When you think of Argentina and football, two things always come to mind first; the humble, 5ft7 Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, or his not so politically correct, drug-addicted predecessor, Diego Maradona. One couldn’t be blamed for immediately thinking of arguably two of the world’s best footballers to ever live. There is a lot more to Argentine football, however than just two somewhat vertically challenged yet highly skilled attackers.
Argentina is home to one of the fiercest rivalries in world football, situated smack bang in the middle of its capital city, Buenos Aires. A city absolutely littered with football clubs around every corner, it truly lives and breathes football. But, despite the abundance of teams, only two take the limelight. This isn’t just the old cliché of ‘red versus blue’, this is much more, this is Boca Juniors v River Plate. The Superclásico.
The rivalry between these two clubs is deeply cemented into the history of Argentine football, running through the veins of fans all across the country.
Founded on the 25th May 1901 near the La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Club Atlético River Plate are one of the most prestigious teams to not only come from Argentina but the continent of South America itself. Translated from Río de la Plata in Spanish, the name was derived from a message reading, “The River Plate”, left by workers at Buenos Aires Port after leaving work to play football. Just four years later, River Plate affiliated to the Argentine Football Association, the same year that soon-to-be rivals Boca Juniors were founded.
On the 3rd April 1905, Club Atlético Boca Juniors were formed in a park named Plazas Solís within the La Boca neighbourhood, the same area in which River was founded just four years previously. European immigrants were commonplace in Argentina during that time and it was a group of Italian boys who met up merely looking for a football club, with no idea that what they were about to create would later become a household name in world football.
Despite both clubs coming from the working-class dockland area of La Boca, River Plate soon shifted towards a higher-class area of the city only 20 years later, creating a class divide between the clubs. From that day, Boca Juniors would go on to be known as the club of Argentina’s working-class, nicknamed “Xeneizes” (“Genoese”) due to their connection to Italian immigrants. Thanks to River Plate’s upper-class fanbase, however, they became known as “Los Millonarios” (“The Millionaires”).
The ‘beautiful game’ as it is often fondly called is known for its fluidity both on and off the pitch. But, what moves around more than the actual football in the world famous game? Players. One-club players are becoming harder and harder to come across in the modern game with players making drastic moves for the right price. But, when it comes to Boca and River, a transfer between the two rivals can be costly.
Both clubs boast an impressive hall of fame with many famous players having worn the jerseys of the two Buenos Aires teams. Boca Juniors’ famous blue and yellow is one of the most recognisable strips in South America. Players such as Diego Maradona and Carlos Tévez have donned the iconic kit, the latter of whom still plays at his boyhood club.
The famous red sash of River Plate has also been adorned by some of the world’s biggest footballing names. Five-time European Cup winner Alfredo Di Stéfano started his career at Los Millonarios before his time at Real Madrid, as did Serie A star Hernán Crespo.
But, it’s the players that crossed both clubs that turned the relationship between fans even sourer. Most notably is the former prolific striker, Gabriel Batistuta. The 6ft1 Argentine spent a year at both clubs, winning titles in both seasons. The first brave soul to make the change was Cataldo Spitale who left Boca for River back in 1933. Commenting on the hostility of both sets of fans, Spitale has previously said, “One side looks on you as a traitor and the other doesn’t really trust you”.
Undeniably the most important part of football is the fans, and the atmosphere these two enemies create is unlike any other. On match day, it is impossible to move. Buenos Aires and the country itself comes to a standstill as fans all over Argentina tune in to spectate a real clash of the titans. “Think of El Clásico but ten times bigger”, is how it has once been described. For the supporters of these clubs, the Superclásico means more than ultimately winning the league.
Think of the carnival-style parades of Rio de Janeiro mixed with, not just a hint, but a lot of hostility. As expected both sets of fans have their own ways to address the opposition. Known by the Boca faithful as “gallinas” (“chickens”), River are said to have no guts. But, Boca are regarded as the “los chanchitos” (“little pigs”) as River claim that their stadium smells most of the time.
When it comes to stadium atmosphere, it is hard to choose between the two most decorated clubs in the land. Boca’s Estadio Alberto J. Armando, widely known as “La Bombonera” (“the chocolate box”) due to its unusual shape, can hold an impressive 49,000 football-mad fans. Across the city lies El Monumental, officially Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti, a more modern bowl-style stadium that seats a whopping 70,127 people. Both venues are often contested to host national team games which bounce along with the chanting supporters when full.
THE TURNING POINT
Despite the BBC describing the match-up as, “a sea of colourful flowing banners, screams and roars, chanting, dancing and never-ending fireworks”, the festivities can often end in scenes of violence. As was the case in what can only be described as the worst football-related incident in the history of Argentine football.
The 23rd June 1968 was a dark day for football fans within the South American state. After a Superclásico clash at El Monumental, 71 innocent fans lost their lives with a further 150 left injured by the crushing of stampeding fans.
Of course, either side only had each other to blame. Los Millonarios claim that it was Boca fans launching burning River flags onto the home fans below that caused the initial rush of people. Yet, Boca fans describe the arrival of River fans in the away section commenced the stampede and crushing of teenagers and young adults.
Much like the tragedy at Hillsborough, many families and fans were torn apart by the events. After a three year investigation into the disaster, no one was found responsible, enraging the families of those affected and pulling the divide between the two sides even further apart. A game that was created to bring people together ultimately served to increase the hostility and hatred felt amongst fans.
THE BRAGGING RIGHTS
Every match under the sun has been contested by these two footballing giants. Cup finals, league championships, even continental trophies you name it. However, the most important of them all, derby day.
Dating back to the 24th August 1913, the first official Superclásico resulted in River Plate triumphing 2 – 1 over their bitter rivals. Ever since that day both clubs have been neck and neck, trying all they can to get one up on their opponents.
When it comes to silverware, there is very little to split the two sides. River Plate claim the title of the most Primera División trophies with a total of 36, whilst Boca Juniors follow close behind with 33. There’s no doubt that both clubs have an incredibly impressive trophy cabinet. Glistening silverware is littered throughout the history of the great rivals, but, there is one trophy that River are lacking in comparison to their blue and yellow counterparts.
The CONMEBOL Libertadores, as it is now known, is the most prestigious club competition in South America. It is the continent’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League, being the most sought-after trophy in the southern hemisphere. Unfortunately for River fans, the Xeneizes have accumulated double the amount of River’s Libertadores titles. Having won an impressive six trophies, Boca loses out on the record for most CONMEBOL Libertadores wins to a fellow Argentine club, Club Atlético Independiente (7).
The overall record, excluding friendlies, has seen Boca Juniors trump River once again; Boca Wins: 88, Draws: 7, River Wins: 80.
Overall, the Superclásico is one match that every football fan needs to see. Whether it be the carnival style chanting and festivities, the exciting atmosphere mixed with hostility, or even the fact that the two clubs are the most decorated in football history, there is so much surrounding this fixture that makes it appealing to anyone who loves the beautiful game.
What started as two clubs from the small neighbourhood of La Boca transformed into two continental giants dominating football on the world stage. Rich in history and covered in a huge dose of potential for the future, Boca Juniors v River Plate is a rivalry that will live on for generations to come.
Be it the iconic blue and yellow of the Xeneizes flowing at La Bombonera, or the red and white of Los Millonarios bouncing at El Monumental, the Superclásico continues to excite and shock fans across the globe. Thankfully for the world of football, this fixture seems to be sticking around for good.