This is a surreal Superclásico. Nothing could stop it from taking place. Recently, Plaza de Mayo was the scene of riots, repression, and death. “Pickets and pans, the struggle is the same one.” Looting. State of siege.
President De la Rúa fled office by helicopter. Argentina has witnessed a superminister (Domingo Cavallo), the IMF, the Megacanje, and the Blindaje, which would “save our future,” they said. “They piss on us, and the media says it’s raining,” reads some graffiti in San Telmo. In neighborhood assemblies, people claim: “Throw them all out!” Five presidents in a month. None of them could be in the Estadio Único de la Plata today, of course. However, it would not be unreasonable to think that not even a pandemic could stop a Boca vs. River match. This is what a Superclásico can offer. Distraction and relief. Poison and antidote.
And football, of course; the Superclásico can offer soccer as well. Gallardo’s squad already knocked out a River that had been trying to outshine them: Ramón Díaz’s 1996 River. Bianchi did the same with another of his most fabulous creations: 1994 Vélez. Then Muñeco’s River crushed O Rei Pelé’s 1962 Santos and took historical revenge on Peñarol . . . on the 1982 squad, not 1966, though.
The course of Bianchi’s team also had some feeling of revenge when they beat 1991 Colo, which did not bite this time, and after this, they invoked pragmatism against 1992 São Paulo’s magic. So this is how they got to this tremendous final match today.
The 43,000 seats in the brand-new Estadio Único de La Plata, built at the cost of 300 million dollars (three times the original budget), sold out long ago. Thousands of people show their support to River by waving white-and-red flags at the Monumental, while Boca’s fans do something similar at the Dos Chinos hotel in San Telmo.
Dozens of police motorcycles, and even helicopters, escort the clubs’ official team buses. The security deployment cannot prevent the usual shower of stones on the rival squad’s arrival. One of these projectiles breaks a window in Boca’s bus. A kit man gets injured and shows his blood on TV. Boca protests. All this is part of a ritual. One day, the least expected day, one of those stones will seriously hurt a player. It will be a disaster foretold.
The south end of the stadium belongs to the “Borrachos del Tablón,” led by Alan Schlenker and Adrián Rousseau, and the north end, “La 12,” controlled by Fernando Di Zeo. Barras bravas can be seen everywhere, even in Congress, as Julio Grondona claimed months ago when he was summoned by the Sports Commission in the Chamber of Deputies, headed by Luis Barrionuevo (president of Chacarita Juniors) and one of today’s Superclásico spectators together with Argentine president Eduardo Duhalde.
“Clubs’ directors and officers feed the barra brava,” said a congressman that day, confronting Grondona.
“How many of the members or employees of this House are part of those barras bravas?” replied the president of the Argentine Football Association.
During his everlasting mandate, the barras’ violence has always been at the forefront of the “Todo pasa”5.
“Hablemos de fútbol,” demands Quique Wolff. The Superclásico reveals the best of each style.
Aggressiveness vs. Calculation. Intensity vs. Pragmatism. From goal to goal, Oscar Córdoba and Armani: a Colombian by birth against a Colombian by adoption. The flanks experience the collision of non-stopping trains: Montiel against Arruabarrena on one side and Casco against Ibarra on the other side. From the opposite ends of the fields, Bermudez and Samuel, Maidana and Pinola observe each other defiantly. The activity in the midfield causes a stir: on one side, three soldiers—Battaglia, Traverso, Basualdo—patrol the field behind Commander Riquelme; the other side seems to use the opposite layout, with Ponzio as the defensive midfielder behind the playmaking trio of Pérez-Palacios-Fernández.
Guillermo is Bianchi’s bishop, despite the pressure from people asking for Delgado, and “Pity” is Gallardo’s bishop, despite the whistling from the crowd. The number 9 strikers know each other well; they were roommates once when they both played for Boca early in their careers. But they’ve drifted apart: Palermo in Boca is irreplaceable, and this is the reason why Pratto is now playing for River.
“The first kick must be ours” is one of the ancient rules of Superclásico; in this case, it is a sharp strike from Ponzio to Riquelme. Not even a minute has passed, and the 22 footballers are in the center circle, yelling as if the game were confined to that space. The revolt lasts for a few seconds. Then, finally, Castrilli regains his authority, and curiously, he does not need to use cards. His eyes are enough to freeze the scene. “It looks as if there were a machine refereeing, not a human being,” they say on the radio.
Neither River nor Grondona wanted the rigid and orthodox “Sheriff,”, but Paraguayan Nicolás Leoz imposed Conmebol’s decision, which was allegedly pushed forward by Angelici, “Daniel the Menace,” an increasingly powerful lobbyist of Boca.
On the other side of the touchline, Bianchi fiddles with the knot of his tie, and Gallardo drinks a coffee. Then, suddenly, they look at each other from a distance and seem to agree. “You don’t wanna play or what?” shouts the “Virrey,” goading his players. “C’mon. Deal with it!” Gallardo spurs his. Both coaches’ harangues are heard in the absolute and unusual silence on the field. And the match is resumed. And now, everybody roars.
River is intense and controls the ball better. It was expected. Boca plays practically and draws on spaces. With Riquelme injured, though still offering some of his magic, the midfield is governed by ordinary names with extraordinary skills from River. Pérez, Palacios, and Fernández join forces with Martínez and get rid of their mark. Battaglia, Traverso, and Basualdo are having problems finding them. Therefore, Pratto is receiving more balls than Palermo. Besides, Guillermo gets distracted by voices and gestures from the other side of the touchline: “That man—I don’t know his name—is insulting me,” he claims. “He is Gallardo. Shut up and keep playing, or I’ll send you off,” replies Castrilli vehemently. And this is how we get to the end of the first half: with more words than game.
A football-loving country, a blend of jungle and passion, takes a break. During the Superclásico halftime interval, the entire stadium applauds Las Leonas, the Argentina women’s national field hockey team, who have recently won the silver medal in the Sydney Olympic Games.
An achievement that helps make up for the fact that the men’s national football team didn’t even qualify for the Olympics, which is still challenging to understand. That Dream Team that an injured Riquelme could not lead lost their ticket in the Pre-Olympic Tournament held in Brazil, “the saddest day” in José Pekerman’s career.
Marcelo Bielsa will seek revenge with the senior team in the Korea-Japan World Cup. The spectators salute Las Leonas and then observe the minute of silence for René Favaloro’s and Rodrigo’s deaths. Fox Sports TV cameras insist on showing Mauricio Macri, Boca’s president, time and again. Fernando Niembro insists on flattering him and predicting a promising future in politics for him. Next to Macri, we can see his friend Fernando Marín. He is the head of Blanquiceleste, Racing’s managing organization and apparent model of a better administration, according to Marín’s own words on Mariano Grondona’s TV show.
His most significant detractor is José María Aguilar, the newly elected president of River, described as a director with a bright future who is sitting at Macri’s left. This is a strange interval: too relaxed, quite out of place. “There’s no spray. There’s no pepper spray,” they say on TV. It is the calm before the storm.
The Superclásico match resumes, and River is still better than Boca, but Gallardo notices they need more to get to the goal, so he sends “Juanfer” Quintero to the field in Ponzio’s place.
Some minutes later, a precise shot from the Colombian finds Pratto running behind the implacable Bermúdez and Samuel. Everything goes so fast and unexpectedly that the next scene shows “Oso” crossing his arms and looking at the stands.
Bianchi does not want to see it; he refuses to see it. But, he does focus his eyes on Palermo. The “Titan,” as well as Riquelme, has felt the impact. Roman makes the conventional gesture for “change,” spinning those hands with which he usually recognizes the love from his fans. Is he leaving the field? Palermo? No, Guillermo is off, and Delgado, Riquelme’s favorite, is in.
And when River is already celebrating the Superclásico victory—a well-deserved win, we could say—Boca’s partnership comes into action: a pass from Román results in a goal from “Chelo.” And, the end. The 90 minutes are over, 1 to 1. The overtime will only prolong the definition: Armani and Córdoba spent 30 minutes watching from a distance, with almost no need to intervene, and that time was enough to think of the shoot-out. This is what Gallardo and Bianchi are doing now, and they have some surprises in mind.
FIFA’s new regulations—Blatter, who is fond of emotional drama, is still reluctant to use technology—allow on the penalty shooters’ list players who may not have been part of the game but who have played at some other point in this Cup. This is why the fourth kicker for River is Enzo Francescoli, who swiftly goes down from the VIP box to put his boots on.
“U-ru-gua-yo,” the stadium yells. When Bianchi notices Gallardo’s move, he makes his bet: “If he sends Francescoli, I’ll send Palermo.” This decision would not be risky if the number 9 striker did not end the match so severely injured that he is waiting for the shoot-out on crutches. Nobody can believe their eyes. The TV cameras show “Tolo” Gallego laughing out loud.
The tension becomes unbearable. The Superclásico replaces history with hysteria. The stadium’s roof—almost more expensive than the rest of the building—seems to catch fire from all the energy. The shoot-out finally starts.
Juanfer and Riquelme make elegant shots, gently letting the ball go. Maidana and Bermudez kick with rage, their predominant emotion. It is Pity’s turn. “Here it goes, the third one,” announces Mariano Closs . . . but it goes to Córdoba’s hands. “Chelo” gives Boca a one-goal advantage. Enzo Pérez has a huge responsibility, but he gets it over. Here it goes, Arruabarrena . . . let’s see. Goal!
Again the burden is on River’s back; on Francescoli’s back, who walks with a weary step, as if he were in the Bombonera, some years ago, and not in La Plata. Then, finally, he delivers a great goal. Now Bianchi honors his promise, and Palermo goes with his crutches to the penalty spot.
Everybody is holding their breath . . . for long, because it takes him a while to get there. Then, finally, he takes some steps backward—as many as he can take—and gets ready. His shot seems to be going to Armani’s right post at first, but the ball takes a deflection off one of the crutches supporting him, deviates its course toward the left post, and goes into the goal, leaving the goalkeeper puzzled.
Palermo throws the crutches into the air and runs like Lazarus. All his teammates follow him in some wild procession. A similar spectacle, just as absurd as the other, runs to the other corner of the field, where Castrilli, the “Sheriff,” is standing undisturbed.
Gallardo shouts in his face that it was illegal, that he must do something. Castrilli does not move a muscle. “He won’t answer, Marcelo,” says Biscay, trying to control the coach. Everything becomes chaotic. Those who celebrate are mingled with those who protest. Then the field is invaded by the clubs’ directors. Aguilar is the first one, encouraged by Vice President D’onofrio, who wears a gray suit and tie, and gets rid of Arruabarrena. “I want to talk to the owner of the circus, not the monkeys,” says D’onofrio.
In a moment, the stands are empty, and the field is packed with people. There is no fighting, but yelling, a lot of yelling, which drowns only when the stadium’s speakers deliver a message in a neutral tone of voice, like that one used for advertisements. “Footballers, directors, fans, we must report that the South American Football Council has determined that the Superclásico shall be played again within the following 15 days somewhere in the world.”
This is a collaboration with La Copa Imposible. Main Image: Eurosport