Boca vs. River: the culture of soccer in Argentina

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.

But being a passionate soccer fan in Argentina can be complicated. Inside the bowels of La Bombonera, I met Alejandro Moniatowitz, one of the stadium announcers. He’s the voice of the stadium, but he’s not a fan of Boca. “Shhh,” he tells me quietly feigning mortal danger. “I’m a River fan!”

In fact there are lots of River fans who work at La Bombonera, even some Boca players are rumored to be River fans. Work is work, but "futbol" is a lifelong allegiance.

Clearly I had to go check out the other team for myself. River’s stadium, El Monumental, is far from the Boca neighborhood now. It’s across town in the upscale neighborhood of Nunez. Argentina’s national team trains and plays all its games here.

But people at River’s stadium weren’t too interested in talking about soccer. “As you can see this is a social club, it’s not just a football club,” my guide Dario Santilli tells me. It's true. At River, most fans are also club members, with access to all the facilities. It’s nine in the evening and the inner circle of the stadium is packed with people waving and giving each other kisses, but there’s no game on.

Behind every door at El Monumental, there was something different: volleyball, basketball, tae kwon do, and tango. There’s bowling, water polo, ping-pong and roller-skating. Not to mention the movie theater, the hair salon, the bank and the schools — both a high school and a university.

Santilli tells me that club soccer at River is important, but the community matters more. They want their players to do well but they have no problem selling them to European teams. “That’s how we keep all this running. People can come here and do all this for free.”

Club official German Negro says that's the big difference between River and Boca. “Boca is a good soccer team, but that's all. We have a soccer team and more. We have an institution.” An institution that they’re eager to cultivate. After my tour they scuttled me over to membership services, but I wasn’t ready to commit yet.

I just didn’t feel right about making a decision about whom to root for without going to an actual game.

So I went to see the two teams play the Superclassico. It’s the game in Argentina. Unfortunately, it got rained out. But the Boca fans stayed for another three hours chanting.

These fans are called, La Doce, or the “12th players.” They’re so loud and so passionate that they actually consider themselves to be an extra player in the game itself.

“You’re only here once in this life,” said Oscar Laudonio, the mascot of La Doce, “and you have to live it.” And that's what it boils down to when it comes to picking a soccer team in Argentina.

You have to choose your passion and live it: Live for the moment Boca? Or live for the legacy River?

The author Sacheri is still waiting for my verdict. But I simply can’t imagine life without a healthy mix of both. I ask him if there’s a way to be independent.

At this, the soccer philosopher grins. He's been plotting all along. He wants me to root for his team — Independiente. “The name is beautiful and you think about freedom,” he tells me making his pitch.

I admit, it’s worth thinking about. Boca Juniors and River Plate both played terrible last season.