Class War: The story of the Buenos Aires Superclásico

Regularly ranked atop the list of most passionate derbies, the Buenos Aires derby, dubbed the Superclásico, is arguably the most intense and fervent derby game on the planet. In 2004 English newspaper, The Observer, rated the game at the top of their list of ‘50 Sporting things you must do before you die’. It is contested between the city’s, and the country’s, most successful and best-supported clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate. The rivalry dates back more than a century and to the fans, it is much more than a game, it is a matter of class.

In 1901 two clubs, Santa Rosa and La Rosales, merged to form a new club close to the La Boca district of Buenos Aires and Club Atlético River Plate was the result of the merger. Four years later, a group met to find a football club in the city and a decision was made. The result was a club of their own, Club Atlético Boca Juniors.

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The dock area of the city has been influential in the establishment of both clubs. While Boca was formed by Italian and Greek immigrants, the name River Plate is an English translation of Rio de la Plata, the name given to the estuary of the dock in La Boca. River’s name was chosen as it was written on shipping crates in the dock, while Boca’s colours were taken from the next ship to arrive at the dock during the founding fathers’ inaugural meeting; that ship was from Sweden and thus Boca have always played primarily in blue and yellow.

Due to their nautical origins, both clubs’ roots are deeply embedded in La Boca. Since their formation Boca have been known as a working-class club, a club of the people. Their colloquial nickname Los Xeneizes translates as The Genoese. River moved to the more affluent Nuñez area of the city shortly after their inception and have since acquired the nickname Los Millonarios (The Millionaires) and they are seen as the more middle class and prosperous of the two clubs.

As a result of their respective images, the clubs have been given some uncomplimentary nicknames by their rivals. River fans refer to Boca fans as Los Chanchitos (the little pigs) and bosteros (literally, crap collectors), both in reference to their origins in the poorer La Boca area. Indeed River fans are known to wear surgical masks, scarves or handkerchiefs over their faces during the Superclásico to guard against the apparent ‘stench’ of the poorer Boca fans. River fans do not escape the ridicule with their rivals referring to them as Gallinas (chickens/hens), because of their supposed pampered, sheltered upbringing and their fear of everything.

The rivalry is cleanly divided between River’s money, wealth, high-living and style and Boca’s heart, strength, work ethic and soul. Over the years, both clubs have attracted players which fit that apparent mould with River placing high value on style and technical ability. while Diego Maradona and Juan Román Riquelme are hardly the most clumsy and technically backward of players, they are powerfully built; Boca building their success on strength, determination and stamina. The social standing and class rivalry has always stoked the tensions between the two sets of fans and the Superclásico is a sea of colour and a riot of noise. Unfortunately, the game itself has more often than not been marred by violent clashes and arrests.

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In 1994, a busload of River fans travelling back from their 2-0 victory in the Superclásico was ambushed by a number of Boca fans and the resulting violence saw two of the River contingent shot dead and distasteful graffiti along the lines of “River 2, Boca 2” was seen around Buenos Aires in the weeks after the murders. As recently as 2011, 79 arrests were made at La Bombonera (The Chocolate Box, Boca’s stadium; the official name is the Estadio Alberto J Armando, after their president during the team’s 1960’s domestic dominance, but the addition of a third tier to the stadium in 1949 gave it the famous nickname) after fights involving the use of knives broke out outside the away section entrance. Several items were confiscated during the arrests such as pyrotechnics, drugs, alcohol and an array of weapons.

The multi-layered, ultra-organised Barra Bravas, Argentina’s version of the European Ultras, make the Superclásico an unforgettable occasion, but their actions have contributed to over 200 football-related deaths in Argentina as the scourge of football-related violence continues to stain the game. Both clubs have various Barra Brava groups, Boca’s most famous branch are the La Doce (The 12th Man), while River is mainly represented by Los Borrachos del Tablón (The Drunks From the Board – the name is derived from the days when stands in the stadiums were literally lengths of wood and were referred to as ‘boards’).

