Boca Juniors 1 (Silva 39′) drew with River Plate 1 (Lanzini 1′) at La Bombonera, crowd ~50,000, Primera División, 5 May 2013.

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Normally it’s pretty easy to decide how to start these posts: just chose the most noteworthy or memorable aspect of the match. A cracking goal, a captivating performance, a quirk in the atmosphere … usually something sticks out like the obelisk on Nueve de Julio. But how could I possibly highlight just one feature from the 200th league instalment of the storied Boca Juniors versus River Plate rivalry (or the River Plate versus Boca Juniors rivalry, if you happen to come from the red-and-white half of Buenos Aires)?

How could I separate the fastest River goal in the history of this fixture from their manager’s theatrical reaction to his second-half red card? How could I split the army of ‘ghosts of the Primera B‘ that greeted River’s first visit to La Bombonera since returning from the second tier, and the brilliant display of pyrotechnics that halted play for 15 minutes? Indeed, how could an introductory paragraph do justice to the hottest sporting atmosphere I have ever experienced? Suffice to say that El Superclásico lived up to some lofty expectations.

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Derby day started at Red Carpet bar in Palermo, where a group of 50 or so had assembled courtesy of Mix Up travel agency – a name that hardly inspires confidence in their organisational abilities. There were a handful of Argentines who stumped up the 1150 pesos (or a refreshingly affordable $120, with the black market dollar hovering well above 9:1) for a ticket in the away end, but the majority were tourists. Dutch discussing how Ajax had secured the Eredivisie that morning and Italians likewise with Juventus. Germans chatting about how fans of Dortmund and Bayern were preparing for the Champions League final at Wembley, which would see the biggest Teutonic invasion of London since 1945. Americans nonplussed by this whole ‘soccer’ caper and the lone Australian keeping an eye on a sleepy Merseyside Derby, which ended scoreless. I crossed my fingers Buenos Aires’ red-versus-blue clásico would reach greater heights.

Contrary to their name, Mix Up transported its clutch of excited tourists with military precision to the bottom of El Caminito, which was already bustling with thousands of visiting supporters who had congregated by La Boca‘s waterside. The Policia Federal had assembled a maze-like route to the stadium, traversing four friskings, seven ticket inspections, and a finger-print check in a high tech machine that looked like it had come straight from a ’90s Bond film.

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It was still 90 minutes before kickoff but La Bombonera was already heaving by the time we found our way to the away terrace, the highest level of three tiers at the southern end of the iconic ground. I was apprehensive about how the salt-of-the-earth River hinchas would receive a group of cashed up foreigners who had paid a small fortune to snaffle precious derby tickets that are as rare as hen’s teeth, but I needn’t have worried. After I squeezed past him into a tiny patch of available concrete, my neighbour – who I would spend the next three hours pressed up against, like sardines in a desperately undersized tin – explained that the only extranjeros in the stadium were the ones wearing blue and yellow, and being situated in the River end made me Argentine for the day.

According to River fans, Boca might have more supporters, but that’s only because they attract all the immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay. Fair to say Argentine stadiums aren’t home to enlightened attitudes towards race. A hulking, moustachioed, tattooed gentleman wearing a Los Borrachos del Tablón t-shirt was posing for a photograph with his Argentine passport, as if to say that entering La Bombonera was like visiting a foreign country. One of his comrades – perched precariously on the barbed wire fence at the front of the bay – waved a Bolivian flag at the home fans below, covering his mouth with a surgeon’s mask to poke fun at Boca’s Bosteros nickname – inelegantly translated as the name of the workers who used to scoop up horse shit around the city’s port – bestowed by supporters of Los Millonarios, who historically hail from BA’s leafy northern suburbs.

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The Boca fans – who now wear the Bosteros nickname like a badge of honour – give as good as they get. Dozens of barra bravas at the opposite end of the ground scale the fence dressed in white bed sheets with a red ‘B’ painted on the front: fantasmas de la B, returning to haunt River on their first visit to the home of their arch rivals since their mortifying descent to the Primera B last season. The other barb is the Gallinas – or ‘chickens’ – nickname, designed to highlight River’s perceived mental frailty in big games, and their supporters’ cowardice – or in porteño parlance, lack of huevos (balls) and aguante (courage). Predictably – in much the same way their enemies now ‘own’ the Bosteros insult – the River (or ‘Riber’, as Boca fans like to say it after their rivals’ spell in the ‘B’) fans have embraced the Gallinas label, judging by the number of chicken hats in the away terrace.

It’s all a myth, of course. This concocted class warfare is nothing but a pageant played out in the stadium, fuelled by a rivalry that has far more to do with football than economics. From my perspective, everyone looks like they don’t have two pesos to rub together. The River fans look just as Bolivian as the Boca fans they heap scorn on. My house in San Telmo sits about 3km from La Bombonera in the south of Buenos Aires, and the unemployed cartoneros who sift through piles of rubbish on the side of the street are just as likely to be wearing a River tracksuit as a Boca top. But no one is in the mood to let the facts get in the way of some quality football banter.

