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The greatest club match in the world?
Buenos Aires is braced. A countdown seems to run permanently on local television and radio stations. The sports sections of the newspapers discuss little else. There’s a full round of fixtures in the Argentinian league this weekend, but nobody is talking about anything other than Sunday’s meeting between River Plate and Boca Juniors.
There may have been superclasicos more eagerly awaited than this one but none so long-awaited. “If we win,” said the River coach Matias Almeyda, “we enter the history of the club.” All superclasicos are special, but this is more special than most.
It’s 17 months since the two giants of Argentinian football – 70 per cent of the population are said to support one or other – last met, a period impossible until River’s relegation to Nacional B, the second division, the season before last. The reverberations of that event are still being felt: the whole system of relegation, calculated by a coefficient over a three-year period, was supposed to ensure none of the five grandees of Argentinian football were ever relegated; it failed - and with San Lorenzo and Independiente struggling near the bottom of the promedio table, it could easily happen again.
Boca fans were torn. Some celebrated – and graffiti mocking “RI-B-ER”
can still be seen around the city; but others realized that if it could happen to River, it could happen to them. River’s relegation, which ended up overshadowing the Copa America that began just a week later, became almost a totem of Boca’s own mortality. That’s why so many Boca fans were actually rather pleased to see River gain promotion at the first attempt. For one thing, it proved that the big teams don’t just fester in Nacional B; and for another, it gave them their superclasico back.
This is the game everybody lives for; it seems to matter almost more than the league championship. As Alberto J Armando, Boca’s great chairman and the man after whom la Bombonera is officially named, said to the Brazilian forward Paulo Valentim after signing him in 1960, “Don’t worry about the other games, just score in the superclasicos.”
Superclasicos have a history of their own that seems to exist outside the rest of Argentinian football, that seems to exist almost outside of time, in some kind of eternal present so that a slight, or a victory or a humiliation from a few decades ago is as relevant today as it was then. In 2006, for example, River fans released thousands of orange balloons before kick-off at la Bombonera in celebration of a famous goal Norberto Alonso had scored with an unusual orange ball in the superclasico 20 years earlier.
Or when Boca produced a limited-edition set of individually numbered boots to celebrate the forward Martin Palermo reaching 180 goals for the club earlier in 2008, it was the one marked with a ‘73’ that fetched the highest price: his 73rd goal was the fabled “limp goal” he scored against River after returning from a knee injury far earlier than was expected or seemed wise. It was that goal, more than anything else, that established him as an icon of the modern side.
Yet for all the depth of feeling, unlike some of the world’s great derbies, the divide is far from clear. In Glasgow, for instance, affiliation to Rangers or Celtic is determined by religion; in Cairo it is political background that separates Al Ahly from Zamalek; in Rome the split between Roma and Lazio is largely regional. In Buenos Aires, though, there is nothing so obvious.
Boca fans insist the issue is one of class, and there is perhaps a little truth to that, but only a little. Both clubs were founded in the Boca area of the city in the early twentieth century when most of its population were Italian immigrants, but in 1923 River moved to Nunez, a far wealthier district. As they began to draw fans from middle-classes, their spending increased so that by the late 1930s they were known as ‘los Millonarios’ (the millionaires). Boca, by contrast, remained the team of the people, something celebrated by their fans in their chant, “Boca es el pueblo, el carnival”.
Their styles of play, even, are supposed to reflect that background. River’s greatest team was “la Maquina” that played beautiful soccer and won three league titles between 1941 and 1945. ‘You play against la Máquina with the intention of winning,’ said Ernesto Lazzatti, Boca’s centre-half at the time, ‘but as an admirer of football sometimes I’d rather stay in the stands and watch them play.’ Yet the other two championships in that period were won by Boca, whose strength was said to be their “garra” – literally “claw”, or, as a more recent chant puts it “huevos” – balls.
La Maquina became known as the “Knights of Anguish” for their tendency to fail to capitalize on their superior ability, and that trend continued, reaching ridiculous heights as they failed to win the league for 18 years from 1957 but finished as runners-up 11 times.
After they threw away a two-goal lead against Penarol in the Libertadores final of 1966 they were nicknamed “gallinas” – “chickens”
– by Boca fans. “Finally,” the Uruguayan midfielder Gabriel Cedres said on leaving River for Boca in 1997, “I have got rid of the feathers.”
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The term has been appropriated to an extent, but it is still considered sensitive enough that Carlos Tevez, then at Boca, was sent off at El Monumental for miming the flapping of chicken wings after scoring a vital late goal when the sides met in the Libertadores semi-final in 2004. River, meanwhile, mocking the supposed stench from the river in the harbour area where Boca still have their home, refer to their rivals as “puercas” – pigs.
And so, after a longer break than ever before, rivalry will be resumed on Sunday. It will be passionate and hectic, chaotic and colorful.
There may be violence. Heroes will be raised, villains created, a new layer will be added to the history. Given the recent form of the two sides – it’s ninth in the table against fifth and neither scored last weekend – the play may not be of great quality. It doesn’t matter; this is arguably the greatest club match in the world. As the former River striker and coach Ramon Diaz once said, “If it weren’t for Boca, how would River have fun?"
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