This Sunday, in a city at the centre of a large slice of the world’s footballing history, two sides will come together for one of the most legendary fixtures in the calendar. Both have been champions of their continent, both have provided players who became legends of the game locally and globally. Both, at this stage of the season, are fighting for the title.
‘The Milan derby,’ I hear you say, ‘with both sides fighting for the title?’ Well, no, because although the folk who sell Serie A’s TV rights would love you to think otherwise, the derby della Madonnina will not, in fact, be the fiercest footballing rivalry to take place on Sunday afternoon. Because a couple of hours later, in the docklands of Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors host River Plate.
Italy has its own colourfully-named derbies, and across the Spanish-speaking world there are various clásicos and, in Spain, even el gran clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Only Argentines, though, with their country’s supporters divided roughly one-third to Boca, one-third River, and one-third the rest, have enough nerve (or simply endearing lack of modesty) to label their own great clash the superclásico [Editor's note: MLS has the cheek to do so as well nowadays, as the Galaxy play Chivas USA in the Honda sponsored Super Clasico!].
The 2008 superclásico
This year’s clashes – this weekend’s is the first competitive meeting between the sides in 2008 – will be given a little added historical significance because the super is one-hundred years old in August. Not that any extra spice is needed – over the last century the fixture has seen more than its fair share of action, as well as the worst stadium disaster in the history of Argentine football. After a dreary 0-0 at the Monumental in June 1968, Boca fans began to leave the ground but found their way blocked. Either the doors of Gate 12 were left locked, or the police refused to allow the fans to leave right away, or a combination of the two – to this day the situation’s not entirely clear. Whatever the cause, the result was a mass crush which left 71 people dead. ‘The Tragedy of Gate 12′ has still never been officially investigated.
The darkest point in the history of the super, then, isn’t in dispute, but the story’s not all so dreary. Both sides were founded in the dockside district of La Boca at the turn of the twentieth century, River a few years before Boca. In the face of the rapid urbanisation Buenos Aires was undergoing at the time, playing space became hard to come by, and the two local clubs played a match to decide which club would stay in the area and which had to move on. That’s the urban legend at least – River did indeed move on after losing the match 2-1, and now play in the northern barrio of Núñez, whilst Boca are still based in the barrio they take their name from today, but the reasons for ‘betting’ the teritory on the match are murky.
With the sides playing in separate leagues for much of the following few years, the first officially-recorded super took place in Racing’s stadium in 1913, with River winning by the same scoreline as their defeat of five years previously.
These days, the two are established as by far the biggest clubs in Argentina, and the match between them gets far and away the most international exposure of any domestic game in the Americas. It’s been good fun for River lately – they’ve not lost to Boca in a competitive match since the 2005 Apertura, although the same time period hasn’t been quite so good trophy-wise; their last title came in the 2004 Clausura, four years ago. To that end, this Sunday’s super is going to feel a little different. River go to La Bombonera joint top of the table with Estudiantes, whilst Boca, in fourth, are four points back. A draw wouldn’t be a disaster for either side but the chances of them playing for that are zero, even with the match sandwiched as it is between the two legs of the Copa Libertadores first knockout round. A win for River would all but end Boca’s league hopes, with five matches left, whilst a home win would get them right back in the hunt.
It’s a sign of just how massive the super is that Argentine papers are already discussing team selection and preparation for it in spite of the fact that both sides have those Libertadores first legs to play first, in midweek. River travel to San Lorenzo in an all-Buenos Aires clash whilst Boca host Brazilian side Cruzeiro in a tie that would seem a lot trickier were it not for the fact that Brazilian clubs universally seem to fear Boca regardless of current form or indeed their own abilities. As well as these big matches, this weekend is also showtime at the bottom of the Argentine first division.
There Are Other Games
Last time I wrote for Pitch Invasion, Racing were having a dire time, but a few weeks ago, to the astonishment of their fans and the joy even of some supporters of the other four of Argentina’s ‘Big Five’, they claimed their first win of 2008, 1-0 against Arsenal de Sarandí. That was the second of what’s now four straight matches without defeat, although the other three have been draws. The run hasn’t yet got Racing out of the relegation zone, although Saturday could help – they visit Rosario Central, with whom they’re currently dead level in the relegation points average table, in what might be termed a six-pointer, if the Argentine league operated a normal relegation system. San Martín also host Olimpo in what’s likely to be a slightly less intense affair; both sides, newly promoted, look doomed, although if the hosts win they can drag Gimnasia de Jujuy into the automatic relegation spots and replace them in the relegation playoff places, at least for the moment.
Whatever else happens, there’s a season-defining week ahead for more than just the most famous two of Argentina’s clubs. Some things will look much clearer in ten days’ time – and on Sunday in La Bombonera, the fireworks will be the least of the entertainment.
You can find the Argentine tables – league, goalscorers and relegation – on this page, whilst all the superclásico buildup, reports and aftermath, as well of course as coverage of Argentina’s Copa Libertadores and relegation struggles, gets top billing on Hasta El Gol Siempre.
Photos by Sam Kelly on Flickr.