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The groundsmen barely had time to clear the pitch of hundreds of till rolls when 20-year-old Manuel Lanzini pierced a header into the back of the net within 40 seconds. The celebrations were surprisingly mute. Perhaps it was the shock of River’s quickest goal in 200 league meetings with their great enemies, or perhaps it was that everyone was too squished to generate much noise. In the rush to the front of the terrace I lost my footing, before my neighbour helped me up and blamed the fall not on my clumsiness but rather the “estadio de mierda” – or ‘stadium of shit’ – we found ourselves crammed in to. ¡Que amable!

River controlled the tempo of the game until Boca equalised in the 40th minute, through chrome-domed No.9 Santiago Silva – just like Dino Kresinger, except Silva actually nets goals. The referee blew half time with the score locked at one apiece, but it was too crowded to leave for a refreshment or a toilet break. All 3,000 away fans remained wedged in their place as the ground staff took to the pitch with leaf blowers to get rid of the mat of confetti that carpeted the playing surface.

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Both managers made aggressive changes early in the second stanza as they pressed for the three points, but the game was petering out into a tame draw unbecoming of the atmosphere. Boca boss Carlos Bianchi – an astonishing look-alike for Larry David, so much so that ‘Larry David’ is the second highest auto-complete result when you google Bianchi’s name – was desperate to snap a run of 11 league fixtures without a win while his counterpart – Ramón Díaz, a slick operator whose haircut belongs in a Brylcreem commercial – needed a victory to keep in touch with the Clausura front runners. His keenness got the better of him when referee German Delfino issued him a tarjeta roja for protesting a decision too vehemently. Díaz accepted his punishment with a smile, skipping across the pitch behind a 12-man police escort to the tunnel in the opposite corner, gesticulating with La Doce – Boca’s home end, or twelfth man. You can’t script theatre as gripping as this.

However, the incident was nothing compared to the fireworks – literally – that would follow ten minutes later. Boca’s hinchada pelted River keeper Marcelo Barovero with little petards, before detonating smoke bombs at both ends of the ground. Apparently – my view was obscured by a blanket of blue and yellow smoke – Barovero insisted Delfino abandon the match during the unplanned 10-minute interval. The police did their best to restore order by showering the gallery with water cannons stationed in either corner, which extinguished the pyrotechnics but failed to dampen the intensity of the spectacle on and off the pitch. Boca pressed hard for a winner throughout a remarkable 12 added minutes (timely homage to Sir Alex Ferguson, who would announce his retirement the following Wednesday). There was no goal but this Superclásico ended as explosively as it begun, with Delfino issuing a red card to Boca defender Guillermo Burdisso for a wild and completely unnecessary lunge in the dying minutes.

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River fans left the terrace slowly after the final whistle, taking one last chance to goad their opponents from behind the safety of a barbed wire fence and a police escort. As their frustration heightened, so did the number of songs about Boca’s purported relationship with the immigrant community; an ugly and wholly imagined racial undertone to what is a rivalry based purely on football. In Argentina, the police force the home fans to remain in the stadium until the away fans depart, which seemed to be taking an eternity. Why? The toilets at the top of the stairs had backed up and overflowed, meaning a veritable river of excrement caked the descent from the top of the towering grandstand to street level, which had been turned into a lake of human waste. Not quite as foul as Andy Dufresne’s escape from Shawshank, but bad enough to lend credence to Boca’s Bosteros nickname.

A troop of decrepit school buses were waiting to ferry the visiting supporters back to the north of the city, protected by a security detail that President Obama would be proud of. Our group reassembled on the minibus for a post mortem, agog at the 90 (or, rather, 102) minutes of football we had just witnessed. “How crazy was this,” someone would muse; “how funny was that” or “I couldn’t believe this”. The experience was positively other worldly, images you’ve seen before but can’t quite truly appreciate until you’re jammed into the populares on game day. As we caught our breath, a Dutch student chipped in his two bob. “Not a great game, though,” he said. I furrowed by brow at first, but it was hard to disagree. The actual play was cagey and disorganised and ill-disciplined – there were two red cards after all, including one to the man who was supposed to be steering the Good Ship River Plate. Boca spurned countless chances in the second half and River failed to mount any real pressure after snatching their early lead. The football itself resembled the stuff trickling down the stairwell out of the malfunctioning bathroom.

Bizarrely, though, the quality of the football seemed to matter little to the quality of the show, the pageant, the occasion. The stars of El Superclásico aren’t the players or the coaches, but rather, the hinchas. The ticker tape and till rolls, the smoke bombs and petards, the ‘ghosts of the B’ and the surgeon’s masks, the unchecked vitriol and passion. It’s taken me almost 2,000 words to recount my experience of derby day in BA, and that still fails to do justice to the spectacle that is Boca Juniors versus River Plate: El Superclásico.

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