Ahead of the biggest match in world football, Jimmy Lee returns to try and explain for those unfamiliar with Argentine football, just how bloody enormous this Superclásico is….
October 30th and 31st of 2018 will forever be historic days. These are the days that we will look back on as the two days in history that Boca fans cheered for River and River fans cheered for Boca. And why would two hated rivals ever cheer for one another? Because now we are all blessed with an eternal gift: A Superclásico final in the Copa Libertadores.
For those who follow South American football, we all understand just how significant this final will be. To simply say that this is the biggest rivalry being played in the final of South America’s most prestigious competition, though a true statement, somehow falls short of explaining just how enormous this will be.
Trying to explain this to non-football fans is difficult. Somehow, any attempt to do so falls short of providing the appropriate context it deserves. So, for those of you who are asking the question, just how big of a deal is this, please allow me to attempt to break it down. Let’s focus on the English-speaking world – Great Britain and the United States (sorry Australia, I’m sure there are some big cricket and rugby rivalries down there too).
Let’s start in Great Britain where football is already the most popular sport. Manchester United and Liverpool are the two biggest rivals and there is little question about it, those two clubs and fanbases hate each other. Twice these two clubs have met in Cup finals – in 1977 in the FA Cup and in 1983 in the League Cup.
Now imagine both those clubs make it all the way to the Champions League final and face off against each other. Would the whole country of England shutdown the way Argentina does when Boca and River play each other? While these are possibly the two most popular teams in England, interestingly enough, neither of them plays in the country’s most populous city, London. Of course, there are plenty of United and Liverpool fans in London, but that’s roughly 14 million people who may not have a stake in the game when the two clubs face off.
In Argentina, no, not only in Buenos Aires, in the entire country, you’d be hard pressed to find a fan who does not have a preference between Boca and River. There are people who are devoted fans and members of another club but still have a rooting interest when it comes time for the Superclásico.
When the Telegraph, one of England’s most important newspapers, published its ranking of the 20 biggest rivalries in football, United-Liverpool was ranked tenth. And can you guess what they ranked as the top rivalry in the World? The Superclásico.
The Premier League may be the most popular league in the world and has fans all across the globe. More people globally may tune in to watch the United-Liverpool derby than the Superclásico, but that is also part of the problem. Due to the globalization of the Premier League and the God-like amount of money that has flooded the league, local fans have been forgotten and many have lost their passion for their domestic football. Passion is not something Argentine football and specifically the Superclásico is lacking.
Let us now go to the northern hemisphere of the new world. Football, oh sorry, soccer, simply does not matter the way football, oh sorry, American Football, Basketball, and Baseball matter. So, let’s look at some of those rivalries and see how they compare.
Starting with the NFL (that’s the American Football league), some of the biggest rivalries include: Cowboys-Redskins, Giants-Eagles, Steelers-Ravens, Patriots-Jets, and Steelers-Bengals. Just as you’d expect, these fanbases all hate each other. So, how often have these teams met up in the sport’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl. Give me one second while I do the calculations… ok, done. That is a grand total of ZERO times. And why is that? These and most all rivalries in the NFL are between teams that play in the same conference, which means one very important thing, they can never play each other in the Super Bowl.
The same goes for the biggest rivals in the other major leagues, Yankees-Red Sox or Dodgers-Giants in baseball and Bulls-Pistons or Knicks-Pacers in basketball. These teams are all in the same conference and could never meet in a championship final.
The one exception is the Celtics and Lakers in the NBA. These two are the NBA’s biggest rivals and play in different conferences and can actually meet in a championship setting. And my goodness, these two teams have made a habit out of playing one another in championship games. 12 times Boston and Los Angeles have faced each other in the NBA Finals – which is a best of seven series. So, in total, there have been 74 championship games between the Celtics and Lakers. While it is a huge rivalry, it is not a rarity for the two teams to play each other with a championship on the line.
This Copa Libertadores final will be the first ever time Boca and River play each other with South America’s most prestigious title up for grabs.
Which brings up another point. All these United States teams are only facing off against one another in domestic leagues – because the idea of an international league is not a thing that exists in the United States (with the exception of MLS). So, imagine the Yankees and Red Sox in the middle of their MLB season had to travel to Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, and then faced off against each other in a championship series. That is exactly what Boca and River had to do to get to where they are now.
This is Boca’s 11th Libertadores final and River’s 6th, yet their paths have never crossed in a Libertadores final. This competition was started in 1960 and it has taken 58 years for these two clubs to face off on the biggest possible stage. There is a chance this may not happen again for another 58 years or more. This will be a final River and Boca fans will be telling their grandchildren about. Hell, it will be something all of South American football will be talking about for years to come. Not to quote the United States’ orange skinned president, but this is going to be “HUGE!”
To add one more layer on top of this cake of craziness, this is the final year the Libertadores will play a two-legged final. That means one match will be played at La Bombonera and the other at El Monumental. The two most historic stadiums in Argentina will get to play host to the most important footballing event in the country since the 1978 World Cup.
And just to throw one more wrinkle into this whole thing, in the middle of an economic crisis, Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri spent multiple hours of multiple days campaigning that they allow visiting fans into the stadiums for both matches. Let me repeat that one more time with emboldened text – THE PRESIDENT OF THE NATION ASKED FOR VISITING FANS! After all that, it has now been confirmed that those visiting fans will ultimately not be allowed in. My friends, this is not just another pair of football matches being played in Argentina, this is something much more significant.
If you are a lifelong fan of South American football or if you are new to the madness, get ready for the sporting event of a lifetime. And my apologies for the completely cliché finish to this article, but I have to say it, no matter if Boca or River win the final, we the fans will be the real winners. There, I said it.
Jimmy lived in Córdoba, Argentina as a teenager and is still an active Socio for his beloved club, Belgrano. He currently lives in Seattle, WA and loves to write about football when he has a break from work and family. He also runs the Belgrano – English twitter account.