Continuing our first anniversary celebrations we delve into the Cutter archives to bring you this from May of last year….
In Argentina this Sunday evening you are either a ‘chicken’ or a ‘shit’.
If you like your football passionate, electrifying, hate-filled and intense then the Superclasico featuring River Plate v Boca Juniors is the mother lode. Often dubbed the biggest game in world football – the Observer once said it made the Old Firm derby look like ‘a primary school kickabout’ – it divides an entire nation and provides an atmosphere quite unlike any other.
Whether its held at Boca’s La Bonbonera (the ‘chocolate box’ so-called because one side of the ground resembles a stack of boxes) or La Monumental (River Plate’s capacious stadium that staged the 1978 World Cup final and dazzled the watching world with its tempest of colour and ticker tape) the stands tremble throughout from both sets of supporters jumping up and down to a rhythm of drums banged under stern direction of the barra bravas. Coloured smoke plumes across the terraces. Shredded newspapers flutter everywhere like errant confetti. It is all at once intimidating, thrilling and strangely joyous. A Hieronymus Bosch painting viewed on amyl nitrate.
The ‘chickens’ are River Plate. In 1966, in Montevideo, Uruguay, they were comfortably leading that year’s final of the InterContinental Cup. The River keeper decided to control a misplaced through-ball, not in the conventional fashion, but instead with his chest flamboyantly puffed out, resembling the curvature of a chicken’s breast. Their opponents Penarol were so enraged at being mocked they mounted a surprise comeback and ultimately triumphed 4-2.
The ‘shits’ are Boca. So-called because their club is based in the industrialised dockside heartland of La Boca, surrounded – supposedly – with foul-smelling water. The River fans turn up at La Bonbonera wearing handkerchiefs over their faces to cover the imagined stench.
The tough La Boca district holds the key to all the fierce animosity between the two clubs. Both originated from there but in 1923 River Plate moved to the more salubrious Nunez area of Buenos Aires, a mere seven miles away. This gave them the derisive nickname of Los Millonarios and created a deep-rooted social schism that has formed a fundamental element of the hatred ever since; one based upon class divide. In a country that has suffered bankruptcy, corruption, Peronism, and repressive regimes it is the most incendiary divide of them all.
In 1994 a busload of River Plate fans en route to the game were ambushed at gun-point with two shot dead.
Boca are regarded as the working class people’s club. They symbolise strength and heart and honest, underdog endeavour.
River Plate are considered the stylish sophisticates. Nigel Havers to Boca’s Jim Royle.
Such simplistic stereotypes often crumble of course under closer scrutiny.
Boca are hardly the poor struggling underdogs of lore. They have produced such magical talents – and lifelong fans – of the calibre of Francisco Varallo and Diego Armando Maradona (who can sometimes be seen twirling his blue and yellow jersey above his head in a private box at La Bonbonera) and hold the domestic record for honours won, an impressive trophy haul of forty-one.
A reputed forty per cent of the entire population are los bosteros (‘manure handlers’ a nickname now proudly embraced by Boca fans and derived from the horse manure used in the brick factory that once was situated where La Bonbonera now stands) and they boastfully claim to be the club of ‘half plus one’ (‘la mitad mas uno’) suggesting half the Argentine public follow them plus one.
Their global fanbase is such that they encounter the same derogatory disdain from rival fans as Manchester United, mocked for their superficial foreign support. In Argentina you are either Boca or anti-Boca. There is no in between.
River Plate too in many ways belie their lazy caricature. Though they reside in leafy affluence, and own a successful basketball team (an extremely middle-class pursuit in some corners of South America) their fans are some of the baddest asses around. Known as the los borrachos del tablon (‘the drunkards of the boards’ in reference to when they would sit, in times past, on wooden seating) they are feared in a country where hooliganism is almost a legitimized activity. In recent times they have even been assisted in their endeavours by the club’s hierarchy and their organisational skills, numbers, and propensity for weaponry has meant that several of their rival barras bravas have gone out of their way to avoid scheduled battles. Some members of los barrachos are still wanted for the slaying of two Newell’s fans eight years ago.
The rivalry, hatred and violence between the two tribes are as much a part of the spectacle as whatever decent football is permitted to occur on the pitch amongst the deafening din and showers of ticker tape. Inevitably this has on occasion tipped beyond the fervent and into tragedy and even murder.
In 1968 seventy-four supporters were crushed to death at El Monumental when Boca fans (known as La Doce which translates as ‘the twelfth man’) threw burning paper down onto the stand beneath them causing mass panic and mayhem.
In 1994 a busload of River Plate fans en route to the game were ambushed at gun-point with two shot dead. River Plate won the match 2-0 but soon after graffiti sprang up around Buenos Aires stating ‘River 2 Boca 2’.
Hooliganism and, let’s be kind and call it excessive fervour, is not exclusive to this fixture. Indeed this weekend the current league leaders Valez Sarsfield will be forced to play behind closed doors after their supporters were a touch over-zealous with the flares during a recent game.
On the pitch Boca have been largely disappointing of late. However, as the cliché goes, form is irrelevant in such games and on Sunday they look forward to the return from injury of their arch schemer Riquelme. He, alongside a fit-again Rivera, will be expected to carve out openings for the aging, but always prolific, Martin Palermo.
River Plate too have been in decline though, with a reputation for style and élan they can always be relied upon to contain a wily number ten. In recent times Ortega and Saviola has worn the sacred shirt. Now it is promising youngster Erik Lamela who is reportedly being pursued by AC Milan amongst others.
The match however is almost a side-show at the superclasico. It was always thus. The real drama and excitement is provided amidst the carnival of bright primary colours and pure dark hatred enacted by the chickens and shits of Buenos Aires.