The essence of Argentine football can be found late at night in the game circuit in barrios outside Buenos Aires.
It’s where generations of young players have cut their teeth, perhaps dreaming of fitting in with the country’s national team, but most of all, entertaining late-night and early-morning audiences with an intense, wild talent for the game, playing on every piece of ground.
“Potrero” is the term that encapsulates this system and style, rooted in the informal and impromptu games that originated in the earthy, amateur fields of the 19th century, long before football became a profession with billion-dollar clubs and salaries of millions of dollars. Every Argentine legend has had it in his blood: Alfredo Di Stéfano, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi. They all kicked around in potreros, and when someone dribbles impressively or scores a great goal, it’s natural for people to say, “That’s potrero.”
Now the games have been given a modern twist.
Today’s young players have increased the reach of their circuit by streaming the matches, and Argentina’s World Cup final victory in Qatar this month could bring them even more attention.
Even before that, interest in the circuit’s games had exploded through word of mouth, WhatsApp, and Instagram from just a few dozen followers before the coronavirus pandemic — mostly drawn from the teams’ neighborhoods in the cities surrounding Buenos Aires — connected to thousands of people across the country and beyond. In June, even a Mexican soccer fan page shared a video of La Sub 21, a respected potrero team, and the clip was viewed 4.4 million times.
There are now some accounts, such as Potrero Nato or Corta y al pie, dedicated to showcasing the best of potrero.
La Sub 21, El Ciclón de Burzaco and other teams sell hundreds of their uniforms every time they release a new one. Potrero jerseys are increasingly visible on the buses and subways of Buenos Aires.
“Some people write to us on social media asking us to play in Patagonia or Córdoba province, but we can’t afford transportation,” said Franco Roldán, 26, who is known as Franquito and plays for La Sub 21.
While unemployed, playing for the club helped support his family.
“Back when I didn’t have a job, I knew that if my team won games, I could buy milk for my son,” says Roldán, who has a 1-year-old.
As a teenager, he played for Atlanta, a traditional second division team. But the club did not offer him a professional contract when he turned 18 and Roldán had to give up the dream.
For Alan Matijasevic, 29, and many of his neighbors from Burzaco, a suburb of Buenos Aires, El Ciclón is the heart of the neighborhood. The club was founded in 1989 by a group of families and since then it has been offering recreational football for everyone from 5 to 80 years old, including Matijasevic’s 7-year-old son Gio.
The potrero system works like this: teams arrange a five-on-five match, compete for a pot, usually about $1,000, put up by the players or sponsors, and the winner takes it all. Generally, a team hosts a potrero night, with four or five games starting at 11 p.m. and ending around 4 or 5 a.m. week, depending on which club is short of a player.
The games never seem to miss an audience and it is normal to see children, even toddlers, playing on the field during half time of a game, even in the wee hours of the morning. The potrero games have become an hour-long social event.
A recent potrero match for Matijasevic started at 7am and by the time all the matches and cleanup were over, 24 hours had passed.
Susana Andrade Acuña, the ticket seller at every El Ciclón de Burzaco event, has seen players grow up.
“Our club is like a family and I know some of the players because they were smaller than the table I’m sitting at,” she said.
Roldán’s performance in potrero clubs caught the attention of the futsal division of Huracán, a leading Argentine football club that hired him in January.
Jeremías Píriz, 26, said participating in potrero football gave him stability after a difficult period in his life.
He played potrero while training for a first division junior squad to get extra money. But in 2019, the club fired him for showing up late to potrero matches and a few months later, his 12-year-old brother died of a heart attack.
“It was the end for me. I didn’t want to have anything to do with anything,” Píriz said.
After months of barely doing anything, he started running and training again and found his way back to potrero.
“I came back and found a lot of people happy just to see me on the pitch,” he said. “That was a relief and I promised my brother that I would continue to play for him.”
Recently, the first women’s teams have started competing in the potrero circuit, including Las Ñeris, Las Flores and Chingolo.\
Ultimately, that “family atmosphere,” said Matijasevic, is what keeps him playing after 24 hours at the club.
Last summer, he recalled, he was vacationing in a distant province and arrived from a river wearing his Ciclón de Burzaco jersey.
Suddenly someone yelled at him, “Hey, El Ciclón de Burzaco!”
Local residents recognized him as a player and asked him for a photo.
“I was touched and proud of how far our work has gone,” he said. “My club is the best place to refresh my mind and my barrio is where I like to live.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.