Madness and magic from Maradona’s motherland
River’s 4,000 tickets sold out in 120 seconds. Tourists are charged £260 for a seat up in the stand – 50 times more than for ‘normal’ games.
One coach is rubbing his hands at the prospect of winning and leaving the other side bottom of the table. The other says (or, depending on who you believe, has been told) that he’ll be leaving after the game - lose, draw or win. Recent form suggests the first option is the most probable.
One striker declares he’s not afraid of the intimidating atmosphere. Another is going for club goalscoring record against the fiercest of rivals. One legendary playmaker is fighting with his club and his demons. Another legendary playmaker is fighting with his teammates, the press, the coach, the club and anyone who happens to pop in to say hola.
Photographers clamber up ladders and trees to get a look in at the closed-door training session, TV debates rage on, fans shake their heads, rumours run wild over possible starting XIs... Sí señor, the superclásico is here.
Boca against River is seen as the mother of all club football clashes, both in Argentina and around the world (or at least so say the marketing departments). This very magazine dubbed it the most dangerous derby in the world. It is considered as one of the most colourful fixtures in world club football with the thumping atmosphere at the Bombonera, the flags, the drums, the singing. History, tension, character... it has it all.
But while all of this is true, right now the superclásico is far from being a festival of football.
Boca may have swept up all the trophies on offer in the Noughties, and River may boast the most league titles in Argentine club football history, but right now the Big Two are mired deep in murky waters of the bottom half of the table. Neither qualified for the Copa Libertadores. (Imagine a bottom-half Liverpool and Manchester United missing out on the Champions League.)
To illustrate how low expectations have dropped, River coach Leo Astrada admitted he was aiming for a ‘top five’ finish this season. With River in 11th place halfway through the Clausura, it sounds ambitious.
RIVER: RUNNING DRY? River Plate are undergoing a major facelift with new president Daniel Passarella, who won the club elections in December. On a sporting level, the team is no longer feared in Argentina, let alone the continent – a situation largely down to the previous president’s, how shall we say, mismanagement of the club.
Even the success of the most recent title, the 2008 Clausura, was somewhat soured by finishing bottom the following season.
With debt piling up and bills to pay, River announced they may sell the name of the legendary Monumental, where Argentina lifted the 1978 World Cup, to raise £26m in sponsorship. Heresy, say the fans; necessity, say the board.
With finances as they are, there's no chance of bolstering the squad with the quality so evidently lacking in the current group of players. Not even the traditional fundraiser – selling players to Europe – is the solution. Not only is there is less movement of players to the Old World, but also the club owns 100% of the transfer rights to a bare handful of players; most have been part-sold to agents, investment groups, or Villarreal.
In pre-season, River's key player Diego Buonanotte suffered a horrendous car crash from which the psychological scars are more worrying than the physical ones. Fan favourite Ariel Ortega isn't in consideration for the team until he listens to Passarella and Astrada and goes into treatment for his alcohol addiction.
In their absence, River rely on the vision of Marcelo Gallardo and the leadership of Matías Almeyda. Both, by their own admission, are in the final stretch of their careers.
BOCA: B*GGERED?If River are adrift, Boca are immersed in an almighty crisis, and 17th out of 20 in the table. Sticking to the results, the team has the worst record in the club’s professional history, with one win in nine.
Off the record, board members say "There’s no Plan B," which is inaccurate. After losing a pre-season friendly with River, coach Alfio Basile quit and reserve team coach Abel Alves took over. Plan B is now. What’s missing is a Plan C.
The players are split into two factions, with the respective pack leaders Juan Roman Riquelme and Martin Palermo making Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole look like bosom buddies. There are also divisions in the boardroom, where president Amor Ameal’s decision to bring Carlos Bianchi to the club split opinion and broke the bank. Bianchi left with Basile in January, but the power struggle continues.
One thing the board agreed on was to bring Alves into line when the coach appeared set to drop both Riquelme and Palermo for the superclásico – pointing to the exit for Alves as soon as a replacement is found.
In an online survey, 24% think Boca will win by two goals, while 25% think River will win by two goals. Palermo wants to score to become the outright all-time top scorer at the club. River want their first win at the Bombonera since 2004. Boca desperately need a win to calm the waters.
As usual, there’s plenty at stake in the superclásico – except silverware.
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