Photos

The World Cup Ghost Town Effect

Normally buzzing Buenos Aires ground to a halt Wednesday to watch Argentina compete in the World Cup.

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Thomas Kelly

Few events seriously dent a major city's busy pace. And with more than 13 million people in its metropolitan area, Buenos Aires, Argentina, is always hectic. Nearly a million people buzz around downtown every day, and 8,000 cars per hour jam the saturated Avenida Leandro N. Alem.

But every four years, Buenos Aires grinds to an utter and absolute halt during Argentina's World Cup matches. For as long as the national team remains in the tournament, most people's work, meetings, meals, gatherings—all of life, basically—is scheduled around the games.

This Wednesday was Argentina's third game in the 2014 World Cup, finishing the group stage of the competition. Although Argentina's earlier victories had already secured the team a spot in the knockout phase, pretty much everybody stopped to watch the match against Nigeria, creating an ad-hoc three-hour holiday in the middle of the week.

Which was really fine: About 90 percent of companies in Buenos Aires said they would allow employees to watch Argentina's games. One judge even moved a hearing scheduled during the game, with the excuse that gathering to watch matches is a "rooted tradition" in Argentina.

Game time represented a sort of midday curfew downtown as everyone headed for a television. Office workers carried stacks of pizza for office parties or crowded into restaurants for a long lunchtime viewing. People still caught on the street huddled around sets that suddenly appeared at every store, café, candy counter and magazine stand. Security guards and police officers blatantly gazed at whatever screen was nearest. Many stores simply closed for two hours.

Over 24,000 people gathered to watch in nearby Plaza San Martín, where the municipal government set up an enormous screen. Kids playing hooky, groups of friends, and besuited office runaways gathered in a tight mass together. Several said it was the next best thing to actually being at the stadium in Brazil.

It's incredible to walk through a city focused on one thing alone for an entire two hours. The streets were cloaked in an eerie silence punctured only by whoops announcing that Argentina had made a goal, and groans when Nigeria did. 

In his 1995 book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote that, for fanatics during a match, "the city disappears, its routine forgotten." On days when Argentina plays, we're all fanatics here.

An eerily empty downtown street. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
Two women stop to watch the pre-match analysis on a precariously set up TV in a magazine stand on the pedestrian Calle Florida. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
The iconic Luna Park stadium was desolate midway through the first half. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
Public safety officers and security guards unlucky to be on duty gathered to watch outside a shop in Puerto Madero. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
Avenida Eduardo Madero is usually crammed with cargo-loaded trucks and people running very late, but Wednesday it was empty. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
A group gathered outside the YMCA on Calle Reconquista celebrated Messi’s second goal of the game, just as the first half ended. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
"Closed from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.," the duration of the Argentina-Nigeria match. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
A TV set up in the depths of a quiosco, a ubiquitous sort of candy/cigarette/everything store on Buenos Aires streets. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
This quiosco had a spellbound crowd, rapt in the second half of the game, just a few minutes before Argentina's third goal. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
No large gathering in Argentina can happen without a barbecue, be it at home or on the street. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
Samuel Molina, one year old, rooting for Argentina in his first World Cup. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
Over 24,000 people gathered in Plaza San Martín to cheer on Argentina's team. "In soccer," writes Eduardo Galeano, "ritual sublimation of war, eleven men in shorts are the sword of the neighborhood, the city, or the nation. These warriors without weapons or armor exorcise the demons of the crowd and reaffirm its faith … ." (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
Jorge Rivarola and Thiago Rivarola celebrate Argentina's third victory of the World Cup. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
Buenos Aires resident Juan Carlos Perez enjoyed the match and the win. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)
As did this guy. (Photo: Thomas Kelly)

About the Author

  • Jordana Timerman is a freelance writer and an urban public policy researcher living in Buenos Aires.