Madness and magic from Maradona’s motherland
Boca Juniors versus River Plate. The Superclasico. Perhaps the most fiercely fought derby game in the entire world. Yesterday these two teams clashed in the five-team 'Summer tournament' in the seaside resort of Mar del Plata, a gaudy city where many citizens of Argentina's capital debunk for the summer.
It was little more than a friendly, but in the world of derby games there is no such thing. In recent years this regular summer meeting between Boca and River – and the clubs' barra bravas (hooligan groups), Boca's 'El 12' and River's 'Borrachos del Tablon' (Drunks of the Terrace) – have been violent affairs culminating in the death of one fan.
But yesterday's game, which kicked off at an utterly unreasonable 10.15pm, passed off with little incident and was all about the battle on the pitch. Both teams have undergone major changes in the off-season and, being the first Superclásico of the year, this was a test and chance to prove themselves.
For a start, there are two new managers. Diego Simeone, who worked wonders during his brief tenure at Estudiantes de la Plata, was drafted in by a desperate River Plate after an appalling season. And having instructed his players, including the energetic Ariel 'El Burrito' (Little Donkey) Ortega, to 'fight with a knife between their teeth', Simeone's team were favourites.
Boca (www.bocajuniors.com.ar), also coming out of a mediocre domestic season, (though they did win the Copa Libertadores, the most sought after title in Latin America), promoted Carlos Ischia or El Pelado (the bald one) to manager, much to Maradona's dismay.
Yet on paper Boca have a winning team. Captain Martin Palermo – aka 'El Loco' (the Crazy One). Everyone has a nickname in Argentina – is now the second highest goalscorer in the club's history. Rodrigo 'La Joya' (the Jewel) Palacio, with his much-copied rat's tail, has had a couple of great seasons. But it is the arrival of one Juan Román Riquelme on a permanent basis that has given Boca a solid standing. The 29-year-old is the best player in Argentina right now (if in doubt watch this), and his experience and leadership has steadied Boca's pitching ship.
It was his calm in the midst of the storm that led Boca to a wonderful victory. River certainly came out with the 'knife between their teeth', especially Ortega who went into every tackle hard and ran after every ball, inspiring his team-mates. But the frenzied attacking, contrasted with Boca's composed, almost relaxed, approach.
Boca struck first through man-of-the-match Sebastián Battaglia's thumping shot (watch it here), taking advantage of poor defending and exposing Simeone's much-questioned 3-3-3-1 formation. And by the second half (when the Borrachos del Tablon finally turned up for a scrap between themselves again), Boca were in charge, the shouts of 'Ole' echoing after every successful pass.
Martin Palermo sealed River's fate with a scrappy goal after a stunning Riquelme free-kick by heading the ball in while hanging off the crossbar – leading this morning's papers to change his nickname briefly to 'El Mono' or the Monkey. Watch it here, and keep an eye out for a well-aimed bottle from River fans.
But with only the infighting that characterises the River supporters (it's a long story that I'll go into soon), the year's first Superclásico passed off without any major incident and a great game of football.
And just in case you thought Boca versus River was all about the game, here's a clip of the gratuitous semi-naked shenanigans that makes TV great in this country.
Tonight is Argentina's second most important, and probably most intense, derby, Independiente versus Racing.
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