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Boca vs. River: the culture of soccer in Argentina

Imagine the Red Sox and the Yankees in the same city.

Argentina soccer, Boca, River
Boca Juniors' defender Ezequiel Munoz, left, vies for the ball with Juan Diaz, of River Plate, during a match at La Bombonera stadium, March 25, 2010. (Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In the Oscar-award winning movie "Secreto de Sus Ojos," there's a quote that pretty much sums up what it means to be a soccer fan in Argentina.

“A man can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there's one thing he can't change. He can't change his passion."

And the passion in Argentina is club soccer. Here you’ll find some of the world’s most fervent soccer fans and spectacular club rivalries. A soccer team here isn’t just about sport, it’s a social identity. And I, as a newly arrived American in Buenos Aires, haven’t picked a team yet.

"It is your most important decision in this country,” Eduardo Sacheri, author of the book "Secreto de Sus Ojos," tells me, concerned. But how to decide?

Of the 400 registered teams in Argentina, I narrow it down to two of the biggest club teams in Buenos Aires — Boca Juniors and River Plate. They’re world-famous arch rivals. Imagine the Red Sox and the Yankees in the same city. They even come from the same working-class neighborhood, La Boca, along the shores of the Rio de la Plata. Hence the names Boca and River.

Boca fans are called the"Genoese," named after the immigrant working class that first settled in La Boca. Boca is considered “the team of the people. ”River fans call themselves the "Millonarios," or millionaires. They’re more associated with the well-to-do of Buenos Aires.

My first stop on the road to indoctrination is La Bombonera, in the heart of the Boca neighborhood. Boca Junior's famous blue-and-gold stadium is a popular tourist attraction.

At the top of the bleachers, Alejandro Lobo Fuentes stands guard over two gigantic silver trophies as fans take pictures."Boca has won the Copa Libertadores [the South American championship] six times,” he tells me proudly, "River's only won twice.” Boca has won more international titles than any other Argentine club team. Being a winner is nice, but I'm not convinced.

In Argentina, being a fan isn’t about choosing the winning team anyway. It’s more about where you come from. When I ask Fuentes how long he’s been a Boca fan, he tells me he was a Boca fan inside his mother’s womb. Most Argentines inherent their teams from their families. So my team decision apparently affects not only my identity but my entire lineage too.

Sensing my hesitation, Fuentes next appeals to my sense of status. He points to the biggest box seat in the stadium. That’s where Diego Maradonna sits.

Dubbed one of the soccer players of the century, Diego Maradona is Boca's most celebrated player. His performance during the 1986 World Cup earned him near deity status in Argentina and FIFA named him Player of the Century, alongside Pele.

Larger than life, Maradona is emblematic of what Boca values — glory on the international stage above all else, even reason.

“People forget everything when they watch a Boca match,” said club staffer Alejandro Barzon. In 2001, Boca played Tokyo in the club championship. It was right after Argentina’s economic collapse and everyone’s finances were in ruin. “In spite of that, so many people traveled to Japan to attend that match.”

Boca fans even have their ashes spread on the field at La Bombonera, said Boca tour guide Daniela Garcia. The situation got so bad that the grass started dying and they had to create a special cemetery for Boca fans just outside of Buenos Aires.