For many Argentines, particularly in the city of Buenos Aires, it is undeniable that fútbol is an integral part of daily life. It is always easy to tell when a game is taking place from either the overzealous shouts of victory or heartbroken cries of defeat emanating from open doors or windows in the streets. After spending more than four months in this city, however, I have come to realize that for many Porteños, soccer is far more than just a source of popular entertainment; it is also a compelling impetus, and indicator, of social identity.
While I personally find fútbol (the sport as it is understood in yanqui terms) to be a bit too slow for my liking, I have always had an appreciation for the high-intensity—and high stakes—of soccer. For this reason, I was excited to find out that one of the actividades culturales offered through my program was a trip to the River Plate stadium to watch a match between the Argentine and Ecuadorian national soccer teams. From our spot in the stands, the entire crowd, except for a very small section reserved for Ecuador fans, was a sea of blue and white passionately shouting “Vamos, vamos Argentina.” This overwhelming sense of national pride and unity demonstrated by these fútbol supporters, however, is only a temporary pause in what is commonly considered one of the world’s craziest sports rivalries between two of Buenos Aires’ first division soccer teams: River Plate and Boca Juniors.
Although these teams are based in the nation’s capital city, more than half of the country’s fútbol fans support one of the two—which is impressive considering there around 450 registered clubs in the Argentine Football Association. Interestingly, both of the clubs have their origins in La Boca, the working class neighborhood that is located at the mouth, or boca, of the Riacheulo river within Buenos Aires. River Plate was founded in 1900, and Boca Juniors was established shortly after in 1905. While Boca kept its base in this dockland area in the poorer part of the city, River moved to the more affluent district of Núñez in the northwest of the city in 1925.
For the past century, these two teams have maintained an intense rivalry that is further reinforced by class and monetary divisions. Because of its location in the working class neighborhood, the Boca Juniors have been known as the “people’s club.” Boca fans are called Xeneizes, or Genoese, as many come from Italian immigrant communities. River Plate, on the contrary, became known as Los Millonarios, or the millionaires, because of their allegedly upper-class support base. Both teams certainly have dedicated fans from all socioeconomic backgrounds; however, their stadiums definitely reflect the north-south economic disparity that characterizes the city.
After visiting the neighborhoods of both clubs’ respective stadiums, the historical—and visible—differences between the areas were equally as striking. River Plate’s Monumental, where I watched the Argentine national game, is located in a tranquil, tree-lined residential area that marks the beginning of the northern suburbs of the Buenos Aires Province. Although the neighborhood housed a once-secret jail during the military dictatorship, it has now been converted into the Institute for Memory and Human Rights, and its multiple parks and green spaces are often inhabited by the affluent families of European descent that live in the area. Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera, on the other hand, is located in the heart of La Boca, which was originally a bustling port filled with shipyards but is one of Buenos Aires’ most run-down and impoverished neighborhoods. And while it has remained a popular tourist spot for its vibrantly colored houses and famous pedestrian street, the Caminito, the numerous Bolivian, Paraguayan, Arab, and African immigrants that live in La Boca often face the challenge of sparse economic and educational resources.
As someone who was unfamiliar with the fútbol culture in South America before going abroad, witnessing the impact of both the sport and team rivalry firsthand was a very eye-opening experience. From my perspective, the tension between the two teams, which has occasionally resorted in violent riots and attacks on rival players, contains elements that transcend merely a superficial club competition. And although it was certainly exhilarating to take part of the fútbol experience, it was also a compelling insight into the sport’s complex historical context in Buenos Aires as a microcosm of the larger issues of economic and class division.