Boca Juniors vs. River Plate: Welcome to Football's Fire Show

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 9, 2018


The thought that Boca Juniors will play River Plate in the final of the Copa Libertadores is driving football fans in Argentina wild.

Apostoles, for example, is a small city of about 40,000 people in the northeast corner of Argentina, near the border with Brazil. It takes about a 14-hour drive south to get to the country's capital city, Buenos Aires, where Boca Juniors and River Plate reside, but the Superclasico—the name given to the clubs' rivalry—absorbs the whole country. The teams have supporters spread throughout the land, with a 2006 estimate suggesting 41.5 percent of Argentina's football fans support Boca and 31.8 percent follow River.

On Sunday afternoon, in a neighbourhood in Apostoles around 3 p.m., an argument broke out between two men at a friend's house. Arturo V., a 29-year-old man, got into a row with his brother-in-law, Oscar B., about who was going to win the Copa Libertadores—Boca or River. According to police sources quoted in the Argentinian sports newspaper Diario Ole, "They were discussing which of the two was the best."

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From Argentina: House set on fire after Boca Juniors vs River Plate debate... a country prepares for unprecedented Copa Libertadores final. https://t.co/uRG2eQvu0z https://t.co/qv0Sp0EGC3

At the time, the pair were living together in Arturo V.'s house. Things got so heated that Arturo V. told his brother-in-law he was tossing him out of his house. Oscar B. left the friend's house, and it was presumed he was heading back to Arturo V.'s house to pick up his belongings. A few minutes later, a neighbour raised the alarm; Arturo V.'s wooden house had been set on fire. It was engulfed in flames. He reported the arson to the police, by which time his brother-in-law had fled. He's been on the run since.

Arguably no other football rivalry elicits so much passion. Where else would you get fans burning down each other's houses over a game? This time, their encounter is unique: the first Superclasico in a Copa Libertadores final.

What makes it extra special is that it will be the last time the final will be played over two legs—home and away. From next season, it will be a one-off fixture at a neutral venue like the format of its sister tournament in Europe, the UEFA Champions League final. The first leg—which will be played on Saturday at Boca Juniors' ground, La Bombonera—has brought the country to a standstill.

"There is no doubt that this is the most important Superclasico in history," Matias Bustos Milla, a journalist with Argentinian newspaper Clarin, tells B/R. "There's no debate. In Argentina, since the two finalists have been known, across the country nothing else is being spoken about except this final—in the newspapers, on television, on the streets, amongst friends and families."

Even the president of the country, Mauricio Macri, is preoccupied with it. Macri has been leading the country since 2015, but football is in his veins. He was Boca Juniors president from 1996 to 2008. 

Argentina president Mauricio Macri used to be president of Boca.
Argentina president Mauricio Macri used to be president of Boca.Getty

Deploying a manoeuvre from the playbook of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Macri used football to launch his political career after having overseen a successful period in Boca Juniors' history. During his reign, Macri hauled in four of the six Copa Libertadores titles the club has won, including the last victory in 2007.

Macri still sees the world through Boca-tinted glasses. In a populist move, he pushed to have the ban on away fans attending the games waived. (Away fans have been prohibited from attending Superclasico matches since 2014, owing to violence among the clubs' ultras.) Macri got his minister of security, Patricia Bullrich, to back his campaign, but they were shot down. The presidents of Boca and River objected to the plan, and the Argentine Football Association confirmed no away fans would be permitted on Monday.

"It was incredible for Macri to say away supporters should be allowed," says Joel Richards, author of Superclasico: Inside the Ultimate Derby. "The president of the nation has just been undermined by two football club presidents. It's a curious situation. What it comes back to is that Macri is such a strong Boca supporter. He spoke as a football supporter rather than as a diplomatic politician and a head of state who should have known it's impossible to have away supporters for this kind of fixture."

"It was such a polemical move," adds Bustos Milla. "It became a state discussion. Argentina is getting ready to host the G20 summit at the end of November, with all the top presidents of the world visiting. Besides Argentina is going through a huge economic crisis at the moment. We're suffering a grave recession, and here you have the president, who is worried about a game between Boca and River. His critics are saying 'There are more important matters for you to worry about than if away fans can go to a football match in the Copa Libertadores.'"

The Boca vs. River rivalry goes back over a century. The first official match was played in 1913. River won 2-1, and they have since edged Boca in Argentinian league title wins—36 to 33. Despite their roll of honour, though, River's nickname"Las Gallinas" ("The Chickens")has stuck. They picked it up when the club endured a league title drought from 1957 to 1975 in which it was perceived to have choked on several occasions in key matches.

Notoriously, Carlos Tevez got sent off for doing a chicken dance during a Superclasico in 2004. (Tevez—who is back at the club for a third stint during the autumn of his career at 34 years old—is far from the only person to be sent off during a Superclasico. In one "friendly" encounter in 2016, five players received red cards.)

Carlos Tevez in action during a 2015 Superclasico
Carlos Tevez in action during a 2015 SuperclasicoJUAN MABROMATA/Getty Images

Boca Juniors are derogatorily called "Bosteros," or "horse s--t" because their stadiumbased down by the docklands in La Boca, a poorer part of townis said to smell. River originally were located in La Boca too, but they moved their stadium to a more affluent quarter in the northern part of the city, Nunez, in 1923.

"At the beginning, it was one team from the neighbourhood, but then they separated from each other," says Fernando Signorini, who worked as Argentina's physio when they won the 1986 FIFA World Cup. "It's like Cain and Abel—there's nothing worse than hate between brothers, or those who are born from the same womb."

It is an oversimplification to suggest, however, that Boca's fans are from the working classes and that River's are wealthier, says Richards. It might have applied back in the 1930s, when River Plate made some big splashes in the transfer market and were subsequently dubbed "Los Millonarios" ("The Millionaires"), but not today.

Signorini concurs: "River is known as Los Millonarios, as if Boca represents the poor side and River the most affluent part of society. ... But the press exaggerate [the social divide] in order to stoke the 'morbo' [morbid fascination] between the two sides, and to make people give an importance to something that really doesn't exist. It's only a game of football."

The suspicion between both fanbases is real, however. "In Argentina, we love extremes—in politics, in the economy, in voting and in football," says Bustos Milla. "There are two big clubs who dominate—Boca, the most popular club in the country with the most fans, and River. It's like two ways to live life. 

"In Argentina, when we get to know another person we say: 'Hello, what is your name?' The second question asked is, 'Who do you support?' We're not interested in your age or where you're from. The rivalry marks the life of people in Argentina—fans of Boca on one side, fans of River on the other. The fans of Boca won't wear clothes that are white or redRiver's coloursand similarly, River's fans won't wear yellow or blue clothes, which are Boca's colours."

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It is extraordinary how the clubs have come to dominate the illustrious football landscape in Argentina, which is home to outfits such as Racing, San Lorenzo and Newell's Old Boys. In fact, Independiente have won seven Copa Libertadores titles, more than Boca (six), River Plate (three) or any other club.

The ancient rivalry appeals at a base level to people's instincts, argues Signorini: "Across Argentina, even in the countryside in small towns, a town will always be divided amongst fans of both teams. Every time they play against each other, there are problems because feelings are aggravated.

"[Peruvian writer] Mario Vargas Llosa explained this in a book he wrote. In [straitened] circumstances, people look for their primitive horde. They crave a tribal sense of belonging. Boca and River are tribes, so every person in their tribe tries to get support from their 'companeros' [friends], and they hate the other tribe. The problem is that in the stadiums, this aggression spills over. After every game, you hear about some demented fight between clubs' 'barra bravas' [ultras]. It's better both matches in the Copa Libertadores final will be played without visiting fans because it could be very violent."

The control the barra bravas wield over football clubs in Argentina is the great stain on the game in the country. They're organised criminal gangs that recruit "soldaditos" (little soldiers) to help execute their moneymaking rackets on matchdays. They're paid a small wage. They carry guns. They handle parking of cars at games. They own the merchandising of replica gear. They run drugs. Politicians employ them to work as bodyguards at their political rallies. It's alleged players give them a cut of their salaries and that they take a percentage of transfer fees.

The barra bravas reign by terror. During River Plate's first-leg relegation play-off against Belgrano in 2011, River's masked barra bravas flooded the pitch to threaten their own players. In the second leg—which River lost 3-1 on aggregate, resulting in the club's first-ever relegation (Boca has never been relegated)—both teams' players had to huddle in the centre-circle, surrounded by police, as River's barra bravas rained plastic seating down onto the pitch in fury. The agitation spilled over into shooting and riots around the stadium's streets after the final whistle. 

