The meeting between Argentina’s River Plate and Boca Juniors creates the fiercest rivalry in world football. Based on emotion, passion and intensity, they are two of the biggest clubs in the world, and the pride of Argentinean domestic football. It is clear that the two sets of supporters divide Buenos Aires, and take every opportunity to mock each other to the best of their abilities. That opportunity came to the Boca fans in 2011, as they so joyously celebrated River Plate’s greatest embarrassment: relegation.
In 1983, the Argentina Football Association came up with a rather impartial rule to protect the two biggest clubs on the continent. The “promedio” system was designed that year to protect the two clubs from relegation. Easily explained, the system takes the points accumulated by each club in over its last three seasons, and the club with the lowest average number of points would be relegated.
Undergoing financial troubles and being millions of dollars in debt, River Plate’s off pitch problems haunted them for several years. Between 2008 and 2011, the club finished towards the bottom of the league including the complete basement in 2009. This position was clearly unfamiliar to them and their supporters and in 2011, they faced relegation for their first time in their history. This was where the “promedio” system came into good use for them, as it ensured they finished 17th on average points and would face a two-legged relegation playoff against Belgrano of Córdoba.
However, they failed to take advantage of the system and fell to Belgrano 3-1 on aggregate, losing the first leg 2-0 away from home, and drawing 1-1 at El Monumental. There are a few things Argentineans are really passionate about, and football is very high on that list. The final whistle saw violent scenes as the emotions at the stadium ran high. Chairs, bottles and many other objects were pelted onto the pitch as the River Plate fans reacted with immense ferocity. It was something the club had never been through before and more ironically, they failed to the system that was planned to protect them from this grand humiliation.
The relegation meant a great deal to both sides in Buenos Aires. Atilio Costa Febre, a passionate River Plate supporter for one of the capital city’s top radio stations, Radio Mitre, spent a good part of the final 30 minutes of the game blaming the club’s hierarchy for this mortification. With a lot of other inappropriate words, he called the club’s board of directors rats and thieves and demanded answers for where all the money they earned from player sales actually went. And while the red and white half were in tears, the Boca Juniors fans were in jubilation. This was as big as a trophy, even though they did not have a decent season themselves and they even created a song with a pretty fine tune inspired by the 1969 hit Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival:
RIBER, DECIME QUE SE SIENTE
HABER JUGADO EL NACIONAL
TE JURO QUE AUNQUE PASEN LOS AÑOS
NUNCA NOS VAMOS A OLVIDAR
QUE TE FUISTE A LA B
QUEMASTE EL MONUMENTAL
ESA MANCHA NO SE BORRA NUNCA MAS
CHE GALLINA SOS CAGÓN, LE PEGASTE A UN JUGADOR
QUE COBARDES LOS BORRACHOS DEL TABLÓN
Translated into English as:
RIVER, TELL ME HOW IT FEELS
TO HAVE PLAYED IN THE NACIONAL
I SWEAR THAT EVEN AS THE YEARS PASS
WE’RE NEVER GOING TO FORGET IT
YOU WERE IN THE B
YOU BURNED THE MONUMENTAL
THE STAINS WILL NEVER BE LIFTED
WHAT FILTHY CHICKENS YOU ARE
YOU HIT A PLAYER
YOU’RE ALL DRUNKEN COWARDS
And sung here in full voice just before a clash between Boca Juniors and River Plate at La Bombonera:
The jovial nature of the rivalry was at its highest in the city, and sadly some of it even ended with ugly sights. River Plate would only spend a year in the second division and it was very much unlike the other side. Their rivals there were determined to get one over one of the sport’s most historical sides and pitches were mediocre at best. Gone were the days of away nights at the Bombonera, and in came days on a muddy Estadio El Serpentario. It was a tough patch, but only lasted a year, as River, with the likes of Fernando Cavenaghi, David Trezeguet and Alejandro Domínguez, returned to the top division as champions.
Upon River Plate’s return to the Primera Division, they started a race with their eternal rivals to see who would regain the throne of Argentinean football once again. The relegation added a different edge to the rivalry between the two, and their promotion was the commencement of a new era of the Superclásico. That race was eventually won by Los Millonarios, who, under the guidance of club legend Ramón Díaz for the third time in their history, would win the Torneo Final and Superfinal – the former being their 36th national title. The Superfinal success over San Lorenzo would prove to be Ramón Díaz’s last game with the club, as he resigned soon after the game. His replacement, Marcello Gallardo, would be a tactical genius and bring further silverware to the stacked trophy rooms of the Monumental.
After a poor start to his stint, River Plate would go on to win their first CONMEBOL title in 17 years, the Copa Sudamericana – beating Colombia’s Atlético Nacional 3-1 on aggregate in the final (1-1 draw away and 2-0 win at home). That was later met with a 2-0 success in the 2015 Recopa Sudamericana, a clash between the winners of the Copa Libertadores, in this case, River’s Argentinean rivals San Lorenzo, and themselves, the Copa Sudamericana holders. This would be their first success in the competition.
River Plate finally entered the 2015 Copa Libertadores, but their group stage form was very inconsistent and they left their qualification hopes pinned to the match day. They eventually overcame Bolivia’s San José and had the luck of the other group result going their way, thus, finishing second in their group. And as fate would have it, Boca Juniors finished as leaders in their group, and the two were pitted against each other in the Round of 16 of the competition.
The clash between the two in the Libertadores is much more different as compared to any standard domestic clash as it had more pressure and meaning behind it. Continental supremacy was on the line here as the two sides were scheduled to meet in the competition for only the 23rd and 24th times. River Plate won the first leg at home thanks to a late penalty, and left for the Bombonera with the advantage. But things turned ugly in the second leg when several River players were pepper sprayed at half-time by Boca fans and in clear distress, were rushed to the hospital for treatment. The players were left stranded on the pitch until officials finally decided to suspend the game with the scores remaining 1-0 on aggregate.
The Boca fans did make the most of the opportunity, however, flying a drone that carried a sign that read “B” to remind their counterparts about their time spent in the second division. River did eventually get the last laugh, though, as the CONMEBOL ruled that the game would end 0-0 and that River Plate would qualify for the last eight. They would eventually go on to win the competition, defeating Tigres of Mexico 3-0 on aggregate in the final to win their third Libertadores.
In the following Superclásico, the River Plate fans designed a tifo relating to the Japanese flag in retaliation to the drone incident from several months ago. This was to represent the fact that they were headed to the Far East to represent South America in the FIFA Club World Cup, where they would eventually lose in the Final to European Champions Barcelona.
The relegation was probably the best thing that could have happened to River Plate at the time. Inconsistent on the pitch and off it, they reformed from the 2011-12 season onwards and became the best club in South America – a situation that many think could not have been possible had they taken advantage of the promedio system. They’ve also got one of the brightest managers in South American football, Marcello Gallardo, whose success has made him one of the frontrunners for the Argentinean National Team head coach role. And, to the joy of the neutrals, it added an extra spark to the Superclásico.