue and white and eventually settling on their now-iconic red. A baseless but persistent rumor attributes the red shirts to Arístides Langone’s admiration for Nottingham Forest, but a far more likely and accepted explanation is that many of the club’s early members and financiers were affiliated with socialist political movements. The latter connotation has prevailed in the club’s reputation for an egalitarian spirit, and as in so many situations when it comes to Argentine soccer, the historical origins are at this point irrelevant.
The tension between the two accounts—one the founding of a bourgeois amateurs’ club, the other a workers’ rebellion—is understandable. Though Independiente was founded in the ritzy neighborhood of Monserrat, it has long made its home in the industrial city of Avellaneda, propelling the team’s narrative toward populism.
This movement toward a more popular narrative was catalyzed by the shift from amateurism to professionalization in the 1930s, when elites clung to the constructed integrity of the “gentlemen’s game” as a way of expressing their anxiety about giving players a path to social mobility. The socioeconomic context of amateur-era soccer was prohibitive to the left-leaning, working-class politics of Avellaneda, which was able to embrace Independiente with much more fervor after the change. In order to celebrate the team as authentically of the city, fans needed to retell the club’s history in such a way that let them see themselves represented in it.
Fans also needed to redeem soccer from its reputation as a threat to worker solidarity. Maurice Biriotti del Burgo explained:
In the early years of the century, many old-style establishments—not only football clubs but also factory management boards and the like—representatives of Latin America’s elite, made attempts to form relationships with working-class teams. At times this took the form of patronage, with an established club funding an affiliated local team. At other times, it took on other dimensions—managers encouraging the creation of football sides among the workers to engender company loyalty and, perhaps more importantly, to divert employees’ attentions away from the more damaging spectre of industrial unrest. In these early relationships formed between the elite and the masses in football, can be seen the origins of one of the most compelling arguments in the analysis of football in Latin America: that football serves as an opiate of the masses, an instrument of mass control, a social adhesive binding the most volatile and precarious of ethnic and political mixes.
But, as Gabriel Kuhn wrote in Soccer vs. the State, the use of soccer as an “opiate” has little to do with the game itself and more to do with various power structures’ need for mass control. Even so, there was a profound need to reconcile the team’s corporate origins with its community’s political identity. Osvaldo Bayer’s description of the club in Fútbol Argentino gets at how this was accomplished:
In 1922, another club rose to fame. It came from Avellaneda and was called Independiente. The libertarian name implied rebellion. It was chosen by Argentinean employees of a big British company who were not allowed to join the official company’s team. Their name and the red color of their shirts made them dangerous in the eyes of the authorities…
Bayer oversimplifies the details—despite the name, A la Ciudad de Londres was owned by French immigrants, not British citizens, and centrist socialists were actually in power during the era he references—but his description is characteristic of the club’s predominant narrative. It is incredibly compelling, and with good reason. The emphasis on the club’s founding rebellion opens up a place for the club’s working-class community to see themselves as heroes in that history, while the insertion of a British “other” echoes the economic, military, and sporting rivalry between Britain and Argentina unto this day.
That’s what club lore is for: telling a story about your community, more so than recounting a dry history of sporting commissions and first meetings. The way we tell our club histories is the way we celebrate what we love most about our communities’ traditions. It just so happens that Avellaneda loves bleeding red. (No matter what those Racing Club fans tell you.)
Photo Credit: By English: Taken by the uploader, w:es:Usuario:Barcex Español: Tomada por w:es:Usuario:Barcex [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons