Latin American Derbys: River Plate Vs. Boca Juniors (“El Superclásico Argentino”)
Crests representing one of the fiercest rivalries in the world!
Latin American Derbys:
River Plate Vs. Boca Juniors
(“El Superclásico Argentino”)
I knew that I wanted to do a piece on derbies (pronounced “Dahr-Bees”). We hear a lot about, say Man City versus Man United, or maybe Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona. But there are many other heated rivalries beyond the English Premier League and Serie A (Italy) that everyone in North America seems to follow. In fact some of the most charged and heated soccer rivalries are south of the border. And we start with of course my favorite rivalry: the Club Atlético River Plate-Club Atlético Boca Juniors (or simply River-Boca, or if you’re a crummy Boca Juniors fan, Boca-River ) derby, or “El Superclásico Argentino”. I personally hear the word “Superclásico” bounced around a lot in soccer circles, so I will in this post denote the “Superclásico Argentino” as the River Plate-Boca Juniors Derby.
Why are these two teams—and their supporters–fierce rivals? The story goes back to the early 20th century. The story of both actually starts in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires; both teams actually started in this same neighborhood!
Located at the mouth of the Rio de La Plata (a big estuary stretching between Argentina and Uruguay on the Eastern bank), Boca contained ports that received goods and immigrants from overseas. At that time, trade and immigration made Argentina one of the richest countries in the world. The neighborhood itself contained many immigrants from Genoa. At the same time the British commercial and cultural influence shaped the football passions that would ignite in future decades, not only in Argentina, but also in other parts of South America such as Brazil. The clubs looked no further than the passing ships, the merchandise, and the dominant British influence to shape the colors and strips that would form the culture of these clubs: Boca got its colors from the first ship that entered the port at La Boca, which happened to be from Sweden. Those that founded River happened upon a box that had a red sash and was labeled “River Plate.”
Unfortunately there was room for only one fútbol club in La Boca. So a match was played between the two neighborhood sides; the winner stayed in La Boca, the loser would vacate. So that game was played, River went “uptown” to the northern neighborhood of Belgrano, where it would stay to this day at Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti (named after former club president Antonio Vespucio Liberti—simply El Monumental) . Boca Juniors would obviously stay, eventually moving into Estadio Alberto J. Armando (or simply La Bombonera—the chocolate box, due to its shape). With the move, and as the teams became more established, Boca would be classified as the “people’s” team, with traditional support coming from the working classes of Buenos Aires. “The Genovese” (Los Xeneizes) would be one of the nicer nicknames for Boca fans, taking from the Genovese immigrants that formed the club’s core support in its early days. River would be referred to as “The Millionaires” (Los Millonarios) as it settled in its affluent new digs in Buenos Aires’ Belgrano neighborhood (where my Dad’s family was born, raised, and still live today).
Head to head Boca and River historically–and statistically–are two of Argentina’s greatest football teams. Researching this I unfortunately found the numbers in Boca’s favor (126 wins for Boca, compared to River’s 107–this includes the national championship, copa libertadores, as well as friendly matches and other cup tournaments played over the years). 38 players historically have played for both River and Boca. Both teams have had great moments throughout their history, from River’s first Superclásico Argentino win in 1913 (2-1 over Boca), to the Boca debut of Carlos García Cambón in 1974, scoring 4 out of the 5 goals scored by Boca that day over River, ending in a 5-2 result. Certain decades saw the dominance of one club over the other. Overall, River tended to dominate in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the late 1970s and 1980s. Boca tended to dominate in the 1960s and part of the 1970s.
Much like soccer all over Latin America, the passion of the fans fuels this derby. Although my own Dad, who grew up in Buenos Aires in the 1950s and never actually went to a River game (he was a bit of a bookworm, arguing that “he was too busy working to get into med school to be concerned about ‘fútbol’”),the Argentinean passion for football went directly to me. It is that same intense passion that fuels me when I see the Union or the US Men’s or Women’s National Team (and for that matter, the Argentinean Men’s National Team—when of course they’re NOT playing the U.S.) I get antsy when I see people simply standing in a section and NOT chanting and screaming. So when you’re at the Super Clásico argentino, I would argue that you will probably be in big trouble if you’re located among fans and you’re NOT singing or chanting. My greatest regret is not having gone to a Super Clásico argentino while spending 3 months down there in 1993. Streamers of blue and yellow, white and red. Fireworks. Tifo that makes the Sounders/Timbers rivalry in MLS look like a piñata party by comparison.
Oh, and the name calling—another thing that fuels derbies! Boca fans call us River fans Las Gallinas (the chickens) because, they claim, we have no guts (yeah—no guts made River the most successful team in Argentina!) and because we surrendered a 2-0 lead in the 1966 Copa de Libertadores (the Liberator’s Cup). We—the “hinchada de River” (the River fans)—politely refer to Boca fans as “Manure Handlers (Bosteros) , as there used to be a factory near La Bombonera (the “Chocolate Box”—Boca’s stadium) that used horse manure as fuel to make bricks. We also call them “little pigs” (chanchitos) because we allege the Bombonera smells most of the time (but hey—at least it’s not a bedpan!!!)
The rivalry is intense and fantastic to watch. Yet in a country where football is THE sport to watch, people will channel that energy into the game—whether at El Monumental, La Bombonera, or from your own living room. Yet Argentina is country where corruption still runs rampant. And as in much of Latin America, there are large gaps between the haves and the have-nots. So especially in times of social, political, or economic crisis, many Argentineans turn to football for comfort. Unfortunately some make it their life, to the point that their passion becomes less about the team and more about satisfying their own grip on power. I’m talking about the Barra Bravas. It is one thing to be a passionate fan, wear your colors, and contribute to your section’s Tifo. It’s another to start fights with rival supporters and even go so far as to put out actual “hits” on your counterparts in the rival soccer club. This is how the barras of River (Borrachos del Tablón—Drunks of the Scabbard) and Boca (La Doce—or The 12th man) tend to act.
I mentioned in my introductory post that I condemn hooliganism in all its forms. Not only does it take away from a passion for the team, but the incidents—the fights, the crimes—in my opinion, drive away the die-hard fans that came to see the game and experience the culture and the passion, without the crime and the headlines. Worse, for the younger fans, I would argue that it would discourage them from going to the stadiums and truly experiencing the majesty and culture of the beautiful game. In fact true fans have separated themselves from these true hooligans. I know I’m personally insulted when our own supporter culture here in MLS is equated with hooliganism. Sadly Los Borrachos del Tablón—especially in the last 15 years—has been more of an organized crime family than it has been a “supporter” group of River Plate, associated with everything from organized fights with other Barras, to outright murder.
Switching gears and re-focusing on the passion of this rivalry: some of the greatest players to ever grace a football pitch have played for either or both teams, including Gabriel Batistuta (played for River, then went to Boca), Diego Armando Maradona (Boca—more on him in a bit), Carlos Tevez (Boca), Enzo Fracescoli (River), Angel Labruna (River), Juan Román Riquelme (Boca), Javier Mascherano (River), and the list goes on. And of course are league has had its fair share of veterans from both teams, including former Union man midfielder Eduardo “Chacho” Coudet (River Plate), former DC United attacking midfielder Marcelo “El Muñeco” Gallardo (River Plate), Columbus’ Guillermo “El Mellizo” Barros-Eschelotto (Boca) and Gino Padula (he started his career with River in the mid 1990s), as well as active players such as Real Salt Lake’s Fabián Espindola (Boca was Espíndola’s first club), Mauro Rosales (he was at River before he went to the Sounders), and Juan Pablo “El Angelito” Ángel (River). The list goes on and I have a wish list of a few former River players I’d like to see in MLS.
So when I chant at the River End, when I hear the drums, and when I chant Dale Oh even if I’m sporting the colors and singing the songs and chants of our Blue and Gold, my passion is fueled by colors of the Red and White (River) vs. Blue and Yellow (Boca).