Armando Franca/Associated Press
Daniel Toscano, 53, is from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He now lives in Toronto installing blinds, shutters and the like for a living. At the last minute, he dropped everything and got on a flight across the Atlantic for the re-scheduled second leg of the Copa Libertadores final at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium Sunday. His clients, he said, could wait until after Christmas for their demands.
He couldn’t help himself. Boca Juniors is his blood. He paid $CAD1,500 (£890) for his match ticket before scrambling around for a flight to Madrid. While we chat early on the afternoon of the final in the middle of the Boca fan zone—which is 2 kilometres from the River fan zone—he takes a phone call from his brother who has just landed in the Spanish capital to join him for the match.
“I don’t think Madrid will ever see anything like this,” he says. It’s hard to disagree with him. River and Boca fans have taken over the city. They sing, dance and drink like there’s no tomorrow. Some of them have been partying round the clock over the previous couple of days. Shells of men amble around, lifting their tired, hungover bodies once more for a blowout. Ticker tape is tossed in the air. The celebratory mood is contagious.
“This is normal [for a Boca-River match in Buenos Aires]. Imagine this, the singing and all that,” says Toscano, above the din, “except 20 times more. You would see wives and kids enjoying the party too. I suggest to Toscano that maybe seeing Toronto locals celebrate the Toronto Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series baseball victories—as he has done—compares.
“No. It’s like night and day,” he says. “This is pure emotion. It’s something else. Supporting Boca—it’s your life.”
All week, the Spanish media had been analysing the security detail for the match—a 4,000-strong operation has taken to the streets. It is no surprise after the much-documented events that led to the game being moved to Europe in the first place.
It’s twice the number deployed, for example, in 2010 the last time the UEFA Champions League final was played at the Bernabeu, or for the Real Madrid vs. Barca match that was played a week after 130 people were killed in the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Metal rubbish bins around the stadium have been scooped out. Police helicopters hover overhead. Riot police and sniffer dogs patrol on the ground.
According to local government delegate Jose Manuel Rodriguez Uribes, police were expecting 400 to 500 “hooligans” to descend on Madrid for the match. Some were stopped on entry into Spain—one of Boca’s ultras, Maxi Mazzaro, was deported from Madrid airport. His story that he was going to visit family in Barcelona for Christmas didn’t stand up.
Rafa Di Zeo, one of the other leaders of La Doce, Boca’s “barra bravas [ultras],” was freed, however, to travel. About 50 metres from where I chat with Toscano, members of La Doce lead the street party, beating drums, dancing manically and filling the air with blue-coloured smoke flares. Passing camera crews and dozens of people with camera phones peer at them. They perform for them like circus animals, half-disgusted, half-enamoured with the attention.
After all the nervousness about violence breaking out among rival fans, the lack of it is striking. Across the city, I speak to several River fans who have made the trek from the United States for the game—from River’s New York and Connecticut “penas” (supporters’ clubs). They say the police have done a good job separating the fans.
“I didn’t see a fight yet,” says Saemin Yoon, a member of the New York River Plate pena. He landed in the city on Friday. One of his friends, Miguel Grigera, says he walked earlier in the day from Atocha train station up along Paseo de la Castellana, the magnificent avenue that cuts across Madrid, right past the Boca fan zone decked out in his River gear, unmolested.
“It’s a long walk from Atocha. I went past a lot of Boca Juniors fans, and right past where they are all gathered. They didn’t look at me. I didn’t look at them. Everybody went their own way,” says Grigera.
When I ask him if it would be possible to run the gauntlet like that on the day of a “Superclasico” in Buenos Aires, he points out that in Argentina, Boca and River fans are banned from attending each other’s away games. Today, it’s different—the Bernabeu will be half and half. They’re agreed, though, that trouble could ignite later. One side is going to be sore it has lost the most historic game in over a century of arguably football’s most celebrated rivalry.
“There are people that are going to be upset,” says Grigera.
“There’s going to be fights all over. That’s what I think,” adds Yoon, “but then it’s always only a few people who cause all the problems. Maybe 70,000 fans go to the stadium, but those who start the fighting and rioting are 10, 20, and it is those people who get in the news.”
Yoon invokes the example of the second leg Copa Libertadores final tie that was postponed last month because a fan hurled a rock through the Boca Juniors’ team coach window as it snaked its way to River Plate’s stadium, La Monumental. Boca’s team captain Pablo Perez had to go to hospital for an eye injury.
