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The more egalitarian nature of Argentine polo is not confined to player level. While polo as a spectator sport is primarily for the wealthy Manolo-wearing classes in England, in Argentina it is much more of a national sport — everyone knows the top players, supports some club or other and would give their last peso to attend the top tournament at Palermo, Buenos Aires. The fact that many Argentines don't own a single horse, let alone the 10 or 12 thoroughbreds required by top players, does not make the world of polo inaccessible to them or detract from their enthusiasm. It is the game itself that grips them; during a big match, the stands are thronged with passionate fans from all walks of life, all absorbed in the visual feast of speed and skill before them. They gamble, they heckle, they voice their opinions on a poor pass or change of horse without reservation. A young child barely able to spell will have a view on Cambiaso's latest rival. It is intimidating.

All this is in stark contrast to the way polo is viewed, or rather not viewed, in England. Cartier is controversially pulling out of polo sponsorship, partly because the international Cartier match held at Guards Polo Club in Surrey has been notorious for its pitifully empty stands in recent years. Socialites with absolutely no interest in watching the game but optimum interest in which player is being cuckolded by his own groom stand in huddles in the marquee, sipping champers and eyeing up the rival stilettos equally unsuited to tottering across lawns strewn with horse manure. In this aspect, Jilly Cooper is entirely right — the sheer money involved in polo necessitates a certain level of snobbery, and there is a kind of WAG equivalent present in force at most matches played in Britain. Extensions replaced by tasteful highlights, suntans developed over a lifetime of holidays rather than procured from a bottle of St Tropez Airbrush, they are much the same species. And while they may pretend not to be fazed by the news that Prince Charles has just arrived in a helicopter, there is a marked shift towards the mouth of the marquee, accompanied by a somewhat distasteful fumbling for BlackBerrys.

The other kind of phoney polo aficionado is the supposedly avid player who cannot play. He or she is often a former failed Pony Club member, determined to overcome the ghosts of childhood humiliation by purchasing membership to the polo equivalent of Chinawhite — Beaufort Polo Club in Gloucestershire. These dubious characters often find their way to Argentina, vainly seeking the hallmark of authenticity. Argentina is cashing in on  that reputation in a big way, and there is a perfect symbiosis between the Argentine's need for cash and the polo phoney's need to spend it. Caused in part by the government's policy of keeping the price of beef unfairly low, many former working estancias (ranches) have abandoned cattle-rearing and been converted into boutique polo clubs. 

Here, one can receive personal tuition from an ex-pro in the morning and totter off to the infinity pool after lunch. These places are seriously swish and cater perfectly to the needs of Fiona the Phoney who professes to love the high paced cut and thrust of the game but whose wrist is secretly rather sore from all the stick and ball practice before lunch. Decked out in top of the range kit and knee pads which will probably never come into contact with anything except the ground, she also owns a T-shirt which reads: "Eat. Sleep. Polo" for down time at the pool. It is highly likely that she owns or hires extremely valuable horses which she can't control, and the Argentine groom will watch in disbelief as she gaily canters off into the distance, stirrups flying, in the opposite direction to the ball. Afterwards, she will say, "Great game! Open, speedy. Loved it," and ignore any talk of goalscoring. She will not, however, ignore the tentative attentions of Juan. Therein lies the beautiful union of a couple who are each, in their own way, the underdog.

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Henry Welland
June 12th, 2011
7:06 PM
Most interesting article. If I were Abramovich I would certainly want to arrange it so that I could play in the cup final.

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