The Superclásico is known as one of the fiercest sporting matches in the world and is considered a top contender for things to do before you die. The trick is to experience this spectacle without it being the actual cause of your death. The Superclásico is a bi-annual soccer match between two arch rivals – Boca Juniors and River Plate – the most popular and successful clubs in Argentine fútbol.
The rivalry is not only at the club level, but is said to represent the historical struggle between the classes. Located in an affluent district of Buenos Aires, the River Plate team is nicknamed Los Millonarios, and dubbed the team of the upper-class, while the Boca Juniors, whose stadium is located near the city’s shipping docks, is considered the club of the working class. This distinction only serves to deepen the intensity of an already passionate, 100-year-old, rivalry.
The Superclásico is particularly noteworthy for the fervent passion of the fans. They arrive at matches swathed in team colors and spend the entire game chanting, dancing, shouting, howling and roaring at the other team’s equally fanatical fans. It has been said that the stadiums, Boca’s La Bombonera and River’s El Monumental, have been known to bounce with the simultaneous jumping of the fans. Both sets of supporters sing a collection of club chants, of a decidedly derogatory nature, aimed at the opposing team. And both sides share a rollercoaster relationship with the referees. At the slightest hint of favoritism – that is, any call not going their team’s way – both sides are equally quick to start hurdling verbal abuse, or, when a decision is in their team’s favor, to defend it to the death. In the past, heatedly-contested matches have ended in violence and crowd-crushing riots.
I could hardly wait to see a Superclásico for myself!
The day of the match, we wake up to bright skies and a heightened sense of anticipation. The van transportation arrives right on schedule and we bundle in with eight other people who have travelled from around the world to partake in this experience as well. We chat excitedly as we weave our way through the streets of Buenos Aires towards the El Monumental stadium. Along the route, we spot groups of supporters dressed from head to toe in club colors. The red and white of River Plate contrasts sharply against the blue and gold of Boca Juniors. The throngs of people become denser and the traffic slows to a crawl. We peer out the windows marveling at the sight of 65,000 people descending on the stadium. We see mounted policemen interspersed among the crowds. The van pulls into a designated entrance and we disembark. We are told to stay together and get ready to be searched. No alcohol. No weapons. No outside food or beverages. We walk past a police riot truck fitted with high powered water guns and surrounded by a small platoon of heavily armed officers.
The first check point is constructed from heavy metal barricades that funnel the crowd down into two lines. One line, staffed by female police officers, is for women only. The second line is manned by burly male police officers and is designated for the men. Larry is screened with a metal detector wand waved over his body, followed by a pat down over his clothes, and a detailed search of his backpack. My bag is looked through carefully but I am waved forward without any body search. Once past the police check, we are asked to show our tickets to uniformed stadium staff.
The second check point is a row of wooden tables set up behind a smaller barricade. It is manned by a dozen more police, each carrying a large pistol. This time we are not segregated but asked to put our bag on a table in front of an officer so it can be thoroughly searched. We are asked to show our tickets again.
The third check point is the entrance to the stadium and is manned by stadium staff who inspect our tickets and direct us towards our seats. A string of police encircle the outside of the stadium eyeing the crowd warily. We climb the cement steps into the second level of the stadium. We are located near the middle of the field, in the ‘sección de la familia’. The most passionate fans, we are informed, will be located by each goal. Looking towards the Boca goal, I notice that only one upper section is designated for the Boca Juniors fans. It is fenced off by barbed wire such as you would expect to see in a prison yard. Riot police form a line along the perimeter. The seating sections on either side are empty. Despite a clear disadvantage in terms of total numbers, the Boca Juniors fans quickly prove quite capable of making up for it in sheer volume and zeal. They arrive early, festoon their quadrant proudly, and commence a non-stop playlist of raucous chanting for the entire match.
As the stadium fills up, the noise level rises with a cacophony of sounds emanating from the growing mass of humanity. In a burst of color and sound, the most ardent supporters parade to their seats in a simultaneous procession of competing marching bands, each pounding out their particular club’s anthem. The River Plate theme has a militaristic drum beat, steadily pounding out their call to arms. The Boca Juniors is more free form, a little jazzier in tone. The River Plate band is trailed by streams of supporters twirling red and white umbrellas, carrying banners stretched along hundreds of people and wildly waving huge flags. The marching bands will play, locked in their own musical competition, for the entire game.
When the players from the two teams run onto the field, the roar of the crowd is deafening. As each player is announced, they are greeted with resounding howls of delight. The players line up across the field and, with a toss of a coin, the game begins.
In the stands, some grand scheme of orchestrated activities unfold. As if by magic, streamers are released from the upper decks to flutter down to the lower levels. Huge banners are rolled out over the heads of 50 rows of people, to reveal some message of support, and then rolled back up. Just before half-time, long, tube-shaped plastic balloons are distributed throughout the crowd. Everyone busies themselves with the task of blowing up their balloon, tying it off, and holding it aloft to reveal rows of alternating red and white encircling the stadium. Then, as if on cue, everyone releases the balloons into the air and they float up and out onto the field. Newspaper is handed out, and it’s ripped to shreds and tossed into the air like confetti, as firecrackers explode all around the pitch. Larry tells me it feels like a political demonstration, a riot and a battlefield all rolled into one. It’s total chaos, perfectly choreographed.
As for the game…well, to tell the truth, I have difficulty remembering much detail about the game itself at all. We are so caught up watching people jumping, gesturing and chanting, throwing streamers, balloons and shredded paper, shouting insults and arguing referee calls, that we barely notice the heated competition playing out on the field below. However, I do remember enough about the game to recall that one of the Boca players was red-carded for bad behavior and ejected from the field, to a resounding chorus of howls and boos from the Boca ranks. And I can also tell you, that during the course of the game, my Spanish vocabulary significantly increased, especially if I’m ever in need of a graphic turn of phrase or two. But the most momentous outcome of the day, impossible to forget, is that the Boca Juniors, despite playing one man down, steal the game with a resounding 1-0 win. The fans go nuts.
The entire stadium shakes under the ecstatic jumping feet of the Boca supporters and the air rings with their taunts. They continue their bombastic celebrations long after the players leave the field and the grounds crew begins cleaning up confetti and streamers. Game etiquette, and sound safety precautions, dictate that the away-team fans must leave first and are given a 15-minute head start before the home-team fans are released from their seats. Well, understandably, the Boca fans don’t want to leave. They are enjoying the sweet taste of victory too much. They continue to bounce in unison, shouting chants and howling in delight, as the River Plate fans sit glumly in defeat. It’s 30 minutes before the riot police wade into the Boca section and start encouraging people to move towards the exits. It takes another half-an-hour to persuade the last of the die-hard Boca fans to leave. Finally, the River Plate supporters are released and we file out of the stadium in a crestfallen and deflated shuffle.