Juan Mamani was sitting in La Monumental for seven hours for the match that never happened. Phone signals were dodgy, so he had to wait out the time on a diet of rumour and secondhand information fed by those in the terraces who had radios.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images
“Everybody was upset because Boca’s players didn’t want to play the game,” says Mamani. “And now a lot of people are still upset because they didn’t want to come here. Even my brothers who travel all over to support River didn’t want to fly to Madrid to watch the game because they’re pissed off with what has happened around the game, with the decision by CONMEBOL [to abandon the second leg before moving it to Spain], and all the rest.”
The ones who did travel have gone to extraordinary lengths to make it happen. Fans have lost their jobs and their wives to watch a game of football, rustling up the money for it by hook or by crook, as relayed by EFE (h/t AS).
“Some people to get here sold their motorcycles,” says Ariel Bustamante.
“I have heard of people who have got divorced,” adds Juan Ariel Martinez. “I remember 5,000 River fans flew to Japan for the final of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2015. After three years, I know the guys are still paying for the trip.”
Diego Detang lost his heart to Boca Juniors when he was about five years of age. His dad is a San Lorenzo fan—one of more than a dozen premier league clubs in Buenos Aires, which won the Copa Libertadores in 2014. He tried to encourage his son to follow in his footsteps, but he resisted. His son liked the swagger of Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia, two of Boca’s stars in the late 1990s. “Nah,” he told his father. “I want to be with them.”
Detang came by coach overnight from Barcelona, one of seven buses, he said, that ferried Argentinian ex-pats living in Catalonia to Madrid for the carnival. Their party includes mothers who are shepherding three- and four-year-old kids amid the melee. Others have come, too, from other parts of Spain, part of the Argentinian diaspora living in the country.
As we walk up towards the Bernabeu among a train of Boca fans, we get soaked in a hail of beer. Detang shows me a Boca tattoo the size of grapefruit he has on one of his calf muscles. He’s wearing a Boca jersey that has seen a decade of action. When I ask him what it feels like to be closing in on the stadium only a couple of hours from kick-off, he wells up.
“What do you see here?” he asks rhetorically. “All around us are Boca supporters. We’re all together, going in the same direction. It’s like before a battle. We’re going to war. Events like this mean so much to me. I don’t have money. I give my life for Boca Juniors. I give my f–king life.”
As the stadium draws nearer, it’s a game of inches. The organisers have put in a barricade a few hundred metres from the stadium, a precaution that isn’t used, for example, during clasico matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona or Real Madrid’s perennial appearance in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. As the beer wears off, some fans get impatient and cranky. Rows break out over silly things like an accidental push in the back. One guy is ejected from the queue and frog-marched away from the stadium by security. But mostly the humour is buoyant. Songs break out like the classic: “Boca has no husband/Boca has no woman/But Boca has a ‘bobo’ (stupid son) called River Plate.”
Inside the stadium, the Bernabeu—which hosted the 1982 FIFA World Cup final—is an incredible sight. Normally for a clasico, for instance, only a few hundred Barca fans would be huddled into the eaves at the north end of the stadium. For this winner-takes-all game, one half of the stadium is taken up with the blue-and-gold of Boca, the other the red-and-white of River.
The game has everything—thunderous tackles, brilliant goals, mistakes and a decisive red card for Wilmar Barrios in extra time, which tips the balance away from a tiring Boca. In the River end of the stadium, the north end, which is usually reserved for away fans, the supporters stay standing throughout. The smell of marijuana wafts in the air.
When images flash up on screen during the game of Lionel Messi—one of several star players, along with James Rodriguez and Antoine Griezmann, as well as Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, at the game—it goes largely unnoticed. River’s fans are too preoccupied singing for their team and berating the referee for his contentious decisions to bother with Messi.
After initially going a goal behind, River score a final, breakaway third goal with the last play of the game to seal a 3-1 victory, which leads to some unforgettable scenes. I get grabbed in a bear hug by a delirious River fan. Grown men cry. They record emotional video messages to their loved ones and snap selfies to capture the moment—eternal bragging rights over their ancient rivals—for posterity.
On the field after the cup is presented to River, their players, family members and backroom staff parade around the stadium for what feels like ages, adorned in scarves, floppy hats and twirling umbrellas. River’s players get a huge roar when they slide together into the goal in front of the north end. The party continues into the Madrid night, with the club’s revellers braving the cold temperatures to celebrate in Plaza Puerta del Sol until sunrise.
On this occasion, both Boca and River helped put the kind of wonderful advertisement for football fan culture that we were denied in Buenos Aires, with little or no reports of violence. It has been a gift to Madrid, and Spain, which has eyes on hosting the 2030 FIFA World Cup finals. It’s just a pity for Boca’s fans someone had to lose.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz