Want to get to know a country? Head for the stadium

God is standing on his balcony, waving.

You get the sense he enjoys the adulation, even after all these years.

He's waving to 50,000 cheering, singing, dancing fans who aren't even here to see him.

From the balcony, he'd be able to spot the murals of himself painted on the walls and the fans still wearing shirts with his name and number emblazoned on them.

He gives one more brief wave, lifts his blue-and-yellow scarf high in salute and disappears back into the bowels of the stadium.

Yep, it's good to be Diego Maradona. It has been 13 years since he took to this field as a player, proudly wearing the colours of Boca Juniors, and he's still treated like a deity. Still has his own box in the vertical stand on one side of La Bombonera. Still attends home games. Is still adored by his public.

I hadn't come here expecting to find God. I'd just come for the football and for an experience I'd been told would be like no other on the planet.

No doubt about that.

In Buenos Aires, they take their football seriously. In the traditionally working-class suburb of Boca, they step it up another level. Football isn't a passion - it's an all-consuming insanity.

La Bombonera, Boca Juniors' fabled stadium, is the beating heart of a living organism. It sits in the middle of the worn-out suburb on a plain street surrounded by blocks of flats and brightly painted houses.

There's no sign you're near anything special until you turn a street corner and there it is, squished into the middle of the cramped alleyways, walls studded with yellow stars and graffiti.

Boca's not the safest place in the world; La Bombonera, even less so. You're taking your life - and wallet - into your own hands if you decide to pay it a visit. But this is Argentina at its most thrilling.

You always hear people say the eyes are a window into someone's soul. For me, sport is a window into a country's soul.

India is a Test match in Mumbai. The US is a ball game at Fenway Park. New Zealand is a rugby match at Carisbrook Oval. And Argentina is football at La Bombonera.

You can't understand the country without worshipping at its altar. Before the game, I'd walked through the ratty streets of Boca, the smoke from the choripan stalls selling their chorizo rolls drifting among the blue-and-yellow hordes.

Buying a ticket had been an ordeal far worse than anything any of the players would have to go through that day; a manic crush to get to the windows and yell an order in broken Spanish to the ticket-seller behind the iron bars. Even then the fight wasn't over, as there were turnstiles to be negotiated, a small space in the right part of the stands to be found and called one's own.

La Bombonera means "the chocolate box", named for the shape of the stadium. While three sides are normal stands, one side had to be built vertical, like a block of flats, to fit the stadium into the space available. It's from one of those balconies that God appears. You can't quite believe it's real until the crowd - packed into the stands a good hour before kick-off - starts going madder than it already was.

Maradona, however, is little more than a diversion. Soon the modern-day gods are strolling through an inflatable tunnel (to protect them from their fans) on to the pitch, met with a roar usually reserved for revolutions, or, perhaps, the denial of a siesta.

The entire stadium is now jumping up and down as one, singing a song that I later find out translates roughly to something like "English people don't jump".

Hey, I would if I'd understood you.

The match kicks off and insanity reigns. There's a brass band playing down the far end of the pitch. Maradona's still cheering from his balcony. Everyone has inflatable tubes in their hands that they wave in the air or smash together in time with the songs.

Boca score first. Streamers and toilet paper litter the pitch as the crowd erupts. It takes a few minutes to clear.

Boca score a second time. This, like Russell Crowe doing his thumb thing, is the signal to unleash hell.

None of the fans are throwing streamers any more - they're throwing lit fireworks and flares. They look like tracer bullets in the night sky as they carve a beautiful arc before bouncing across the pitch, the players taking shelter in the centre circle.

It's another 15 minutes before the crowd is back under control and the smoke has cleared sufficiently to restart the game. Everyone's still singing, dancing, jumping (even the English speaker).

It finishes 2-0 and we're locked in for another half-hour as the opposition supporters are given a chance to make a getaway. Call it a head start, if you like.

Maradona's nowhere to be seen, having disappeared, no doubt, into a waiting car to take him back to wherever it is that deities live in Buenos Aires.

He'll be back next week, though. As will I.


Read Ben Groundwater's column each week in the Sun Herald.