By Andrew Misra
A month of delirium rolls on in Argentina after the 2-2 draw in the first leg of Boca Juniors v River Plate in the Copa Libertadores Final. Unsurprisingly, all eyes in South America and beyond have been fixated on the biggest clash in the history of arguably the most intense footballing rivalry – the Superclásico. Bookies were quoting 1/250 for more than two yellow cards in the first leg. Off the pitch, these fixtures dodged security issues and the G20 Summit. While not expected to dazzle on the pitch, the first ninety minutes weren’t a damp squib in the end, despite rain postponing the match by a day. Boca can still win the trophy with a lap of honour in River’s El Monumental stadium on 24th November. It would be easy to focus on these two great superpowers from Buenos Aires (pronounced “Bwenos I-res”) who play out the battle of the continent. But to ignore the pedigree elsewhere in the capital would be to do an injustice to the city of “fair wind”. Greater Buenos Aires is home to 14 million people or one-third of the country’s population, and no fewer than 24 professional football teams. This includes the ‘Big Five’ teams in the country. This remarkable city has a profound influence on South American football.
Argentinian football takes on great significance in Latin America. Football was introduced into Argentina in the second part of the 19th Century by British immigrants in Buenos Aires. An early modern great, Alfredo Di Stéfano, was born and bred in the city. One of the purest aspects of the beautiful game anywhere is how it tends to mirror society. The passionate Argentinian football culture is pervasive in every aspect of society and influential all the way up to Mexico. Despite Brazil’s financial advantage and presumed superiority, Argentina is arguably more important to South American football. Indeed, Argentinian teams have won the Copa Libertadores on 24 occasions to Brazil’s 18. Independiente, who gave us Sergio Agüero and Diego Forlán, have a record seven titles, never losing once they have reached the final. They’re followed by Boca Juniors with six, Estudiantes de La Plata with four, River Plate with three, while Racing Club, Argentinos Juniors, Vélez Sarsfield and San Lorenzo have one apiece. All of these teams are from Greater Buenos Aires. That’s one city that historically dominates a highly coveted continental title. Brazil-born Portuguese playmaker Deco famously said he would trade both of his Champions Leagues for just one Libertadores medal.
A close inspection of football in Buenos Aires cannot completely bypass Boca and River, especially as they are the two biggest clubs in Argentina, accounting for 70% of fans in the country. Boca, the biggest, play at La Bombonera – ‘The Chocolate Box’ – a nod to the sheer, vertical nature of the 49,000-capacity stadium. Juan Román Riquelme and Carlos Tevez began there and ended up returning. The latter is still there but has slowed down in recent years and finds himself on the periphery of the team. The club was founded by Genoese Italian immigrants in the early 20th Century. Violence has been common in the Superclásico as it has in Argentinian football generally. 71 people died in a crush in 1968 at River’s El Monumental. Since 2013, away fans are banned in Argentinian games, although there have been some exceptions this season.
Both teams originated in the working-class docklands area of Buenos Aires. While Boca remained in the cramped neighbourhood, River moved out to the upmarket Núñez neighbourhood in the suburbs decades ago and started calling themselves Los Milonarios. The contrast is portrayed perfectly in the stadiums, with El Monumental a spacious bowl surrounded by wide avenues. Former players include Hernán Crespo and Javier Mascherano. In reality, the profile of the fans is very similar, but the Superclásico is seen as the working class versus the wealthy middle and upper classes. Indeed, the majority of South American derbies follow that pattern, which differs from European derbies such as El Clásico that cut across political axes. Therefore, most fans in South America can identify with one of Boca or River. Already we can see the influence of Buenos Aires. But it doesn’t stop there.
As mentioned earlier, Argentinian football has a ‘Big Five’ of teams: Boca Juniors, Independiente, Racing Club, River Plate and San Lorenzo de Almagro. Similar groups of ‘Big’ teams exist elsewhere – Italy had the ‘Seven Sisters’ in their ‘90s heyday. In England, we had the ‘Top Four’ taking their namesake places in five of the six seasons from 2003 to 2009 inclusive. The difference here is that all five teams are based in one metropolitan area. Independiente and Racing Club are based in Avellaneda, just to the south of the autonomous city limits in Greater Buenos Aires. Their rivalry is fierce and six years older than the Superclásico, with the first edition of El Clásico de Avellaneda back in 1907. Their stadiums are just 200 metres apart and a stone’s throw away from each other – a term that often applies literally here. Historically, Independiente dominate the fixture, although Racing currently sit atop the Superliga this season, with Independiente in third.
Second in the table are Huracán. Not a ‘Big Five’ member but – you guessed it – based in Buenos Aires. Our other ‘Big Fiver’ San Lorenzo de Almagro, who gave us Pablo Zabaleta and count Pope Francis among their fans, lie down in 21st. The Superliga consists of 26 clubs, 12 of which are based in the Greater Buenos Aires region. The league below, the Primera B Nacional, has 25 clubs. The season runs from August to May and is divided into two tournaments, the Inicial and Final, with the winner of each playing a super final since 2013 to crown one overall winner each year. Huracán and San Lorenzo are based in the southern neighbourhood of Buenos Aires and play out their own dangerous district rivalry. San Lorenzo are traditionally a large club while Huracán have spent time in the second division but are currently experiencing a period of resurgence. They are scheduled to play on 25th November, the day after the Superclásico second leg. It wouldn’t be surprising if that was postponed in the wake of what happens at El Monumental.
Banfield and Lanús are two more clubs in the south of Buenos Aires province. They lie 10th and 25th respectively in the Superliga and play out a rivalry that began to increase in intensity during the ‘90s. Lanús reached the final of last year’s Copa Libertadores, losing out to Brazilian side Grêmio who claimed their third title. One below Lanús are Argentinos Juniors, who sit rock bottom. Diego Maradona’s first club are based in the La Paternal neighbourhood in the centre of the autonomous city. Curiously, Buenos Aires is paired with the Italian city of Naples, home of his beloved Napoli.
Estudiantes and Gimnasia is yet another rivalry with both from La Plata in Buenos Aires Province. They currently sit 13th and 16th respectively in the top flight. Juan Sebastián Verón is the chairman of Estudiantes. Vélez Sarsfield make up the 12 top-flight teams from Buenos Aires and they are based in Liners. Currently 9th in the league, they are managed by another former Manchester United player in Gabriel Heinze. The influence of Buenos Aires carries on through the divisions including Chacarita Juniors, Ferro Carril Oeste and Nueva Chicago in the Primera B Nacional, while All Boys are a third division side based in the capital.
The pedigree and scope of Buenos Aires as a footballing city is vast. While other world cities play host to unique derbies and have dominated competitions over shorter time periods, very few if any other cities can match Buenos Aires for the sheer output of teams and success they have had over several eras. If we return to looking at the Copa Libertadores, there have been 58 iterations of the competition (not including this year) since it’s inception in 1960. Teams from Greater Buenos Aires have won on 24 occasions, a success rate of 41.4%. If we include teams from Buenos Aires finishing as runners-up, the ‘finalist rate’ is 60.3%. The population of South America is estimated to be 422 million. However, summing the populations of the associations who qualify for the tournament, which includes Mexico, the total population is 550 million. Buenos Aires contributes a paltry 2.5% of that population. Clearly, something special must be happening on the training pitches, on the hard courts and in the dusty cages of this metropolis. Amongst the young porteños, the next Alfredo, Diego and Sergio wander.
So, whenever you’re in Buenos Aires or Argentina for that matter, and you hear De qué cuadro sos? – What team do you support? Remember it’s not all about Boca and River.