One of the problems of ridding violence from the game is the obstacle in front of progress with the authorities: the clubs need the Barra Bravas and vice versa. The clubs want a passionate and noisy atmosphere and the Barra Bravas are rewarded with free tickets, travel and merchandise in return for their loyal support. However, there is a more corrupt side to the relationship. Club Presidential elections are a regular occurrence in Argentina and those looking to stand in the elections will often use the influence of the Barra Bravas to help persuade voters to vote for them.

The Barra Bravas are also known to have links to organised crime as drug dealing, robbery, arson, extortion and kidnapping are reported to be a few ways in which the Barra Bravas keep their groups going. Much like their European cousins, they are known to wield their considerable influence against players and management when necessary. Intimidation of players and their families is rife, particularly when results on the pitch aren’t going their way and this also extends to board members.

Unfortunately, the Superclásico has also been the scene of an unimaginable tragedy. In 1968 the ‘Puerta 12’ tragedy at River’s Estadio Monumental, became the worst disaster at an Argentine game. 74 Boca fans were killed and over 150 were injured that day. Reports into the incident are sometimes contradictory and an official verdict has never been given. In fact, the inquiry into the incident found no one guilty, however, most reports suggest Boca fans in the upper tier of the away section dropped burning River banners and paper into the tier below. Another section of their fans was housed there and in the panic, a stampede towards the exits, via a narrow corridor and down a steep set of steps, ensued. Exit gate 12 (Puerta 12) was reported to be locked and the fans at the front of the melee were unable to escape as more and more fans tried to flee the fire in the stands.

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The off the field antics of fans may pique the interest of danger tourists but the action on the field is much more compelling, given the sheer number of encounters between the teams. The game itself is abundant with classic games, controversial moments and goals. The first official Superclásico was played in August 1913 with River winning on that occasion, but it wasn’t until 1919 that either one won the Argentine Primera División as Boca secured their first of 33 to date. Their bitter rivals won their first title a year later; number one of 36.

Among River’s greatest moments, the 1940s team known as La Máquina (The Machine) thrashed Boca 5-1, their biggest margin of victory in the Superclásico. That famous River team, renowned for their dynamic play and interchanging positions (the tactic was believed to be the predecessor to Total Football, masterminded in later decades by the Dutch national side of the 1970s) won four championships during the 1940s. The win seemed to assuage some of the pain Boca inflicted on River with a 6-0 win in December 1928.

In February 1974, the 100th Superclásico saw a match which Boca debutant, Carlos García Cambón, will never forget as he scored four in a 5-2 win; the most by a single player in a Superclásico. In 1994, River defeated Boca 3-0 at La Bombonera on their way to becoming Primera Division champions and goals from Enzo Francescoli Uriarte, a gorgeous half-volley from the edge of the area by Ariel Ortega and Marcelo Gallardo easily secured the points that day. Their talented squad also contained Germán Burgos, Roberto Ayala and Sergio Berti and these players would make up the core of the side which was victorious in the Copa Libertadores the following season.

River won their second Copa Libertadores title in 1996 by defeating Colombia’s, América de Cali. A matter of weeks later they faced Boca at La Bombonera. The Boca side they faced contained the likes of Maradona, Juan Sebastián Verón and Claudio Caniggia. The game turned out to be a masterclass from Caniggia as he netted a superb hat-trick that swept aside the new continental champions in a 4-1 victory. His third goal came from a rebound after Maradona’s penalty had hit the post.

In March 1997, thanks to an excellent counter-attacking display, Boca raced into a 3-0 lead (they also missed a twice-taken penalty at 2-0) at La Monumental. Staggeringly, River scored three without reply thus denying a famous win for their rivals. The first River goal was key as it came just before halftime. Seasoned football watchers will concur it is psychologically dangerous for any team to give their opponents a glimmer of hope just before halftime. The River comeback was all the more extraordinary as they had a man sent off in the second half, but by the time the equaliser came in the 87th minute, courtesy of a header by Ayala, River should’ve been clear winners as their comeback had the Boca defence unsteady and they had more than one clear-cut chance to increase their goal tally.

