Boca v River Plate – a showdown so big no one really wanted it

Riot police outside the ticket office at Boca Juniors' La Bombonera stadium as a fan and his young daughter walk past. Picture: Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty
Riot police outside the ticket office at Boca Juniors' La Bombonera stadium as a fan and his young daughter walk past. Picture: Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty
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Buenos Aires. 4pm local time this afternoon. The bustling and emotional metropolis will take a deep breath and fall silent. The exception will be the corner of Brandsen and Dr. del Valle Iberlucea in La Boca.

A fascinating and colourful barrio in the Argentine capital, one with an edge. Visitors to the city are encouraged to play safe and take a taxi to that location. It’s most prized possession towers over the district, signifying its importance. La Bombonera – the chocolate box – home of Boca Juniors.

For 90 minutes it will be the most important place in Argentina, hosting one of the biggest fixtures in football history. The Superclasico. The name says it all. Boca v River Plate. It’s cantankerous, intense and impassioned, whether it be a crucial league fixture or a friendly played hundreds of miles from Buenos Aires.

But on this occasion, for the first time, the clubs meet in South America’s greatest fixture: the Copa Libertadores final. Played over two legs for the last time.

“This is exactly like Rangers and Celtic meeting in a Champions League final,” says Rupert Fryer, South American football writer. “These two matches are unquestionably the biggest in Argentinian club football’s great history.”

The stadium will crackle, roar and scream. It will be heard for miles around and may even appear to be breathing fire.

River boss Marcelo Gallardo is suspended for the final having breached his ban for the second leg of the semi-final. It is fortunate he will have to deliver his team talk before arriving at the ground. For the away dressing room, in the bowels, is directly underneath Boca’s hardcore, La 12. They will jump and bounce, chant and taunt. A megaphone is required to make yourself heard.

That will only increase when the teams emerge into the 
centre of this peculiar fortress. Blue and yellow will tumble from the steep stands as if the most beautiful mosaic has come alive. Balloons, lights, sparklers and hands will be waved enthusiastically in the air to greet the home side.

River’s entrance will be met by whistles and boos. However, it is unlikely there will be a repeat of the infamous incident when they met in the knockout stages of the competition three years ago. Los Millonarios’ players were subjected to a tear gas attack from the Boca fans. The game was abandoned and four players taken to hospital. They were awarded the tie.

Such shenanigans help shape a rivalry which officially dates back to 1913 but in fact it goes back even further. Both clubs were formed in La Boca – the 12th district of Buenos Aires. River were the first to emerge in 1901, four years before their rivals. But the club led an itinerant life, leaving La Boca barrio for the last time in 1923 before settling in the upscale Núñez district in 1938 where the famous Estadio Monumental was built.

The move helped create a rivalry with a perceived class divide. It is an aspect of the derby which is continuously played up but “one that has now long been transcended as both have significant support from a wide range of social demographics”, said Fryer.

“However, it is part of the history that makes this such a great rivalry. The common misconception is that River Plate are referred to as ‘the Millionaires’ because they left La Boca for the snooty suburbs of Nunez. However, they in fact earned that nickname due to the club’s early outlay on large transfer fees.

“Regardless, that move certainly brought about an initial class divide and shaped the identities of the two clubs: River became known for their expansive, enchanting football – winning well, rather
than just winning – while 
Boca were built on blood, guts and desire as a ‘team of the people’.”

When these teams meet, winning is all that matters. Add in South America’s most prestigious trophy, the intrigue from around the world, Boca’s chance to cement themselves as the continent’s finest and the powder keg is ready to explode.

“It’s difficult to quantify just how big this rivalry is,” Fryer
said. “And the added spice comes in just how revered historical success is in South America. Boca will join Independiente as the joint-most successful side in Libertadores history and nothing could be sweeter than doing that over River.

“This final is so big, that there’s a genuine theory that nobody in Argentina really wanted this. For the general population, it brings two weeks of complete hysteria, while for each set of fans and players, the shame and hurt of losing a Superclasico Libertadores final is almost incomprehensible.”

One of the most famous encounters came at the semi-final stage in 2004. Over the two legs there were five red cards, a mocking chicken dance by Boca’s Carlos Tevez aimed at River’s less than flattering poultry-themed moniker and a penalty shootout to decide who progressed.

River boss Gallardo and Boca’s manger Guillermo Barros Schelotto were both involved back then as players. The former was one of those sent off, performing a preposterous eye-gouge on Boca keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri.

The tomfoolery is part of the attraction. Even the most level-headed of individuals can be swept up by the magnitude of the fixture. It often has drastic consequences for the standard of play. Recent meetings have been entertaining but such is the enormity of the occasion, fear, paranoia and gamesmanship may take hold.

Tevez, now 34, is back at Boca. But he will take a backseat to attackers Cristian Pavon, Mauro Zarate and Dario Benedetto. As for those lining up in the famous white shirt with red sash, many eyes will be taken by Juan Fernando Quintero, the pint-sized playmaker who impressed at the World Cup for Colombia.

Yet, the players on each side, so often the protagonists, will have to share a stage with the fans, the stadium, the colour and noise, the occasion. It is a fixture which requires two sets of eyes to take it all in. Blink and you will miss it. Until it all happens again in two weeks’ time.