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 By Sam Kelly

River Plate vs. Boca Juniors, a rivalry rooted in Argentine culture and history

Fernando Gago's bizarre red card proved that rarely can River and Boca meet without controversy.

In the first of an ESPN FC series which will feature eye-witness insights into some of the biggest derbies in world football, Sam Kelly recounts his experiences when River Plate hosted Boca Juniors in October.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- The chant is audible from half a block away.

"Come on, champs, don't let your fans down! I'm not gutless, like an Independiente fan! This is how I am, and I love River! We're going to kill all the bosteros [Boca fans]!" There are hours still until the game but already the Estadio Monumental and its surroundings are buzzing. There's nothing like being in the throng of River Plate fans, walking through the tree-lined streets of the northern Buenos Aires neighbourhoods of Núñez and Belgrano and seeing the stadium get closer with each step on a glorious spring afternoon.

I'm lucky enough to have done it a fair few times but this is no glorious spring afternoon. The skies are unrelentingly grey, the rain is unceasing -- it has been pouring down since the previous night -- and the normal match day street traders hawking River Plate memorabilia have been usurped by salesman selling ponchos. There's a buzz among the wet crowds hurrying toward the stadium anyway because this isn't just any River home match. This particular afternoon, the visitors are Boca Juniors.

First played in August 1913 and with both sides dominating Argentine football in terms of both honours and supporter numbers ever since, the Superclásico is a fixture with plenty of history. The Monumental, in the leafy, well-heeled northern district of Belgrano, is a fitting stage.

The Monumental is Argentina's largest stadium; its official capacity is around 75,000 although security measures requiring chunks to be left empty for the purposes of fan segregation mean it normally holds closer to 65,000. It looms over the surrounding streets of low-rise houses as you approach on foot, dominating the neighbourhood with two massive tiers all the way round and River's red-and-white colours prominent. The first building to be constructed in this area of the city, it remains by far the largest.

The view from the back of the Monumental looking out upon the rooftops and trees lining the streets of Belgrano around the stadium. On a sunny day, you can see for miles.

But there is a dark side. During the 1978 World Cup final, the cheers of the Monumental crowd could be heard at a nearby training site, which was used as a clandestine detention and torture centre by the military junta running Argentina at the time. The Monumental and that final remain somewhat emblematic of those days, with that World Cup having been by far the most visible and memorable show abroad of Argentina during the dictatorship. Today, the centre (called the ESMA) still stands, functioning as a memorial.

I pass through the security checks and once inside, find a place high in the terrace in the upper tier which is out in the open. Having learned from the last superclásico I attended a year earlier, I decided to put up with the elements in a bid to secure a decent view. Not everyone has joined me but as the stands slowly fill, spirits are high regardless. River, the reigning champions of Argentina, are top of the league, unbeaten in all competitions under new manager Marcelo Gallardo and have won their last 13 home games in a row. They will go on to finish a narrow second to Racing in the league but do lift the Copa Sudamericana, their first international trophy in 17 years.

Boca started the season in poor form, leading to the sacking of legendary manager Carlos Bianchi; by early October, their results have picked up under Rodolfo Arruabarrena. Their revival will lead to a fifth-place finish by December but ahead of this match, performances haven't been so impressive as to warrant much concern for River's supporters, who were in full voice all day.

That's not to say this match is a foregone conclusion. It never is. River might have more league titles (35 to Boca's 30), but Boca have more victories in the super (84 to 76 ahead of this match). One Boca fan I met recently was friendly and open about the derby but asked not to be named, telling me that as a former member of the club's barra brava, the organised crime gangs which rule the Argentine terraces, he once spent six months in jail for "fighting."

"We'll beat them, 2-1," he says. "Just wait and see. Whenever River are playing well and look like favourites, we win. Even more when the game's at their place."

A River fan at the stadium as I stand on the terrace in the rain is also aware of the cliché of form going out the window on derby day. "We're playing well, but against Boca it's always a match that's separate from the rest of the season. If we're ahead, they raise their game, and vice versa."

Where are all the Boca fans?

Just under an hour before kick-off, with the stadium now over half-full and more fans emerging into the stands by the minute, the persistent drizzle becomes a proper downpour for about 20 minutes. The pitch held up well until now, but with the heavens well and truly opening, large wet patches seem apparent.

It's around now that Boca goalkeeper Agustín Orión begins his warm-up and from the moment he emerges from the tunnel, he's met with a deafening crescendo of whistles. The ball clearly isn't easy to hold in these conditions and he's beaten by a couple of shots from his coaches, bringing loud cheers from the stands.

High in the terraces, the ground remained largely empty until kick-off due to the torrential rains.

There are no Boca supporters in the stadium to defend him; if any are, they have to keep well and truly quiet about it. Argentine football has long had problems with violence -- the non-governmental organization Salvemos Al Fútbol ("Let's Save Football") records the first death due to violence in an Argentine stadium as far back as 1922 -- and since June 2013, when a policeman shot dead a Lanus fan before a match at Estudiantes, no away fans have been allowed into the nation's stadiums.

A gentler reminder of the overall problem is made by a banner hanging from the stadium's Belgrano stand: "Without visiting fans, there's no football." It's a familiar refrain but seems particularly poignant at such a historic fixture. The measure hasn't even stopped the violence; Salvemos Al Fútbol lists a further 17 deaths since the police shooting of Javier Gerez (the Lanús fan mentioned above) led to the ban being introduced.

The rules against visiting supporters take away some of the colour but in a league where so many clubs are from the same city -- of the 20 teams in last year's top flight, 12 are from within Buenos Aires' urban sprawl -- that effect has been even more pronounced than it might be elsewhere.

RIVER PLATE VS. BOCA JUNIORS

- River won the first official Superclasico, played on Aug. 24, 1913. Though Boca won the first unofficial game five years earlier.

- Of the 236 matches played, Boca have won 84, River 77.

- Reinaldo Merlo of River has played in the most Superclasicos (42)

- Angel Labruna of River, with 16 goals, is the leading scorer in the derby. Paulo Valentim (10) is Boca's top scorer.

Yet security is almost as tight as ever, even with only one set of supporters in the stadium. At many of Argentina's clubs these days, security worries don't surround clashes between barra bravas from different clubs. Trouble now often comes from struggles for power within the same barra.

At present, there are two groups struggling for control over the River terraces. As a result, this superclásico is staffed by around 1,400 police and security personnel working at a cost to River of roughly AR$1 million (around $113,000). We didn't know it in October but in late November River and Boca will meet again in the semi-finals of the Copa Sudamericana. Ahead of the return leg at the Monumental, the two factions of River's barra will clash violently over ticket resales in the club's cafeteria.

It's a turf war that has resulted in deaths, most infamously that of Gonzalo Acro in 2007. The approach to the stand I'll watch the game from is separated from the others several blocks from the stadium (and most of all from the main terrace at the other end, where fans and crucially Los Borrachos have to enter from across a motorway bridge, ensuring the two warring groups are kept well apart).

River vs. Boca: A historic rivalry

Talk of the super outside Argentina tends to paint it as a class rivalry, but that's a dubious statement. Joel Richards, author of the ebook Superclásico: Inside The Ultimate Derby, puts it this way. "This derby is often pitched as the tale of two cities, the aristocratic River Plate from the north against the people's team, Boca Juniors, in the south. The rivalry in fact started as a turf war in the port area of La Boca in Buenos Aires -- both were founded by the children of immigrants, both had difficulty finding land in the area for their ground, and both chose to have some English in their name to add some perceived glamour to their club. It started out as a local rivalry before they grew to battle out who is the biggest club in the country."

The rivalry got less local (and River gained their image as a club for the wealthy) when River left La Boca in search of space for a new stadium, first in the 1920s to the border of Recoleta and Palermo and then still further north to the neighbourhood of Belgrano, right on the border with Núñez, where the Monumental was begun and still stands.

Boca, too, moved away -- they left Buenos Aires' city limits altogether in 1914 for the southern suburb of Wilde -- but the move coincided with a spell of poor results which left them struggling for members and they returned to stay in 1916. How different things might have been had those two years been more successful.

At the other end of the stadium, River's 'barra' gather. You can see a flag in Argentina's colors saying 'Los Borrachos del Tablón' -- just above that it is where they gather.

That small local scrap grew into the legendary clash of today thanks to the two clubs' dominance in the early decades of Argentine football's professional era. After the professional era began in 1931, Boca and River would win 13 top flight titles between them in the next two decades.

Just four years ago, Boca and River remained two of the only four teams (the others being Arsenal de Sarandí, promoted to the top flight in 2002, and Independiente) who had never been relegated from the Primera División. But that changed with River's historic relegation via playoff in 2011 and Independiente's own drop in 2013 -- both sides did come back up at the first attempt -- meaning that Boca now stand alone with their uninterrupted 101-year spell in the top flight.

It's a fact they never tire of reminding their rivals. The "Brazil, Tell Me How It Feels" chant to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising," which proved so popular during the World Cup, was based on a Boca chant titled "River, Tell Me How It Feels" in which Boca's fans ask, "tell me how it feels to have played in the second division? That stain will never be erased!"

No matter how your season goes, beat Boca!

A year off during River's season in the second tier and the ban on away fans has done nothing to ease the passion of their rivalry.

At the start of the afternoon when I left my flat in San Telmo, I'd heard firecrackers and chanting. A few blocks away I pass the hotel in which Boca's players are put up ahead of matches. Fans had gathered outside to show their support before the team set off on the coach journey to the stadium. Some (as also happened a year ago) would accompany the team coach as far on the journey as police would allow them to, before the squad completed their journey into enemy territory alone. (Others, unfortunately, decided to do things differently; there were reports afterwards that Boca's barra, "La Doce" or "The Twelfth Shirt," had damaged businesses and cars nearby.)

My attempts to put the question of whether the rivalry had diminished to a couple of Boca-supporting acquaintances in a local bar were met with derisive snorts. My girlfriend's father, a lifelong Boca supporter, is used to my questions.

"When I was a kid, we'd have to listen to the match on the radio. We'd get together as a family and listen, and the best part of the day afterwards was phoning up friends or family who supported the other team to have a joke with them about it if Boca had won!"

Thirty minutes before kick off, the rain is teeming down and after inspecting the sodden pitch, referee Mauro Vigliano is asked by local TV reporters if the game would even happen. "Yes," he answers; he'll be vilified for the decision in days that follow and the Argentine FA will be forced the next weekend to deny that they've suspended him for a week in punishment, insisting he's been sent on a FIFA referees' course in preparation for the next World Cup.

The banner 'Sin Visitantes No Hay Fútbol' is clear, a reminder of constant troubles that have affected the football scene in Argentina.

It's obvious why from the moment the game kicks off. Immediately players are hidden by water shooting up from the pitch as they run, jump and turn. Both sides lose possession and find attacks breaking down more than once early on as a direct result of the ball holding up or bouncing unpredictably (or not at all) on the waterlogged surface.

Rain or no rain, the rivalry burns as hot as ever. Boca midfielder César Meli is blocked off by Gabriel Mercado and River's former Boca defender Jonathan Maidana eight minutes in, and the game's first set-to ensues, though it's quickly resolved. It's clear by now that River, who've developed a pass-along-the-floor, possession-based game under Gallardo, aren't coping with the conditions as well as Boca.

By now it's clear that both sides are favouring the River right/Boca left flank; it's farcical to play on but all the same, the other side of the pitch is even worse. It's ironic, then, that when the goal arrives halfway through the first half, it comes from precisely that waterlogged channel. Fernando Gago goes down in midfield and takes his time complaining to the referee; he's roundly whistled and booed (and worse) by a crowd which has remained vocal in spite of the conditions. Nicolas Colazo drifts Boca's free kick in from near the halfway line, and Lisandro Magallán holds off Ariel Rojas' marking to stab the ball into the bottom corner.

In what's left of the half, River settle into the game as if the goal had jerked them out of their stupor. After 40 minutes, the match reaches boiling point. Rojas has a shot from well outside the box, which Gago blocks with a header. He's oddly contorted as he heads it, and the ball bounces down onto his upswinging left foot and is cleared away. No River players appeal but without hesitation, referee Vigliano gives a penalty and shows Gago a red card for hand ball.

Gago is rightly apoplectic and takes a long time to leave the field, while Orión and Mariano Echeverría do their best to put Rodrigo Mora off as he prepares to take the spot kick. There are few goalkeepers in Argentina better than Orión at winding up opposing forwards and playing with the game's darker arts and somehow, whether for that reason, a pitch he doesn't entirely trust or maybe just because of the pressure, Mora puts his penalty way over.

Mora's penalty miss was somewhat understandable given the awful conditions.

In first half stoppage time, River's Teo Gutiérrez heads the ball into the net but the goal is wrongly disallowed for an offside against Carlos Sánchez, who'd provided the cross. At the break, Boca have the advantage and spirits in the Monumental are decidedly damp. Of course, the rain is also ruining a big occasion for Argentina itself in the eyes of the world -- a 2012 report estimated the global audience for the fixture at 120 million, a number exceeded only by Barcelona's rivalry with Real Madrid.

Rain makes for memorable superclasicos

In such a long rivalry, it's inevitable that this Sunday isn't the first time the sides have met on a sodden pitch. As ESPN Deportes editor Diego Zorrilla reminds me when I meet him to pick up my ticket, "some of the best superclásicos ever have been played in the rain."

He mentions two in particular, both of which were played in La Bombonera, Boca's stadium. In April 1981, Diego Maradona killed a high ball into the box on a sodden pitch before rounding River goalie Ubaldo Fillol to score in a 3-0 win. (Watch out for the cameraman slipping in the mud as he photographs Maradona's celebration.)

The other was also a 3-0 win with a memorable goal but this time for River; in March 2002, with River already 2-0 up, defender Ricardo Rojas set off on a lung-busting, length-of-the-pitch run capped with a lob Lionel Messi would be proud of. It was one of just two goals he'd score for River and earned him the nickname "Vaselina ("Lob").

Carlos Tevez' time at Boca Juniors included some unforgettable games against River Plate.

Even with these clashes and others in mind, Maradona is far from the most notable name in this rivalry, having only spent a total of three seasons at Boca during his playing career. Other greats to have featured include Enzo Francescoli, the Uruguayan playmaker after whom Zinedine Zidane's son is named, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Daniel Passarella and Ubaldo Fillol for River. (In 1949, Di Stéfano spent a few minutes as a goalkeeper whilst Amadeo Carrizo was treated for an injury.) Boca have boasted Antonio Rattin, Silvio Marzolini, Guillermo Barros Schelotto (and twin brother Gustavo) and Martín Palermo.

Though the old trend of Argentine players passing through one of the two clubs on their way to Europe has stalled somewhat, the last decade of superclásicos has still included players such as Javier Mascherano for River and Carlos Tevez for Boca.

In the first superclásico I ever watched, Tevez was sent off for celebrating an 88th minute goal in the Monumental by flapping his arms like a chicken, mocking River's nickname Gallinas ("hens"), which comes from a perceived habit of bottling big occasions. The match was a Copa Libertadores semi-final second leg and Tevez thought he'd just won the tie for Boca. As it was, an aggregate equaliser followed in stoppage time but Boca still advanced on penalties.

Back in the rain of October's game, River emerged for the second half knowing had to once again shake off the tag of bottlers. It's an odd characteristic to apply to a side who've won more more league titles than any other Argentine club, but what are football fans if not irrational?

Conditions remain farcical and by the middle of the second half, the game has become a slog-fest. With quarter of an hour to go, Gallardo makes a final sacrifice to the gods of beautiful play and does something uncompromisingly pragmatic; he withdraws a midfielder and sends on young centre-back Germán Pezzella with instructions to play up front and add some aerial threat to River's attack. It's at around this time that the rain finally lifts; for the first time, those of us in the stands can remove our hoods.

Neither Boca nor River excelled in the awful conditions. River's Leonardo Pisculichi (back) managed five league goals in 2014 but was subbed off after 75 minutes at the Monumental.

While the clouds don't quite part enough for a ray of sunshine to beam down to Pezzella, his introduction does indeed have an immediate impact. Three minutes after he comes on, Ramiro Funes Mori strides forward and aims a long ball towards the edge of Boca's box and after another fine save from Orión, he follows up and stabs home. The stadium explodes; within seconds I'm being throttled by the gentleman behind me who's gone for a bear hug but, forgetting (or not caring about) the fact he's higher up the stand than me, has instead got me by the throat.

Five minutes later, Funes Mori sees red for an uncontrolled sliding tackle which takes out Meli and River, like their opponents, end the game with ten men. There's a late scare as both sides have a chance to win but 1-1 is how it ends.

River dominated the statistics by the end of the game but in truth, the draw isn't a bad result; it left them four points ahead at the top of the table and given the conditions affecting so much of their style, successful maintenance of their long unbeaten run is also important. For Boca, the result lifts them to ninth, with more improvements to come, though the year will ultimately be stained by the defeat they'll suffer to the same opponents in the Copa Sudamericana semi-final a month and a bit later.

Rain or no rain, River Plate vs. Boca Juniors rarely fails to provide talking points, regardless of whether the game is a footballing classic in its own right. The two most successful sides in the history of Argentine football are also by far the most popular in the country. Even in these conditions, those who don't support either club have been watching today; as my friend Gustavo put it to me a couple of days before, "you've got to know which of your colleagues are going to be more or less tolerable on Monday morning."

Sam Kelly covers Argentine football and the Argentine national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @HEGS_com.

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