Get ready for a war: How class divides, fraught history and violence have made Boca vs River a Superclasico

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As the fans gear themselves up for what is their cup final the players are trying to keep some sense of perspective. The River players, in particular, are doing their level best not to get caught up in the hysteria.

I know this game means a lot to both the fans and the players, but I want to make it clear that I would never trade a championship for a single victory against Boca

- Ariel Ortega, former River Plate midfielder

“I know this game means a lot to both the fans and the players,” said River’s diminutive playmaker Ariel Ortega, known as El Burrito (“the Little Donkey, because he hails from Ledesma in the north of Argentina where there are no horses, only donkeys). “But I want to make it clear that I would never trade a championship for a single victory against Boca.”

With only a day to go, the whole of Buenos Aires is consumed by the game, which is staggering given that 12 of Argentina’s 19 top division clubs in play in the capital and its surrounding area. “River-Boca is a national derby, there are fans of both clubs all over the country,” explains Juan Sasturain, a journalist and author – Argentina’s answer to Nick Hornby, according to Pablo.

“When River play Boca you can bet your life there will be a fan of each team, up in the north of Argentina near the Bolivian border, stood in their replica shirts fighting,” adds Sasturain.

Ariel Ortega

River legend Ortega still saw the championship as more important than the Superclasico

“In general, if you aren’t a Boca fan, you are anti-Boca. Boca have something socially irritating about them, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they have fans from so far and wide.” A bit like Manchester United then.

So Boca are widely recognised as the country’s best supported club. But which of the two clubs is the biggest? “I cannot say because they’re both very different in terms of history and image,” says Sasturain. “Historically, River is stylish and offensive; Boca is the opposite – heart and strength. River is money and the middle classes; Boca is popularity and the working classes.”

High stakes

As the game draws ever closer even Ortega, who was admirably circumspect only yesterday, gets caught up in the media hyperbole and agrees to dye his hair green if River lose

As the game draws ever closer even Ortega, who was admirably circumspect only yesterday, gets caught up in the media hyperbole. In a bet with celebrity broadcaster and Boca fan Alejandro Fantino, Ortega has agreed to dye his hair green if River lose. In turn, Fantino will dye his hair bright red in Boca lose.

Worried he might lose the bet, Fantino asks Boca midfielder Antonio Barijho, who regularly dyes his hair (blonde being the current color of choice), which brand of dye he should buy. “Don’t bother buying any, you won’t need it,” says a confident Barijho, who instead insists Fantino should tell Ortega to dye his hair in the blue and yellow of Boca if River lose.

“Ortega would have no hair left he’d made the same bet over the past few seasons,” says Barijho, and it’s a valid point. River have lost six of the previous ten meetings between the two, winning only one. Has Ortega bitten off more than he can chew?  

Boca Juniors River Plate

The entire country gets caught in a frenzy on the eve of Boca-River games

Certainly Boca’s is the more relaxed camp on the eve of the game. Whereas their training sessions at La Bombonera are open to both press and public, up at El Monumental we have to rely on sneaking through an unguarded gate to watch the River players being put through their paces. That is until an angry security guard boots us out.

Rising tension

On leaving La Bombonera the evening before the game, having collected our tickets, a security guard calls us over; our pale skin, short trousers and cameras are dead give-aways that we are not from round these parts. “Tell them to be careful,” he says to Pablo. “There is a strange atmosphere around this week.”

Tomorrow I will bring my car to the game. It is not so good so it doesn’t matter as much if it gets vandalised

- Pablo, River fan

So tense is the mood now that with the game imminent, Pablo says he feels uncomfortable being in enemy territory, even though he’s not wearing River colours. He’s in far less danger than one misfit we see ducking into a house, wearing River’s red and white replica shirt.

“He’s a brave man,” says Pablo, who has thus far been ferrying around in his wife’s car. “Tomorrow I will bring my car to the game. It is not so good so it doesn’t matter as much if it gets vandalised.”

Boca Juniors Bombonera

Boca’s iconic La Bombonera is in the heart of one of Buenos Aires’ working class districts

As we drive through the dusty streets of La Boca, with its mixture of crumbling, derelict buildings and bright pastel-colored houses, we pull up outside San Salessiano, a Catholic school. On the wall outside is a magnificent mural, painted in 1969, depicting Buenos Aires at the time.

On the left of the picture some workers stand beneath the industrial backdrop of La Boca and on the right stands a businessman and a tango dancer depicting the city’s middle classes. In the middle is a priest, stood next to two children, one wearing a Boca shirt, the other wearing a River shirt. This is the church’s ideal of Buenos Aires: harmonious. Tomorrow’s game will be anything but.