Boca Juniors vs. River Plate confirms why it's one of the greatest rivalries
Editor's Note: this piece originally ran in April, 2016, and has been republished ahead of the two-legged Copa Libertadores final, which sees Boca Juniors and River Plate competing for a trophy for the first time in the rivalry's history.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- They gather twice a year, sometimes more often, for the most important civic event in the port city of Buenos Aires: Boca Juniors vs. River Plate. The last time I was in this beautiful, weird city was last September, as the South American spring gave way to summer. The rivalry had reached a sort of fever pitch, with River dominating and winning titles while Boca had struggled, looking for a return to its past dominance.
The newspapers, each affiliated with a different political point of view, agreed that Boca desperately needed a win, and the papers almost never agree on anything. The morning of the game, a modest, shy journalist who'd agreed to be my translator met me at my hotel. It's important to describe her, on account of the horribly vile chants and songs she'd soon be translating: imagine a blushing, stuttering young woman looking at me awkwardly and forcing herself to say "your mother's vagina."
The game was being played at River Plate's Monumental Stadium (the supporters call the team the Millionaires, furthering the club's association with wealthy Buenos Aires society) and no visiting fans can attend. There's been too much violence in the past, knife and gun play both inside and outside the stadium. Street gangs run the ultras groups. American adventure magazines have written entire stories about braving a game with them. The dead inevitably come up. In Argentina, 18 people died last year in soccer-related violence, a record. Counting sports casualties is a brutal and yet effective way to quantify intensity.
ON THE DAY OF the match, the Boca fans who could not attend gathered around their own stadium. People tailgated, cooking chorizo with peppers on small sidewalk grills, filling the air outside the stadium with the smells of charcoal and sausage. Inside the Boca museum, old jerseys hung in Renaissance-style gilded frames and a young man made out with his girlfriend in front of an exhibit, nibbling and sucking on her neck. He seemed to be checking an item off a bucket list, and she seemed like an awfully good sport. Groups moved through the stadium, silent and reflective.
My translator and I signed up for a tour.
The guide, Florencia, eyed the crowd and demanded to know if anyone wasn't a Boca fan. "Infiltrators," she called them. The goals hunkered a few paces from the barbed-wire fence ringing the field, the stands rising straight up like Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. The fans are on top of the players. Florencia pointed out VIP box 32, where Diego Maradona sits. He's played all over the world but is still associated with Boca, where he got his start. Walking around the concourse, I showed Florencia my ticket and she grinned, pulled me close and whispered, "I am a River fan."
She wore a blue Boca Juniors sweatshirt.
Looking around to make sure the fans couldn't see, I pointed at it.
"Every day," she says.
"When I get home," she says, "I take this off and put on a River shirt."
In short exchanges under her breath, she explained she had seen a classified ad that didn't explain the full details of the job and when she got a call back, she realized where she'd be working. She lied during the interview about her loyalties and got the job. Her father's a River fan. Her whole family is. With everything I've heard and read, I wondered if this is the kind of thing that could divide a family.
She looked at me like I was insane. Work is hard to come by, and a relationship with a sports team is important, but not nearly as important as food or shelter.
Of course her family doesn't care.
"It's a job," she says.
THE VIOLENCE IS OFTEN so extreme that it swallows all other forms of Boca-River fan expression, cutting away nuance and depth until just the cartoon remains: These folks kill each other over soccer! The real thing -- for example, a young woman whose family both loves River and is fine with her working for Boca -- is often obscured by the hyperbole. It is much more important than something mobbed-up street thugs fight about.
In Buenos Aires, the team you support is almost like the .zip file of inherited identity, easily digested in the form of colors or a shirt and then unpacked, slowly, over the years. Rooting interests are part of how parents teach their children what it means to be a man, or a woman, what it means to be a Porteno. People from Buenos Aires seem themselves first and foremost a citizen of the city, more than of Argentina or South America; the city is a melting pot of European cultures. A Brazilian friend of mine, Flavio, loves to crack on people from Buenos Aires who have a snobbish relationship in neighboring countries: Portenos, he likes to joke, are Italians who think they are English who speak Spanish and think they live in the capital of France.
