Taken from the Winter 2016 issue of the Box To Box magazine – Issue 3: The Rivalries with illustration thanks to Jed Woodcock
Contemplating the domestic frailties of Argentinian football, author Jonathan Wilson portrayed the harsh reality of what little remains in his book, Angels with Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina. At one point he wrote, “Proud old stadiums crumble… [while] the threat of violence is always present”.
Despite the global economics of football determining that the best players do not play in Argentina anymore, a sense of possibility permeates the country’s Primera División. Due to multiple winners of late, the pervading sense is that, “if a side hangs around for long enough”, then they will surely win a title. Unfortunately, in many ways, this variability has arguably only served to diminish the value of any eventual success.
Not one of the fourteen Argentinian players who featured in the 2014 World Cup final against Germany played their club football in Argentina at the time, while only three featured in the 1990 World Cup final that Argentina reached. These instances go some way to establishing the long-standing nature of the dichotomy in talent, a separation between domestic and international football in this South American country. Although political variables differentiate the Argentina of 1990/2014 from that of the World Cup winning sides in 1978 and 1986, the fact remains that eighteen of the twenty-five participants in both finals were playing their club football in Argentina as they became world champions. It is, “The ghosts of former glories haunting the far inferior product that remains”.
And yet, how often will our perception of such players be flavoured by their prior involvement, or lack thereof, in Argentina’s Superclásico – the match between Boca Juniors and River Plate.
In spite of the inability to attract the broader interest of fans beyond those hopelessly immersed already, the allure surrounding Boca Juniors and River Plate continues. It transcends the limitations of the domestic game precisely because of the inconsequentiality that such an open league championship enables. Lamenting the latest in a long line of efforts to restructure and revive the fortunes of domestic football by Argentina’s Football Association, Wilson considers the latest incarnation to be the most ludicrous to date.
Playing upon many natural rivalries that occur within Argentina’s domestic calendar, a commodifying effort at ensuring such fixtures take place with greater regularity highlights the intense importance afforded to such games; at the expense, it would appear, of the league as a whole.
Undoubtedly, from a global perspective, the Superclásico retains primary significance amidst these many ties. Within the inescapably debilitating context of Argentinian football, however, Wilson demonstrates how even this most highly anticipated game is not immune to a decline. The pageantry and spectacle commonly associated with Boca and River can even rival the football itself, but there is a darker side to proceedings. An unavoidable proclivity for astonishing violence – paired with the general lowering of standards in terms of the football itself – makes one question what worth may truly be extracted. Recalling one such occasion of violence:
While attending a game, Jonathan Wilson noted, “At a Superclásico at el Monumental, I saw Boca fans set on stewards, dragging them to the top of the steps and then hurling them down, before laying into them with fists and boots as they sprawled at the bottom, the horror apparently provoked by one steward clenching his fist as River scored”.
These scenes are reminiscent of some darker moments in Italian fandom, and the ties that bind these two footballing cultures together are not unique, nor are they entirely surprising given the established movement of Italian migrants to Argentina from the middle of the 19th century onward.
Within the remit of the Superclásico itself, the number of players who have featured in this tie prior to embarking on a successful career in Italian football is remarkable. In the wake of Italia ‘90 and the notable downturn in Argentinian football’s domestic situation that followed, Hernán Crespo, Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel, Carlos Tevez, Juan Verón, Gonzalo Higuaín, Nicolás Burdisso and many other Argentines have taken to the Serie A with aplomb. Six of the seven aforementioned players have claimed twenty-two Scudetti medals between them, and the exception of Higuaín shall almost certainly rectify his omission in lieu of joining Juventus this season. Yet, turn your attention to one notable absence on this list and consider a player who has won (amongst other things) league titles – despite the convoluted Argentine format – with Roma, River Plate and Boca Juniors; Gabriel Batistuta.
Although all of the above will possess recollections of the Superclásico from one vantage or the other, Batistuta possesses a rare joint-perspective. Demonstrating a portion of his potential under Daniel Passarella at River Plate in the late 1980s, Batistuta’s sudden fall from favour prompted a move to the ‘other’ team in Buenos Aires; Boca Juniors. After becoming the league’s top goalscorer as Boca proceeded to win the clausura in 1991, Batistuta then scored six goals scored for Argentina in that summer’s Copa América, bringing him to the attention of Serie A’s Fiorentina. Playing over four hundred games for the Viola, Roma and Internazionale combined across a thirteen-season stint in Italian football, in 2013 Batistuta became the first Argentine inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame; one year prior to Diego Maradona’s induction.
But what of Batistuta and the Superclásico however? In truth, as with many of his fellow compatriots who would represent Argentinian clubs prior to a move abroad, Batistuta’s tally of games with River and Boca fell short of even the sixty game mark (nineteen and thirty-nine respectively.) Yet, during the group stages of the 1991 Copa Libertadores, Boca Juniors and River Plate found themselves placed alongside one another. By the fourth round of matches in March 1991, River had only managed to claim one point from their opening three games and sat bottom of the group as a result. Boca were marginally better off – an opening day 4-3 victory against River serving as some comfort for the two losses suffered against Bolívar and Oriente Petrolero. With two points on offer for a win and one for a draw, River hosted Boca on March 20th, aware that defeat would leave them three points adrift of their city rivals with very little hope of progression.
From their second-placed finish to Newell’s Old Boys in the 1990 apertura, 1991 was to start poorly for River. Enter Gabriel Batistuta. Upon securing his position in Boca’s attack after some initial reservations by the incoming manager Oscar Tabárez, Batistuta would develop an overwhelmingly more popular relationship with Boca Juniors than had ever existed for him at River. With Boca in need of a win against River in order to legitimise their hopes of qualifying for the last-16 in the 1991 Libertadores, el Monumental provided the backdrop to Batistuta’s lasting impression upon this particular Superclásico. Two goals, one in each half, were enough for Batistuta and Boca. While River would proceed to win their two final remaining games (with Boca drawing both of theirs 0-0), defeat to Boca and Batistuta ultimately diminished River’s attempts to qualify for the knockout stages.
Facing Corinthians, Flamengo and Colo-Colo respectively as the tournament progressed, Boca would go on to lose a tempestuous semi-final against Colo-Colo, the eventual Libertadores winners that year. The scenes at full-time in Santiago’s Estadio Monumental were pure madness, with manager and players losing their heads in the face of defeat.
Perhaps the kind of occasion that would explain Batistuta’s willingness to depart Argentina later that same year, although Wilson’s contrasting impression of Batistuta suggests that he felt, “elevated by the experience”. For a player of his considerable talents, departing Argentina would have been a necessity sooner or later.
After his fairly indifferent experience with River, one suspects that in helping Boca become, “a team that won things once again”, Batistuta garnered a domestic experience that most of his contemporaries may never be afforded – with those who do, usually managing it upon their return as conquering heroes from Europe, in their mid to late-thirties.
It is worth speculating also whether or not the team ethic which manifested itself at Boca touched Batistuta in such a way as to influence his future conduct. Despite overtaking Maradona’s international goalscoring record for Argentina in 1998, Batistuta would spend nine seasons at Fiorentina, suffering an early relegation and redeeming promotion before claiming a solitary Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italia in the process. Commanding a £23 million fee in spite of already entering his thirties, Batistuta’s move to Roma in 2000 enabled him and Roma to claim a long-awaited Scudetto.
A player of incredible goalscoring talents, Batistuta is not realistically viewed as a legend of either River or Boca. But, in sampling the incendiary approach both clubs incorporate, no more so than when facing one another, Batistuta carried something of the Superclásico with him throughout his proceeding career; a rare perspective of the grass on both sides. For him, it always seemed very green.