‘El superclásico’ | Sound and fury masks struggle of greater significance

Clarí­n lays out the proper routes of approach for Boca and River supporters. “[T]he roads are closed off so rival fans can’t confront each other before and after the match,” writes Gregory Sica.

Buenos Aires | After the third player was red-carded Sunday, Fox Soccer Channel commentator Thomas Rongen said simply, “It’s the superclásico.” Down to nine players, Boca Juniors scored on a late penalty and escaped with a 1–1 result against River Plate. Newell’s Old Boys slipped past them both, at least temporarily, to lead the Clausura standings through 11 match days.

More interesting even than the game passions and the crushes of shirtless supporters in La Bombonera, some boosting themselves precariously on stanchion bases, the political context lent the end-of-summer derby a compelling backdrop. English-language commentators did not appear to appreciate the significance of River Plate’s XI holding a white banner, reading “Nunca Más,” at the introductions, nor did they mention the reason for the pre-game moment of silence, interrupted by chanting Boca fans at Estadio Dr Camilo Cichero, the official name of the historic Boca club’s home ground.

The clubs in fact found themselves smaller players in the national drama that has seen President Néstor Kirchner declare 24 March—the day in 1976 of a coup that led to seven gruesome years of military rule—a national holiday and speak out on behalf of those tortured and murdered at the military’s hands and on behalf of their surviving relatives. “Nunca más” (Never again) has become the rallying cry of this mission as well as having served as the title of the 1984 report of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, summarizing more than 50,000 pages of testimony detailing abduction, disappearance, torture and executions.

Members of Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, in 2008, acknowledge the 25th anniversary of the election of Raúl Alfonsín. (EFE)

The silence before Boca and River reprised their own hostilities Sunday intended to recognize the up to 30,000 who died. Two days beforehand, on the 30th anniversary of the coup, tens of thousands had packed the streets of Buenos Aires as well as Plaza de Mayo, the square outside Government House where courageous women had demonstrated weekly—gaining notoriety during the 1978 World Cup finals—for answers to the fates of los desaparecidos.

The debates over amnesty for the human-rights violators as well as the place of media, church and ordinary citizens in the evils of the “dirty war” reflect a divided society. Some feel the events have not been sufficiently exposed, while others say that the volatility at the time of the coup, as rule by the charismatic Perons ended, goes underappreciated. Retired bank employee Fabio Tejeria, 77, tells the Chicago Tribune:

The people absorb without analysis any rumor rolled their way, stimulated by the media that forget the facts that are registered in their own archives in order to stoke fantastic tales. Average people think more about their daily problems, especially in this time of joblessness and insecurity. They don’t worry too much about politics.

Or they worry about the fútbol, as reflected in the undying animus among the Boca and River faithful. The teams often have been caricatured as showing two faces of the cosmopolitan capital, Boca the side of working classes, the xeneixe, descendants of Genoese immigrants who flooded the city as part of a population scheme of the late 1800s designed to attract Europeans. River Plate, although originally from the La Boca barrio as well, settled in Nuñez to the north.

The River supporters themselves adopt an air of superior refinement and take pride in the side’s aesthetic approach to their soccer. Gregory Sica, leaving La Bombonera with River supporters on Sunday, heard one respond to taunting Boca fans, “You will always be poor, you will always live in a slum, you don’t even know what it’s like to eat at McDonald’s.” Yet a young father with son replies, “I’m also poor and I’m from River; you don’t have to be rich to be a River fan, it comes from the heart.”

“There is a saying that we Argentines go ‘from ecstasy to agony in an instant,’ ” says Jorge Pizarro, publicity director for Argentine world-pop band Bersuit Vergarabat. The saying seems reflected in the moods reported by Sica. Exultant River fans, who feel the team in ascendancy when the Boca numbers fall to nine, later joke morbidly to an elderly woman waving a Boca jersey from a balcony: “The best thing you can do is to jump off the balcony, old bag!”

Continues Los Angeles Times writer Reed Johnson, in his profile of Bersuit:

One day, Argentines are feeling flush with national pride, boasting about their great soccer teams, world-class writers, beautiful women and “European” architecture. The next day, they’re practically suicidal, watching the peso crash through the floor (as it did in fall 2001) and rushing off to their psychoanalysts to vent their neuroses.

In shadow, meanwhile, we read of the indigenous contingents of Mocovi, Toba, Abipone and Guarani excluded from the footballing distractions of Boca versus River. “Not one of these pariahs is the owner of the soil where he lays his head,” writes novelist Alcides Greca in Wind from the North.

Every day a new owner arrives who pushes him farther and farther away. … Upon the last Indians a wind of death blows. Even their dogs seem unhappy.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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