Since I am a big sports fan, I thought it would be a fun thing to do to follow a local fútbol team while we lived here. It’s also a great way to integrate into the community since it’s an easy topic to discuss with virtually anyone. After consultation with some friends, we picked the Boca Juniors as our team.
Boca is sort of the New York Yankees of the Argentine soccer leagues. They have the greatest history of all the teams in the country. Boca’s hated rival is River Plate. Their rivalry is similar to the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry but perhaps more intense since both teams are based in Buenos Aires. For a sense of it, it’s estimated that 70% of Argentines route for one of these two teams. The Boca vs. River games are known as Super Clássicos and have a storied history involving both intensity and tragedy.
The soccer calendar works a bit differently than professional sports leagues in the States. Here, each team plays both in tournaments and in regularly scheduled league games in the same time period. So, for example, during April and May Boca was playing both in the regularly scheduled Argentine Football League games on Sundays and the Copa Libertadores on Thursdays.
The result of all this was there were 3 superclásicos scheduled in a two week period, two games for the Copa and one regular season game. This was truly unusual and all of Buenos Aires was buzzing about the games. I had some very interesting conversations with the taxi drivers and others folks around town about the games.
The first game was a regular season game which went to Boca 3-0 at Boca’s home stadium. River returned serve by winning the next game, a Copa game 1-0 at their stadium. The score of the second game was particularly important because the way that the soccer tournaments play elimination rounds with only two games. If each team wins one game, the team with the most goals wins and, if the number of goals is tied, goals scored at the opposing team’s stadium count double. So, going into the final Super Clásico, Boca needed to win the game and, if River scored, to win by two in order to advance.
Unfortunately it was not to be. After a back a forth first half that left the score tied at zero, something completely crazy happened. As the River team made its way to the field for the second half, some Boca “fans” sprayed pepper spray into the tunnel the players use to access the field. Chaos erupted as the River players poured water on their eyes to try and stop the burning. As the team and officials huddled trying to figure out what to do, a shouting match broke out between the coach of Boca, who apparently wanted to play on and the President of River, who apparently told the Boca coach “I speak only to circus owners, not to monkeys.” After an hour of debate, the game was suspended. The players had to wait for about 30 minutes for the fans to clear out so that they could safely leave the field. The Boca players then created a mini-controversy by applauding to the small group of their hard core fans who remained.
It’s hard to know what to make of all this, but some basic observations. First, I was disappointed that a couple of idiots ruined what was going to be a good game. While their conduct was reprehensible, it certainly doesn’t represent the majority of fans, many of whom took to Twitter to apologize. Second, sadly this does show the sad state of soccer stadium safety. There are many measures in place, but it seems like the hard core hooligan types have deals with corrupt officials to enable them to sneak all sorts of things into the games. Third, there was an ugly bout of classism that broke out. Although Boca is the most popular team in the country, it’s history is that of a working class team and it remains situated in a pretty rough part of town. After the tragedy, some River fans took to the media to describe the actions as typical of the criminal Boca fans. Finally, it does reveal a lack of respect for authority that exists throughout the country. Although the pepper spray incident was unusual, it is absolutely normal to see things thrown on to the field and have fans climbing the walls. So, as insane as this sounds, it seems as if it was really was just a matter of time.