Argentines suffer an incurable addiction to sport; many go rigid at the thought of even one week without football (soccer), and you’ll hear informed and spirited debate in bars on subjects as diverse as tennis, rugby, basketball and the uniquely Argentine equestrian sport of pato.

Football

Ever since two teams of British merchants lined up against each other at the Buenos Aires Cricket Club for a kick-about in 1867, fútbol has been an integral part of Argentine identity. The incredible atmosphere generated by the passion of the fans makes attending a match one of the highlights of many people’s visits to Argentina, and it is certainly worth setting aside time to do so, even if you’re not normally a fan. There are twenty teams in the Primera División, the country’s top flight, including the “Big Five”: River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente, San Lorenzo and Racing Club (all based in Buenos Aires but supported around the country). If you can catch the superclásico, the derby between Boca and River, then you’re in for a real treat.

The domestic league’s year is split into two seasons – allowing for two champions and two sets of celebrations. The first season runs from August to December and is known as the apertura (opening); the second, from February to June, is the clausura (closing); fixtures are mostly played on Sunday afternoons. In addition, there are two South American club championships – the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana, roughly equivalent to Europe’s UEFA Champions League and Europa League, respectively. These are generally dominated by teams from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, with a leg played in each country, usually a midweek fixture. If you’re lucky, you may even get the chance to see the national side (la selección) strutting their stuff in a friendly or World Cup qualifier.

You can usually buy tickets at the grounds on match day, although some games sell out in advance, notably the matches between the big five and top-of-the-table clashes. For these, you can get tickets two days before the game at the stadium (be prepared for a scrum) or further in advance for some games from Ticketek (t011 5237 7200, wticketek.com.ar). Many Buenos Aires-based tour agencies, hotels and hostels provide a service of ticket and transfer, for a premium.

Tickets for spectators are either in the popular or the more expensive platea, with the price depending on your vantage point and the game’s importance, although it always compares favourably with the cost of European match tickets. The popular are the standing-only terraces, where the young men, the hardcore home fans, sing and swear their way through the match. This is the most colourful part of the stadium, but it’s also the area where you’re most likely to be pickpocketed, charged by police or faced with the wrath of the equally hardcore away fans (in the visitantes section, where you can often buy the cheapest tickets, though it’s standing room only). Unless you’re pretty confident, or with someone who is, you may be better off heading to the relative safety of the platea
seats, from where you can photograph the popular and enjoy the match sitting down. Don’t be surprised if someone’s in the seat allocated to you on the ticket – locals pay scant regard to official seating arrangements. After major wins, the Obelisco in central Buenos Aires is the epicentre of raucous celebrations.

It’s advisable to turn up forty minutes or so before the match in order to avoid the rush, and not to hang around the stadium afterwards, when trouble sometimes brews. Dress down, avoid flaunting the colours of either side and take the minimum of valuables.

Polo and pato

Although it’s mainly a game for estancieros and wealthy families from Barrio Norte, polo is nonetheless far less snobbish or exclusive in Argentina than in Britain or the US; there are some 150 teams and 5000 club members nationwide. You don’t need an invitation from a member or a double-barrelled surname to see the world’s top polo players; simply turn up and buy a ticket during the open championship in November and December, played at the Campo de Polo in Palermo, Buenos Aires. Even if the rules go over your head, the game is exciting and aesthetically pleasing, with hooves galloping over impeccably trimmed grass.

The sport is at least as hard as it looks, but if you’re confident on horseback and determined to have a go, many estancias (listed throughout the text) offer lessons as part of their accommodation and activity packages. Alternatively, contact the Asociación Argentina de Polo at Arévalo 3065, Buenos Aires (t011 4777 6444, waapolo.com), which can also provide match information.

Less glamorous, the curious sport of pato has been played by gauchos since the early 1600s. Named after the trussed duck that once served as the “ball” – a leather version with six handles is now used – pato is a sort of lacrosse on horseback, which also has its national tournament in November and December each year, played at the Campo Argentino de Pato in San Miguel, just outside the city limits. For more information on pato and a fixture list, see the national federation’s website, wpato.org.ar.

Rugby

Argentina’s national rugby squad, the Pumas, is currently ranked eighth in the world and in 2012 took part in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri Nations) for the first time; this success has seen the sport’s popularity rise significantly. You may be able to catch the burly Pumas playing test series at home (all over the country) or in World Cup qualifiers. See the website of the Unión Argentina de Rugby (wuar.com.ar) for upcoming fixtures.