You might have wondered if it was all over for Argentine football. All over in the sense of the game there not being able to get any more weird, any more sinister, any more tragic. You might have wondered this because, well, football’s pretty much the same the world over now, isn’t it? Same hair, same play-acting, same airplane seats in the dugouts, same 7.45pm kickoffs, same gaze-heavenwards goal celebrations, same ear-tugging in the post-match interviews.
No more could it amaze or shock, this land which had given us Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Mario Kempes (pictured), the Hand of God, ticker tape falling like snow, cocaine piled like snow, grain piled like snow, or cocaine, as an (alleged) inducement to throwing a match, and Antonio Rattin and his chums who very definitely didn’t feature in Johnny Morris’ Animal Magic.
Then along comes the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final, or rather, along it doesn’t come. For the first time in the history of South America’s equivalent of the Champions League, the showdown was between the gargantuans of Argentina, River Plate and Boca Juniors. Locked at 2-2, the teams were due at River’s El Monumental for the conclusion. Just the Boca players would be heading across Buenos Aires, their supporters having been sentenced to watch on a giant screen at their stadium, La Bombonera. But the Boca team bus was ambushed by River fans. Windows were smashed and players reeled from the effects of tear gas.
Five times they tried to start the match; five times they failed. It was postponed until the following day only to be scrapped again. The authorities were forced into an unprecedented decision: this game could not happen in this city, in this country, on this continent. It would have to be moved.
But where? The word is that River and Boca were offered Wembley, Hampden and the Moon. Wembley is so cash-strapped it will tart itself about for any type of hire, even acting as the rev-up paddock and breakdown yard for monster truck festivals. Following the damage done to the turf by the recent gridiron, the deadly Buenos Aires rivals announced in a joint statement: “You must be joking. This pitch is worse than the cabbage patch used for the 1970 FA Cup final – what an atrocity you laid before your English country garden-loving queen that day.” Then River and Boca took one look at Hampden and declared: “You must be joking. What’s going on with these stands and the namby-pamby, politically correct shallow raking? Don’t you guys like noise, passion, madness?” The Moon couldn’t be turned round in time for football; that was the excuse anyway.
Would no one else offer to take the gruesome twosome? Real Madrid did. But then, just as it was hoped the Libertadores would be settled without further interruption at the Bernabeu, some 6,000 miles from the crazy town where these clubs are based, River Plate last night announced that they refuse to accept the venue switch. And so the saga continues.
It has all become a bit of a joke, but the Superclasico, as the rivalry is called, is never a laughing matter. Most Argentine rivalries would turn our knees to jelly. In the past decade there have been 93 deaths in the country from football-related violence. The ban on away fans which kept the Boca faithful at the Bombonera dates from as far back as 2013.
Kind of puts that pound coin flung at Neil Lennon during the last Hibs-Hearts match into perspective, doesn’t it? And pops the Old Firm and the self-aggrandising big-fight billing of their derby as none-more-fierce right into a blown-about empty chip poke as well. Next to River-Boca every other derby is Darby and Joan.
Oh, the dangerous allure. Football tourists everywhere might have the Superclasico on their bucket-list, to which the ultras in Buenos Aires would retort: “Come and have a go if you’re chico rudo enough.” A cabal of English journalists was among the 70,000 at El Monumental and when the hacks were left writing screeds of “colour” but no match reports, colleagues back home chuckled. “When does the hipster derby start?” tweeted one during the initial hold-up. “Hopefully no goals to spoil the game.” Then later: “Hipster derby cancelled. Boca bus attacked. 3,000 words.”
Hipster derby? River and Boca fans will hate that. It’s funny, and often valid, when old-school types rail against pretentiousness in football but I suppose your correspondent might have been guilty of middle-class voyeurism when, during a trip to the Argentina capital in 2002, I ventured to El Monumental. The only consolation was that hipster back then, if it meant anything, identified you as a jazz enthusiast in a turtleneck; it wasn’t a term of ridicule.
The hosts for my stay had cautioned: “Avoid eye contact, don’t wear a watch, leave your camera behind and only take enough of our useless pesos for a ticket and a speedy taxi after the final whistle.” These seemed like wise words when, immediately upon arrival, I was surrounded by a gang of feral kids in Racing’s red and white who hustled me away in excitable Spanish which might have been friendly but, to my petal-soft ears, could be interpreted thus: “Hola, scared paleface from the pretendy rivalry of Edinburgh, we put the ‘mental’ in ‘Monumental’. You will come with us to the primero radge section of the stadium where the policia leave us alone and we will stick a firecracker between your teeth and leave you tied to a post in your pants.”
“Or,” said a nice Argentine family in the nick of time and perfect English, “you could come with us … ”
This wasn’t a Superclasico, River were playing Newell’s Old Boys, one of my favourite club names in all football, on a Tuesday afternoon as the league rushed to a finish to prepare for the World Cup (and another Argentine blow-up failure). I wanted to cheer for the Old Boys but didn’t dare. River won without any trouble and I got through the game without any trouble, though I spent the entire time trying to hide behind my saviour couple’s 11-year-old daughter.
Argentina, you see, doesn’t really do meaningless end-of-season games and, contrary to popular belief, football is not the same the world over. And a good thing too.