Ushuaia – Football on the edge of the world
Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. It may never have produced a famous footballer and none of its clubs may have ever played in the top division, but this Argentinian city has a tremendous passion for football.
Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city, is located almost 1,900 miles away from the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. Given that is only another 600 miles to the Antarctic, it is not hard to imagine how harsh the winter must be and the courage it takes for the men and women who make up the city’s 70,000 population to withstand it.
What is more difficult to imagine is football being played on the banks of the Beagle Channel, where temperatures can reach as low as minus 20° C. football is indeed played in Ushuaia, however and it arouses the same passion as in the rest of Argentina. In summer in the southern hemisphere, the sun rises in the city at 4 AM and does not set until after 11 PM. With days this long and temperatures of up to 18°C, football provides the perfect excuse to spend some time with friends.
Everyone wants to play, but there is just one problem: despite the many futsal pitches in Ushuaia (of both official and unofficial size) that are hired out by the hour, they are in constant use and it is virtually impossible to find a free time to play. While outdoor pitches are occupied from dusk till dawn, the indoor ones are used virtually round the clock. “According to a survey carried out a few months ago, there are more than 350 teams,” says Mayor Jorge Garramuno. “If we multiply this number by eleven and add the veterans, women and schoolchildren who play week in, week out, it can be concluded that ten per cent of the population of Ushusaia play football.”
The Ushuaia football association is planning to affiliate its league to the Argentinian football association (AFA) and the possibility of playing at the different levels of the national football structure is bound to increase people’s enthusiasm for the game in Ushuaia even further. In summer, the city’s streets become a genuine melting pot: cruise ships circling Cape Horn bring thousands of visitors from countries as Australia, France, Germany, Israel, Japan and the USA, who mix with a local population where surnames reveal them to be mainly of Balkan, Basque, German and Italian extraction. Away from the action on the local pitches, the bars also bear witness to the passion the game excites and on Saurdays, English visitors are able to follow the Premier League at one of the city’s traditional pubs. Then in midweek, the bars’ television screens are surrounded by viewers of the FIFA Champions League who comment on the games with the same authority as anywhere in Europe. The match that truly brings the city to a standstill, however, is the Argentinian Superclasico (“super derby”) between Boca Juniors and River Plate.
No fear of cancellation
What little grass grows on the tip of South America does not last very long and all the pitches basically consist of a rectangle of earth, stones and mud – except for one. Since last year, the Polideportivo Municipal stadium has been covered with an immaculate green surface. “Stones are now a thing of the past. Since the artificial pitch was laid, it has been in permanent use,“ says Garramuno, who is a passionate football fan. Proud of his city’s unique surroundings, the mayor of Ushuaia explains that: “Outsiders might think that the pitch is only used ?weather permitting’, but that’s actually not the case. If we depended on the weather, we’d never be able to play: the local people’s passion for football defies the wind, rain and snow.”
Located against the impressive backdrop of the foothills of the Andes, the stadium can hold up to three thousands fans and thanks to the artificial turf, the ball keeps rolling whether there are people in the stands or not. Before arriving at this solution, the Ushuaia local authorities explored every possible means of growing grass. “ We brought in the Boca Juniors groundsman, who is responsible for maintaining one of the best pitches in the country. He calculated the amount of seeds, watering and drainage that would be required and came to the conclusion that the pitch could be used for three matches a week,” says Garramuno. The advantages of artificial turf are obvious and much appreciated. “The areas around the goals are the ones that suffer the most wear and tear. When the time comes to replace them, you can cut out the damaged area and lay a new piece of turf in a couple of hours,” explains Garramuno. Football never stops.
The new pitch has already hosted two highly emotional occasions for very different reasons. The first was its inauguration, which saw the Argentinian U-20 team, who are the reigning world champions at their level, play a team of local players. Coach Francisco Ferraro praised the pitch and even compared it to those used at the FIFA U-17 World Championship in Finland. With the ground’s only stand packed to the rafters, an Argentina U-20 side boasting several members of the squad who will be at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada won 3-0.
The second unforgettable moment took place on 2 April, the 25th anniversary of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, which gave rise to a short but very painful war. Ushuaia is the capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and the South Atlantic Islands, the latter of which include the British Overseas Territory of the Falkland Islands, which is the subject of a claim of sovereignty by Argentina. As part of the Falkland War commemorations, an “Art from the Edge of the World Biennal” was held, which included one very special event: a football match devised by the artist, Jorge Orta, between one team wearing the front half of an Argentina shirt and the back half of an England and another team sporting the same shirt but the other way round. The ball was passed around all 22 players, regardless of the team they belonged to and any goals were celebrated by both teams. Far from being a source of controversy, football once again provided a means of reconciliation.
The joy of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, the stadium is set to expand. “Floodlighting will be installed in the next few months,” says the mayor of Ushuaia. This will prove vital in winter, when the sun does not rise until 9.30 AM and sets again at 3 PM. The lighting will be put to constant use during the frozen evenings. A new stand is also due to be built, a prospect which fills players at the world’s most southerly stadium with no end of enthusiasm, not just because it will enable more spectators to watch the matches, but also because it will also provide shelter from the Antarctic winds that blow in from Cape Horn, the shipping passage immortalized in Jules Verne’s ?The Lighthouse at the End of the World” and countless other novels and stories.
Waiting for Diego
Given the intensive use of the city’s only artificial pitch, the authorities are now exploring the possibility of laying another one. Carlos Bilardo, who led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, plans to open one of his football schools in Ushuaia. At the city hall, the majority are in favor of allocating land for the project.
“The pitch does not just benefit the league or a handful of teams, it’s used by the whole community,” points out Garramuno. Football fever keeps Ushuaia warm even in the sub-zero temperatures of the last days of summer. Everyone, both young and old, plays football, with tournaments organized at neighborhood level and by workers’ associations.
While Diego Maradona remains hospitalized in Buenos Aires clinic, “Cocol” Gomez Espinosa, the city’s most famous sporting figure, tirelessly makes the three-days car journey between Ushuaia and the Argentinian capital. He travels the length of Argentina in search of support for his project to make the world’s southernmost city the first to erect a statue of the footballing legend. “The council has already allocated a site for the monument opposite the port and the avenue will be named after him,” enthuses “Cocol” while holding a scale model of the project. He hopes that Maradona will recover soon so that he can invite him to Ushuaia, a city he has never visited, to unveil the statue. At the same time, tourists and local people will be keen to have their photo taken next to the little monument, which is bound to become an attraction.
Ushuaia has never produced a famous footballer and none of its clubs has ever competed at a highest level, but given its inhabitants’ passion for the game, there is no doubt that love for football extends to the very edge of the world.