The city feels like the love child of Rome and Havana, faded glory hovering over wide avenues. Downstairs at a trattoria opened by the Italian immigrants who built the city, you can toast to that memory night after night. The kitchen turns out perfect pasta and families come and go, grow and shrink, marking time. That ever-present past is the wellspring, pumping life to, among many other things, the two football clubs that divide Argentina's capital city. Founded by children of settlers from Italy, River Plate and Boca Juniors were the first things completely their own. The teams provided a foundation upon which to build a new life in a new place.
The fans dislike each other so much because they are all basically the same, even as River cultivates its air of money and sophistication while Boca clings to the dockworker spirit of the neighborhood the team still calls home. You pull for the same team as your father, unless you hate your father, and then you might chose the rival, the ultimate act of rebellion. The most famous rock star in Argentine history, Luis Alberto Spinetta, was a River fan, and even though his musician son, Dante, rejected his father's hippie guitars in favor of hip-hop fusion, he did not reject his father's team. Some rebellion is a bridge too far, even for a would-be teenage rapper.
The fans used their team and its image to create some separation from their neighbors. The River fans are symbolically aligned with the leafy middle-class neighborhoods, while Boca is the team of the urban housing project. The beloved Boca star Carlos Tevez, recently returned from a career in Europe, is the patron saint of working class Portenos. He grew up in one of the city's worst neighborhoods, Fort Apache, and has long celebrated goals by pulling up his jersey to reveal a homemade T-shirt with the name of one of the city's slums.
A local hamburger joint -- the newest and hottest food trend -- named a burger after him, not Leo Messi, to give you a sense of Tevez's place in Buenos Aires' zeitgeist. If Messi is the native son most beloved around the world, Tevez is the one most beloved in their home country; he inspires a level of devotion (and from River fans, hatred) that Messi does not, no matter how many beautiful goals he scores for Barcelona. In Tevez's first year back with Boca, he led the team to a league title and people celebrated in Fort Apache, where a mural of his face, fierce and serious like an old timey portrait, keeps watch from an apartment block.
THE RIVER CROWD CHANTS unbelievably violent, vile, personal things as the Boca players warmed up before kickoff. A father and son from out in the province somewhere sit down next to me. The boy looks embarrassed at the language, so I ask what the people were saying.
"Just bad words," he says, sheepish, as his dad laughs.
My translator dutifully answers.
"The prostitute who gave you birth," she says.
A woman stands up nearby and screams, "whore!"
The big video board plays a clip of an AC/DC concert that took place in this very venue, the rock crowd mad and undulating. Red smoke rolls out of the ultras section. Artillery canisters go off behind the stadium. A flight leaving the downtown airport is banking over as the shells explode, the black puffs of ack-ack hang in the air as the plane roars past overhead. The stadium is so loud, we can't hear the engines.
Fans scream and sing about what Boca can do to their mothers. "Or your sister," my translator says and then sort of grimaces.
The game begins; a fan on the rail smokes cigarettes down to the filter. Boca scores and then hangs on to the lead. One man turns around and faces away from the field. He can't watch. Like they do in America, the stadium people swing a camera around the stands, putting fans up on the big screen, except that almost every single group is on the screen for five or so seconds and nobody notices. Folks are locked in. Nobody mugs.
"Whore!" the dad from the province screams.
The crowd chants about burning La Boca to the ground, and, once more, screams a litany of ways to defile the opponent's mothers ("and sisters," obviously). The clock ticks away, cigarettes burn down to the nub, still 1-0 Boca. The cute boy with his dad seems to sense that his team is going to lose. He's biting his nails, and he turns around, his eyes wild, pumping his arms. He wants his fellow fans to stand with him and cheer until the end.
"Whore," the boy yelled in his high-pitched boy voice, and soon he and his father leave together, fellow men, ready for the long trip home.