On Soccer: In Buenos Aires, a Rivalry Stretches Passions to the Limit
BUENOS AIRES — No matter what happens, Leonardo Uranga’s tone will remain soft and steady. He will choose his words carefully. He will enunciate them clearly and slowly. At moments of the highest drama, the most exquisite tension, he will keep his head, even as all around him are losing theirs.
As half of Argentina erupts in delight and the other sinks into the deepest despair, Uranga will keep his emotions in check. At the culmination of the biggest game of his long broadcasting career, he will not so much as raise his voice.
For much of Saturday evening, then, he may well be unique. When the Buenos Aires archrivals River Plate and Boca Juniors meet in the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores — the most important game in South American club soccer — Uranga may well be the only calm person in Argentina.
It is not something that comes naturally for him; indeed, it runs contrary to his instinct and inclination. As a commentator for Radio AM550, Uranga has always called games “in the normal way”: all rhetorical flourishes, impassioned outbursts and breathless, rapid-fire delivery. “That rhythm is part of football here,” he said. “Emotion and passion are the soul of Argentine football, the spirit of it. It is very hard to take that out.”
Given the scale of Saturday’s occasion, it is almost impossible. Uranga is hardly alone in regarding it as the “biggest game in Argentine history.” Even the sobriquet it has been given — La Final de Todos los Tiempos: The Final for All Time — does not feel much like hyperbole, not in the circumstances.
It is the first time, after all, that River and Boca — the twin, repelling poles of the Superclásico, certainly the most heated derby in Argentina and probably the most intense one in the world — have met in the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most coveted club championship.
And it is the last time that they will, at least in this format. Starting next season, the tournament will be decided not by its traditional two-legged, home-and-away final, but with a single game in a neutral stadium.
For River, then, this is its last and only chance to win the trophy it cherishes more than any other by beating its fiercest foe in front of its adoring fans; for Boca, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to inflict the most excruciating humiliation imaginable on its eternal rival, to secure the greatest victory in its history on enemy territory.
No wonder, then, that Mauricio Macri — once the president of Boca, and now the president of Argentina — declared before the first leg that “whoever loses will take 20 years to recover.” There are plenty of fans who might suggest that estimate is on the low side.
There are glimpses of how much it means everywhere in Buenos Aires, and throughout Argentina, too: Between them, River and Boca claim to be supported by around 65 percent of the country’s population. It is not just the sight of jerseys tied to balconies or hung from windows, the blue and yellow of Boca, the red and white of River. It is not just the sound of countless conversations in cafes and bars and restaurants, all of them discussing what might happen, who might win.
It is not just the headlines in the newspapers or the voices crackling through the radio, revealing that some 2,000 police officers will be on duty at the Monumental, River’s home stadium, on Saturday evening, or that prosecutors in Buenos Aires have opened an investigation into the illegal resale of tickets, with prices reportedly rising as high as $2,000, or more.
It is the individual stories, too. There is the one about Matías Alvarez, a law student who has not been able to find work but did manage to secure a ticket for the game; on Facebook, he wrote that he would not sell it for any sum in the world, but that he would trade it happily if someone could offer him a job “in some sort of office or business.” Some things, he said, were “more important.”
He was flooded with offers, people willing to offer employment just to be there, at the game; River eventually intervened to assure both him and his benefactor a place inside the stadium.
That one was picked up by the Argentine media, but there are countless others that remain anonymous: the fans making the journey home from New York and Toronto and Paris and Madrid, clad head to toe in River jerseys and T-shirts, simply because they had to be here; the fan who waited all evening outside Carlos Tevez’s house, where Boca’s players had gathered for a team-building barbecue, just to wish them all good luck; the taxi driver whose family removed his Boca shirt from his wardrobe so that he was not tempted to wear it as he ferried people to the stadium on Saturday.
Many more, though, are trying not to think about it at all. Just as Uranga will remain calm on Saturday, they are forcing themselves to be calm, for now at least. This is a country, after all, as the former national coach Marcelo Bielsa once said, where it is not just winning that matters; equally important is to see your opponent suffer. For both sides, defeat in this game is the stuff of dark nightmares.
There are many — fans of River and Boca alike — for whom this final is not a source of hope, but of dread, who would much rather have found a Brazilian team or a Colombian team — anyone at all, really — standing in their way. “It is too much,” one River fan said. “The idea of losing is unthinkable. The cost is too high.”
All of that tension, all of that emotion, needed an outlet. Boca’s fans were given theirs on Thursday evening when the team held an open training session at La Bombonera, the club’s crumbling, atmospheric home in La Boca, a tough, port district just south of the city center.
Tens of thousands made the pilgrimage, a blue-and-yellow tide sweeping through central Buenos Aires, past the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, and into La Boca. They commandeered buses, packed so tight they hung out of the doors, flags fluttering from windows, the volume of the songs increasing as they neared the stadium.
An hour before the training session was scheduled to start, La Bombonera was full: more than full, in fact. Fans were packed into stairwells, trapped in corridors and standing on the desks in the press box. Children clasped desperately to their parents’ shoulders, eyes wide at the sheer number of people crammed inside.
So many made it inside that, a few hours later, the City Council closed the stadium for exceeding its permitted capacity. Thousands more still, though, remained outside, on the tight, cramped streets of La Boca, singing and dancing, waving flags, pledging their allegiance.
For an hour, those inside watched the players train, the noise relentless. When the session ended, Boca’s squad stood before them, thanking them for the support, taking their applause.
“You have to remember that away fans cannot go to the game on Saturday,” said Ezequiel Fernández Moores, the dean of Argentine sportswriting. “The fans are saying to them: ‘We cannot go, you have to go in our place.’ They are sending them off to war.” When the players left, the fans stayed. If anything, the stadium grew louder, so loud the very ground shook.
That is the passion and the emotion that Uranga described, the intensity and the obsession that characterize the Superclásico, the Libertadores. It is what distinguishes Argentine soccer from its more sedate, less visceral cousin in Europe. As much as it is a source of pride, though, it comes at a cost.
Before the first leg, Argentina’s Institute of Cardiologists approached Radio AM550, Uranga’s employer, to express its concern at the possible health impact of the two games between River and Boca. “That same passion can also be a generator of stress,” Uranga said.
In the buildup to the games, there had been public-service announcements instructing those with health problems to visit their doctor and make sure they did not run out of medicine, or even avoid the game altogether. Radio AM550 decided to go one step further.
Instead of its usual coverage of the games, it would run a so-called Zen broadcast of each leg, dialing down the noise from the crowd and replacing it with relaxing music. Uranga and his broadcast partner, Eduardo Caimi, would “lower our tones, talk at a slower pace, describe things matter-of-factly.”
They were joined on the radio by a cardiologist, Gonzalo Díaz Babio, to offer advice to listeners with heart conditions.
“We wanted people to be able to follow the game in a more relaxed way,” Uranga said. “The doctor was there to give tips to people who were listening, to remind them not to eat too much, to get plenty of exercise beforehand, to drink lots of water and not so much alcohol.”
That first game, a 2-2 tie, was a challenge: Darío Benedetto, the Boca striker, equalized for the hosts in the very last minute of the game. Uranga managed to keep his calm. “I said that he had scored, that Boca was level, and I described what had happened in the passage of play that had led to it,” he said. “I did not say it was some great tragedy for River.”
The three of them will be back together on Saturday, when the stakes are higher still, the drama even greater. The first leg, after all, was never going to prove decisive. This, in contrast, will. For Boca and River, for the thousands who made the Bombonera shake, for the hundreds who have made the journey, for an entire nation, this is it.
Uranga knows the context. He knows how much it means, exactly what the reward of victory and the cost of defeat will be. But it is his job to ignore it, to play it down, to remember on behalf of the audience hanging on his every word and the nation holding its breath that, at the end of it all, it is only a game and that some prices are not worth paying.
“It is the most important game in the history of Argentine football, the final de todos los tiempos,” he said. “But it is still not as important as life and death.”