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Since 1922, there have been 328 deaths from football-related violence in Argentinawith the most recent coming on Sundayaccording to Salvemos al Futbol, a nongovernmental organisation working to eradicate violence in the game. In October, for example, 28-year-old Matias Diarte died from a complication during surgery following an attack at a game from Boca Juniors' barra bravas.

The barra bravas go to extraordinary lengths to create noise and colour at both River and Boca's stadiums. Their tifos are legendary. Balloons in team colours abound. Flares—which are banned but still surface regularly—light up the skies during games. Bass drums and horn sections blare non-stop. As much as 1,500 police will be deployed on Saturday to patrol La Bombonera for the game, according to Matias Bustos.

"The atmosphere [at a Superclasico] is very edgy," says Richards, who grew up in London but is based in Buenos Aires. "The choreography is spectacular. People will rip up cardboard boxes and place them around the stadium. It's not these sponsored, coloured flags you pick up when, say, Chelsea run out onto the pitch at a Champions League match. It's lower-budget, but it's edgier and grittier, and the intensity—for someone who has grown up with more sanitised football—is what really stands out."

For a typical Superclasico at River Plate's stadium, El Monumental—which hosted the 1978 FIFA World Cup final—as much as two tonnes of shredded newspaper, magazines and pages from kids' school books go into making the shower of tickertape that rains down onto the pitch for the match, according to Richards' book. When Diego Maradona played his farewell game for Boca Juniors in 1997, La Doce organised an illegal fireworks display at La Bombonera.

"In a Superclasico [in 2012], River got an enormous inflatable pig—like the one Roger Waters from Pink Floyd uses in his gigs—in the stadium and floated it up above Boca's section of the stands at half-time. The logistics required to make that happen are just crazy," says Richards.

"In the Copa Libertadores clash in 2015, Boca's fans got a drone into the stadium. They used it to fly a ghost with a 'B' on it—because of the 'B' division or 'Segunda Division' [to mock River for being relegated in 2011]—and having the drone flying above the River Plate players in this ghost outfit.

"It explains the level of complicity within the clubs to allow this kind of thing to happen. They didn't slip a knife past a security guard. They didn't slip a little balloon past the police. In the case of River's fans, they had this enormous thing that they inflated and flew overhead. It's insane."

Boca Juniors fans like to remind River supporters about their team's relegation.
Boca Juniors fans like to remind River supporters about their team's relegation.Getty

In 2015, when Boca and River last played against each other in the Copa Libertadores, things turned ugly. River led 1-0 from the first leg in their round-of-16 encounter. In the second leg at La Bombonera, Boca's barra bravas bore a hole in the makeshift tunnel that is used to shield the players as they run out onto the pitch. As River's players re-emerged for the second half, Boca's barra bravas sprayed several of them with homemade tear gas through the gap the hooligans had chiselled into the tunnel. 

The game had to be abandoned. Four River players—including Leonardo Ponzio, who played in the two legs of River's 2018 Copa Libertadores semi-final against Gremio—were hospitalised for injuries and burns to their skin and eyes. Boca were disqualified, and River went on to win the tournament.

Argentina's biggest football tragedy also occurred at the end of a Superclasico in June 1968. The game—which finished in a 0-0 draw—was played during the depths of winter at El Monumental. Because of the cold, fans were eager to leave the stadium quickly. When Boca's fans made to stream out of Puerta 12 (Gate 12), 71 people died in a crush because the gate was blocked.

The average age of those killed was 19. When a judge went to visit the scene of the tragedy the following day, he found shoelaces, belt buckles, combs and bloodstains on the steps of the exit. Following a three-year investigation, no one was prosecuted.  

Several conspiracy theories exist as to the cause. Witnesses said a huge iron pole blocked the exit. According to River Plate's former president, William Kent, the police were annoyed with Boca's fans because they had thrown urine and excrement at mounted police on the street below the stand, which led to "police repression and then the tragedy."

Since the Puerta 12 tragedy, letters, not numbers, identify gates at El Monumental.

Carlos Navarro Montoya is known as "El Mono" (The Monkey) by Argentinian football fans. The former goalkeeper has played in 44 Superclasicos during a 26-year professional football career. He played for Boca Juniors from 1988 until 1996 and was named Footballer of the Year in Argentina in 1994.

Having moved with his family from Medellin, Colombia, to Buenos Aires when he was three months old, it was always his dream to play for Boca Juniors. He recalls going to watch games from the age of six at La Bombonera with his brother and father, describing the family as "fanatical supporters of Boca Juniors."

Carlos Navarro Montoya with Nestor Fabbri in 1995
Carlos Navarro Montoya with Nestor Fabbri in 1995Getty

He remembers the atmosphere on the pitch at Superclasicos as being more intense for players at Boca's stadium because its stands are more vertical than those at River's home; it has one cliff-like stand in particular hugging the pitch. A running track separates the pitch from the stands at El Monumental.

"El Monumental is bigger than Bombonera, so there is more space for the fans at El Monumental, but in La Bombonera everything is more enclosed," says Navarro Montoya. "In El Monumental, you don't feel the public breathing on you like you do at La Bombonera."

His greatest moment in a Superclasico came in 1992. In a title decider against River Plate, Boca Juniors were leading 1-0 when River Plate were awarded a penalty kick. Argentina international Hernan Diaz, who played over a decade for River, stepped up to take the kick.

"For me, this moment was probably the best moment in my career because Boca and River is a special game for us. It's different to other games. Players always dream about being the star in the game. And in this game, the championship was on the line," says Navarro Montoya. 

"He hit the penalty to my right-hand side, and I dived to the right and saved it. People remember this penalty to this day. Because of the penalty save, Boca won the championship. Football is fantastic. Even though time passes—more than 25 years—supporters still remember this moment."

Navarro Montoya's worst memory from a Superclasico was when Boca were on the receiving end of a 3-0 defeat in 1994. River's scorers that day were Enzo Francescoli, Ariel "Burrito" Ortega and Marcelo Gallardo, River's current coach. The three are giants of recent South American football history.

It's a measure of the slip in quality of Argentina's domestic game that neither Boca nor River's starting XIs on Saturday will feature stars of that quality. Boca will likely have former Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Gago and Tevez on the bench, with both winding down their careers.

Bustos Milla remembers the 2000 Superclasico, when Boca overturned a 2-1 defeat in the first leg of a Copa Libertadores quarter-final tie by winning 3-0 in the second leg. Juan Roman Riquelme, Boca's most iconic player, put in a masterclass and was part of a side that won back-to-back Copa Libertadores titles before moving to Europe to play with Barcelona and then Villarreal.

"The Boca team that won that Superclasico 3-0 in 2000 spent three years playing together," says Bustos Milla. "Now in Argentina, because of the money and power European clubs have, when a good player appears, he's taken abroad so Argentina's teams here can't consolidate. Riquelme was always magnificent, but he started playing with Boca in 1996 and he was sold in 2002. Now he'd be gone within a year of his debut. We lose quality players too quickly."

Gonzalo Higuain scored two goals in the Superclasico as an 18-year-old.
Gonzalo Higuain scored two goals in the Superclasico as an 18-year-old.DANIEL GARCIA/Getty Images

It's true. River Plate had to sell Javier Mascherano when he turned 21. Ever Banega left Boca Juniors for Valencia in La Liga around the time he celebrated his 20th birthday. Real Madrid bought Gonzalo Higuain— who scored two goals for River against Boca when he was 18 years old—a few days after his 19th birthday. Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Erik Lamela left River Plate for European club football as a 19-year-old. Watford's Roberto Pereyra also left the club for Europe's leagues when he was 20. The list goes on.

The loss of talent won't dilute the atmosphere for the Copa Libertadores final, however. There is nothing to separate the sides. Domestically, they're almost on a par, with Boca two points ahead of River in Argentina's league.

"If we talk about the functioning of their team, and the personal quality of each player, River is the favourite, but Boca has two advantages," says Bustos Milla. "Boca is improving its performances—it has momentum. Second, historically, in the Superclasicos, it doesn't matter how they are playing at the time, Boca always lift their level to match River. It's a toss-up who will win—50/50, as we say."

Whatever the result, it's going to be fireworks.


Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz