Football institutions need their rivals; where would Manchester United be without the drive to surpass Liverpool? Without them they become just another club. Bigger than the rest for sure, with more trophies too, but it is that burning desire for one-upmanship and glory against the bitterest of foes that makes giant football rivalries truly special.
That is why when River Plate were relegated from Argentina’s Primera Division last season it left a gaping chasm in not only Argentinean football, but the global sport as a whole. There would be no more grand matches with fierce rivals Boca Juniors, meaning that one of sports great spectacles will be missing in 2012. The two clubs are both located in Buenos Aires, but now they may as well exist on different planets.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so the saying goes, and those words ring around the great Argentine city. Of course there were swathes of Boca Juniors fans that lived for weeks in jubilation when River Plate were doomed to relegation, however the mood was soon subdued. “I cannot be happy that River were relegated, simply because now there will be no Superclasico”, said one ardent Boca Juniors supporter.
The two clubs hate each other, passionately and occasionally violently, but they love the challenge posed by the other far more than they love to hate. Talking points and arguments are now resigned to moot topics and even true bragging rights have taken a year off.
That is the thing with bragging, it is only worthwhile for fans if one club had some kind of direct influence over the demise or success of the other. Argentinean football is currently on a mid-winter break, and the nature of the two competitions within the league season means that Boca Juniors are reigning champions of the Apertura. That is great news for the club, but means little towards River Plate because they were not involved. There was no defeating of an old foe for Boca on their way to glory; instead the Blue and Gold knew that their greatest rivals were a division below. That is not the stuff of bragging rights even though Boca fans are happy to win a league.
History and class divide the two clubs. Boca Juniors are the working class people’s club and enjoy fanatical support in the less affluent areas of Buenos Aires, while River Plate are known by the moniker Los Millonarios because of their supposedly upper class support base.
The derby between the two lights up the city and engulfs day-to-day life for weeks beforehand. That has all gone, for now at least, as River found themselves relegated last season thanks to mismanagement on and off the pitch. The Argentinean FA searched in vein for loopholes to prevent the demotion, but to no avail, and the consequence was that the city went through a night of public disorder and protests. This was no ordinary relegation, to put it into perspective, it was the most shocking relegation in the history of not just Argentine football but the whole sport.
And since that day last year, how have River Plate faired in the light of their rivals’ league triumph?
The club are still in huge debt, thought to be in the region of $80M after former president Jose Maria Aguilar departed last season. However, River have regrouped and now find themselves sitting in second place in the Primera B Nacional and are looking good for promotion back to the top flight. Even securing promotion will not see the club out of the woods though, with the financial burden likely to limit funding for players although young stars such as Gabriel Mori could spell a bright future.
In contrast Boca Juniors are going from strength to strength, and the securing of the Apertura in December has meant that once again the club are among the best on the continent. As the second season tournament, the Clausura, gets ready to begin, Boca will once again be favourites to taste glory come May.
It will not be the same though, not without being able to rub their rivals’ faces in it. What is the challenge for a club if they are not being tested by the one they long to defeat? Boca Juniors will have to settle for a slightly less shiny glory while River Plate must bide their time before they can once again compete for bragging rights in Buenos Aires.