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In Queens With the Heart Attack Argentina Fandom

At Boca Juniors restaurant on Queens Boulevard, an anxiety-ridden fanbase finds release during the World Cup semifinal.

Ernesto Brander and other Argentine fans watch the opening minutes of the match in silence. (Hell Gate)

It was as quiet as a funeral inside of the packed Boca Juniors restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst. Play had already started in Argentina's biggest soccer game in decades, but there were no cries of encouragement or gasps of panic. Empanadas and choripán sat untouched, slowly cooling on their plates. Sweaty hands squeezed Quilmes beers like unyielding glass stress balls. It almost seemed that at any moment, the bottles might start all shattering at once, in a fury of anxiety.

This is simply the preferred method of viewing soccer for Argentina fans, intense stress undergirded by years of red meat intake and absurdly caffeinated drinks. A bulge to the eyes. Would the ill-fated Southern Cone nation fall short again? Would Croatia once again play World Cup spoiler?

"I couldn't sleep last night, because of the nerves," Felipe Zavalia told me. He'd moved to New York from Buenos Aires twenty years ago, and came to Boca Juniors from Williamsburg to watch the game. "I wouldn't be anywhere else right now, well, besides Qatar or Buenos Aires."

Zavalia is a fan of Boca Juniors, the world-famous Argentine team based in the working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca (in contrast to the snooty, well-heeled supporters of rival Buenos Aires team River Plate). Elmhurst's Boca Juniors restaurant has been a meeting place and pilgrimage point for Argentines in New York for decades—its walls are adorned with Boca Juniors paraphernalia and photos from management's trips to Argentina and around the world in support of Boca. In a series of photographs, then-Argentine president Nestor Kirchner visits the restaurant. In another series, patrons get to go on the field at La Bombonera, Boca's stadium. But the most recurring visages are of two people—current megastar Lionel Messi, and the recently departed, now-sainted Diego Maradona. 

Santa Maradona. (Hell Gate)

Maradona was almost certainly with the fans in Boca Juniors on this frigid Tuesday afternoon—figuratively in the sense that all Argentine soccer must be measured against him, and literally in the form of the supporter dressed up as a heavenly Maradona, angelic and looking down upon Argentina from above. The restaurant itself was draped in a giant Argentine flag, perhaps meant to downplay its club orientation in favor of the all-welcoming cause of the national team. 

The oppressive, silent tension persisted through to the twenty minute mark, when it became clear to all that Croatia was not going to be able to get past Argentina's defensive line. Drummers, a trumpeter, even an electric guitar, began to get rhythmic chants going. Winning the game rested simply on La albiceleste scoring a goal. And Argentina had perhaps the greatest goal-scorer in its history (cue the Maradona comparisons) stalking around Croatia's deepest defender—Messi, not yet sainted, but seemingly god-like. Messi, playing in his last World Cup, and, if things didn't go right, almost certainly his last game for Argentina. 

Sweet catharsis. (Hell Gate)

By the time a penalty kick was awarded to Argentina in the thirty-fourth minute, the restaurant had achieved a frantic, manic air of inevitability. When Messi stepped up to take the shot, there wasn't a chance it wasn't going to go in. Certainly, Maradona wouldn't allow it (as he, of course, wouldn't be opposed to using a little push to make sure it hit the back of the net). Messi scored, the restaurant erupted, and cheers, kisses, and tears spread among the faithful. A long-suffering Quilmes bottle, its torture ended, was quaffed.

"We're running them over," Ernesto Brander, originally from Bariloche, far in the south of Argentina, told me. He's lived in Queens for forty years. But even while celebrating, Brander then began addressing changes that Argentina needed to make at halftime to secure their lead. 

Messi extended that lead to 2-0 before the break with a heroic run that ended with a wide-open opportunity at the net for his teammate Julián Álvarez. The crowd, now in a constant state of elation, started chanting, "Olé, olé olé olé, Messi, Messi," but soon remembered the benevolent specter in the room. The chant was amended: “Olé, olé olé olé, Messi Messi Diego Diego," an acknowledgement of a duality in the Argentine soccer godhead. There was no need to relentlessly compare the two—they were in concert with one another—one from above, one from below. 

Messi Messi Diego Diego! (Hell Gate)

Still, a halftime lead was not enough for this uneasy mass of supporters. 

"Croatia could still come back," Zavalia said, predicting one more Argentine goal before the end of play. 

"Thirty more minutes of heart attack," said one fan, who kept shielding his face during the final minutes of play, muttering “feos” every time Croatian fans were shown on screen. 

The final whistle blew, Zavalia had his wish of one more goal, and the Argentine fans finally fully unclenched their hands from those warm Quilmes, ready to emerge into the frigid Queens air, and begin their next existential battle—a World Cup final. What fun. 

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