More recently, a Copa Libertadores Round of 16 second leg in May 2015 was abandoned after Boca fans sprayed the River players who were returning on to the pitch after halftime with pepper spray. Four River players were treated in hospital and Boca was fined, banned from the competition and forced to play four games behind closed doors as a result of the incident. River went on to win the tournament, defeating Tigres of Mexico 3-0 on aggregate in the Final.

In January 2016, what was billed as a friendly match saw five red cards and nine yellow cards during Boca’s 1-0 victory at La Monumental. Two Boca players, one of which was debutante Jonathan Silva, were sent straight from the field for reckless and borderline criminal tackles, before Boca had another player, Daniel Diaz, sent off for verbally abusing the referee. With just ten minutes left the fourth and fifth red cards were brandished. River’s Jonathan Medina saw red for headbutting Carlos Tevez and without moving an inch, pushed a Boca player over who had moved in to confront him. This was the spark for a free-for-all involving substitutes and coaching staff. River’s Leonardo Pisculichi was sent off for his part in the brawl.

It is wellknown that the Superclásico has been a proving ground for many future, and a few returning, world stars. Gabriel Batistuta, Antonio Rattin (the Argentine captain sent off against England in the 1966 World Cup Quarter Final), Roberto Abbondanzieri, current Boca manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Boca’s all-time top goalscorer Martin Palermo, Walter Samuel, Hugo Ibarra and Nicolás Burdisso all played for Los Xeneizes.

Future European legends Alfredo di Stéfano and Omar Sívori started their careers at River, controversial coach, Daniel Passarella won many titles as a player and manager at River, not to mention both of Argentina’s FIFA World Cups. Hernán Crespo, Leonardo Ponzio, as well as Enzo Francescoli and Ortega have all made their name for Los Millonarios. It takes a brave soul, some may say foolhardy, to cross the Buenos Aires divide, to be seen as a traitor by one half of the fans and not entirely trusted by the other half. However, high-profile names such as Caniggia, Batistuta, Oscar Ruggeri, Abel Balbo, among others played for both teams during their careers.

Taking a closer look at a couple of Superclásico legends, the career of Martin Palermo never quite hit the heights which were expected of him. ‘El Loco’ famously missed three penalties in one 1999 Copa America game for Argentina against Colombia, and his career in Europe, a supposed benchmark for many on how successful one’s career is, only took him to provincial clubs, Villarreal, Real Betis and Aláves. He notched over 100 goals in his first spell at Boca and this greased the wheels for a move to Europe.

Arguably, his record at Villarreal of 18 league goals in 70 games would have been better had it not been for a bizarre injury during a goal celebration in November 2001. Palermo stood on a small concrete wall which collapsed under the weight of the adoring El Submarino Amarillo fans and caused him to break his leg. He will, however, be long remembered as a Boca legend, their all-time top goalscorer with 236 goals in 11 years across two stints with the club. He also scored nine goals in the Superclásico, the second most for a Boca player. Upon return from a torn ACL in May 2000, he scored against River in the Copa Libertadores Quarter Final to give Boca a 4-2 aggregate win and he also scored two against Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo later that season.

On the other side of the city, you know you’ve made an impression on the footballing world when a future legend, Zinedine Zidane, names one of his children after you. That’s exactly what happened to Uruguayan international, Enzo Francescoli, a graceful, agile and superlatively gifted attacking midfielder. He scored 137 goals in 217 games across two spells for Los Millonarios and scored six goals against Boca in the Superclásico. In between, he made his name in France and Italy, namely with Racing Club Paris, Olympique Marseille, Cagliari and Torino. River won the Argentine championship in 1982 and Francescoli’s two penalties gave them a 4-1 win over their bitter rivals in November of that year.

Boca have had the upper hand historically and in the recent Superclásico meetings. The latest instalment of the century-old rivalry will be just as intense as it has ever been. Fans will yet again bring to life the aura surrounding the fierce rivalry with the streets donned in Boca’s blue and yellow and River’s Red and white. The class divide may have been attenuated by a more open, yet financially troubled, Argentine society but the deep-rooted rivalry remains steadfast and is a rivalry geared by an absolute hatred for everything their opponent represents. The potential for drama and flash points is extremely high and it is this, along with the colour, noise and intensity, that keeps the world coming back for more.

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