Where there’s smoke, there’s fire: Independiente vs Racing Club, Argentina's 'real derby for real fans'
Six battered buses speed through the streets of downtown Buenos Aires. Ahead of them, police bikes clear traffic and cut red lights. Trailing behind are four police cars and two vans full of riot troops. Inside the buses are the hardcore fans of Independiente, en route to the most important game of their season: the derby against hated rivals Racing Club.
Legs, arms, heads and flags protrude from the windows and doors. Drums resonate from within and chants drift across the wide avenues of the Argentinian capital. FourFourTwo is in the third bus, squeezed between two bass drums, several sacks of ticker tape and 60 very drunk and stoned fans all spitting out debasing songs about their enemy:
An old man being hiked up into an ambulance tears off his oxygen mask and hollers “Dale Rojo” (Come on Reds) before collapsing back on the stretcher
"Independiente is an addiction
And I’m with the craziest barra of the lot
I follow the reds wherever they go
Boca are going to run
And Racing fans? We're going to kill ‘em."
As the sirens and chants announce the arrival of the barra brava (hooligan group), other Independiente fans walking the streets stop and cheer them along; an old man being hiked up into an ambulance tears off his oxygen mask and hollers “Dale Rojo” ('Come on Reds') before collapsing back on the stretcher.
Not lost on the barra, the buses slow down and the mob cheer for the old guy. The next minute, a different atmosphere: a group of Racing fans throw bottles, smashing a couple of bus windows.
The police are twitchy, and understandably so: meetings between these two teams have rarely passed off without violence. Sometimes scuffles, occasionally death. It is the one game on the calendar that almost everyone in the city advises against going to. And for security reasons, home team Independiente will host Racing at the neutral Velez Sarsfield stadium on the other side of Buenos Aires.
Argentinian football is dominated by derbies, or clasicos. Of the 20 teams in the Argentinian Primera Division, 12 are based in Buenos Aires, with a further five less than a two-hour drive away. The capital, a city of 14 million people, is both the centre of life in Argentina and its footballing heart. Local clasicos are numerous.
The nearby city of Rosario is home to Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central, a fierce provincial derby, while even closer to Buenos Aires, a similar animosity exists between Juan Sebastian Veron’s Estudiantes and Gimnasia in the city of La Plata.
Within BA itself, however, three derbies dominate the calendar. San Lorenzo versus Huracan is an important clásico, although the latter have yo-yoed between the first and second tiers in the past decade, causing the match to lose its bite. And even football-phobes are aware of Boca Juniors-River Plate.
Recent superclasicos have been stale, though, partly because of the severely limited allocation of away tickets, but mainly because of the violent internal feud between rival factions of River’s barra, which has led other fans to stay away. Supporters now do little more than blow up a few balloons; a far cry from the spectacular displays that once defined the superclasico.
The Argentine Dundee
Boca and River may divide the whole country, but Independiente vs Racing – third and fourth in terms of fanbase – is the tastiest derby in Buenos Aires.
Boca vs River might be the most watched clasico, but Racing vs Independiente is much more passionate. You have to be a real fan to follow these teams
A few days before the game, FourFourTwo travels to the industrial port neighbourhood of Avellaneda, home to both teams, just across the southern border of the city, to watch Racing train.
By the pitch, a handful of diehard fans are watching the final preparations for the derby. Ricardo, an unshaven middle-aged man with a missing tooth, explains the importance of the derby: “Boca vs River might be the most watched clasico, but Racing vs Independiente is much more passionate. You have to be a real fan to follow these teams. And when they play. Wow. What an atmosphere.”
From the platform of the train station, high above the city, the source of this intense rivalry is obvious. Below us is a building site where Independiente’s stadium is being rebuilt. A mere 200 metres beyond that is the 1950s Cilindro of Racing. Think Anfield and Goodison across Stanley Park, but much, much closer. Only Dundee and Dundee United can match them for proximity.
100 Best Stadiums
It is a local derby in the truest sense. In Avellaneda, Independiente and Racing graffiti compete on the walls. There are two types of bars: Racing bars and Independiente bars. Two types of restaurants: Racing restaurants and Independiente restaurants. And two types of people: Racing fans and Independiente fans.
Racing’s Juan Domingo Peron Stadium overshadows the ramshackle buildings of the area. Built in 1950 with government money, the stadium is presently home both to Racing, and, annoyingly for them, the temporarily homeless Independiente.
Independiente fans and Racing fans live side by side around here. That used to be OK, but what used to be a fiesta has become a battle
In his salon under the haunches of the stadium, barber and Racing fan Daniel Bazan explains the importance of the derby. “It is the most important day in this neighbourhood and something everyone lives for in the weeks before the game. Independiente fans and Racing fans live side by side around here. That used to be OK, but what used to be a fiesta has become a battle. Now people get injured, killed... It’s such a shame.”
Jorge ‘Titi’ Jaula, getting his short back and sides, sold tickets to Racing games for 53 years before retiring last week. “You used to take the whole family,” he agrees. “Now if your son goes to the game, you don’t know whether he’ll come home. They just can’t control the violence. No one’s taking responsibility. The clasico shouldn’t be like this, it should be a celebration.”
Trouble at the Clasico de Avellaneda began to emerge in the 1980s with organised firm meetings at predetermined places, usually well away from the stadiums. In 1997, the first hooligan-related murder took place, when a member of ‘the Racing Stones’ barra was allegedly killed by an Independiente barra. Then, on derby day in 2000, 100 fans were injured in a huge street fight. In September 2001, 17 people were stabbed in one brawl.
Incidents increased over the years, culminating in one horrific fight on February 2002. Independiente were playing Racing in the Peron Stadium. All morning there had been scraps, but worse was to come.
A tradition among the Racing barra was to have a barbecue in the club’s ground before the game. Such is the proximity of the rival clubhouses that Independiente’s barra could literally throw stones at Racing’s clubhouse. The first bombardment injured a Racing member.
An angry mob then stormed towards Independiente’s stadium. The Barra de Rojo were waiting for them, waving guns. In front of hundreds of fans buying tickets there was a gunfight. By the end of the evening there were 25 people in the nearest hospital and 22-year-old Independiente fan, Gustavo Rivera, was dead. It was the worst football-related violence in Argentina for almost a decade, and since.
NEXT: Argentina's football debt to England