Boca Juniors 1 (Erviti 76′) beat Arsenal 0 at La Bombonera, crowd ~20,000, Primera División, 16 June 2013.
The rain stopped in time for kickoff between Boca Juniors and Arsenal, but ominous clouds cast a pall over La Bombonera. The weather set a funereal tone for the final home game of a miserable campaign for the hosts. After concentrating their efforts on an ill-fated tilt at the Copa Libertadores, Los Bosteros sat rock bottom on the ladder heading into the Arsenal clash, with vaunted coach Carlos Bianchi seemingly serving a stay of execution before his inevitable axing. The storm clouds also provided an obvious metaphor for the state of Argentine football generally, in a week when the government banned away supporters following the death of a Lanús fan killed in clashes with police on Monday.
In fairness, Boca did have one reason to smile: the midweek relegation of Independiente – who somehow managed to slip through a system designed to protect larger clubs from the drop, after River’s descent two years ago – left the Azul y Oro as the only member of the country’s big five to have never been relegated; indeed, el único grande. The sodden streets en route to la cancha were lined with banners feting the club’s 108 years in the ‘A’, but not exactly brimming with fans, who must have been turned away by the foul weather or Boca’s even fouler form. It might have also had something to do with the TV-friendly Sunday night kickoff time, as mandated by the Kirchner government to divert viewers away from Jorge Lanata’s influential, Cristina-bashing program ‘Periodismo para todos’. Think a fatter, bearded, Latino Alan Jones equally prone to vilifying a female head of government and especially fond to fond of Spanish profanity, airing on Canal Trece, a channel owned by the Murdoch-esque and stridently anti-government Grupo Clarín. Think a Spanish-speaking ‘Bolt Report‘, the primary difference being that people actually watch this Argentine version.
The nation’s football arena has been similarly ill-tempered in recent months – with El Rojo‘s relegation, sanctions for pyrotechnics at the Superclásico, and the Lanús incident, amongst others – and this tension has resulted in tightened controls of fans, like the AFA’s fan registration census, the away fan ban, and fewer tickets being given to travel agents. Boca, for example, limits entry to abonos – season ticket holders – meaning I posed as Andres Cerda for the afternoon, having paid handsomely for the privilege. Señor Cerda’s seats – enough to cater for a group of nine foreigners, including a West Ham fan wearing an eye-catching pair of hot pink Converse – were located in the wind-swept upper deck of a footballing cathedral filled with far fewer disciples than usual.
Inexplicably, Boca took to the soggy pitch in their white away strip and immediately set about dominating Arsenal (no, not that Arsenal, of the Thierry Henry/Anfield ’89/Arsene Wenger variety; rather, Arsenal de Sarandí, a tiny club from Avellaneda so trapped by the shadow of the region’s two big clubs – Independiente and Racing – that their garish sky-blue-and-red colour scheme intentionally pays homage to them both). Despite Boca’s ascendency, the visitors should have pinched a lead with the last kick of the first half, but Julio Furch’s goal was incorrectly ruled out for offside. Cue vehement protests and typical Latino theatrics before Arsenal finally retired to the dressing room.
Manager Gustavo Alfaro wasted no time in resuming hostilities after the break. Alfaro – a stern looking man wearing a smart grey coat, like the archetypal humourless FBI agent you’d see in a B-grade ’90s cop film – didn’t even have a chance to take his seat before he was dismissed by referee German Delfino for protesting. Delfino – coincidentally the whistleblower for last month’s card-laden Superclásico at the same venue – then expelled Alfaro’s assistant Carlos Gonzalez. In two games in BA’s most famous cancha I’ve seen Delfino reduce the away side to their third-string gaffer. Not even the retiring Sir Alex Ferguson could have dreamt of such a home ground advantage.
Boca put their foot on Arsenal’s throat as the second half wore on for the half-full Bombonera. The half that was empty was the platea, the posh seats reserved for those ‘fans’ carrying wallets bulging with pesos. The terraces, on the other hand, were bulging with bouncing hinchas, unperturbed by the weather or their team’s woeful form. Banners were unfurled to fete Boca’s newfound status as el único grande, and today, el que no salta wasn’t English, rather, he was going to la ‘B’. The home side had two good penalty shouts turned down but finally broke the deadlock with 15 minutes to go, when Martínez chested down an Acosta cross for Erviti – who turned in a shift so industrious his socks had scrappily fallen down to his ankles – to rifle into the bottom corner. Arsenal had another goal disallowed minutes later and totally dropped their bundle, lucky to not concede again before Delfino blew full-time.
There was time, however, for Juan Román Riquelme to squeeze in dessert before the end of the meal, dancing through a web of defenders to deliver a sumptuous chip over the keeper’s head that was thwarted only by the woodwork. It capped a virtuoso performance by the maestro No.10, hardly breaking a sweat as he controlled the midfield, calmly pulling the strings like a masterful puppeteer; a deft craftsman rather than a tireless athlete. Perhaps, though, his injury time lob – so promising, only to sail inches wide – sums up his career: entertaining flourishes of artistic brilliance ultimately lacking substance, a legend at Boca but a failure in controversial stints at Barcelona and Villareal, an impressive CV that marginally falls short of the ‘elite’ category of footballers, a B+ rather than an A, maybe through lack of effort or fortune but certainly not through any shortage of talent. Having walked away from the game midway through 2012, the 35 year old returned in February this year, so seeing him wind back the clock in front of this humble, hardcore gallery of doting admirers was like watching The Beatles reform for one last gig at The Cavern. An intimate display of rare talent. In short, a treat.
If Riquelme’s chip was the dessert, then Arsenal made sure to provide the after dinner mint in the form of a memorable post-game fracas. Wild protestations towards Delfino boiled over into an unfettered team-mate vs. team-mate melee that left Iván Marcone with a red ticket, and our group of tourists shrugging their shoulders. This was their own team-mates they were biffing with. The same blokes they were about to share a frosty bus ride home with. ‘Only in Argentina,’ we postured, wondering if tonight’s episode of Lanata’s programme could have possibly matched this level of theatre and acrimony.
So what started as a dim day ended up being rather bright. The died-in-the-wool Bosteros loyal enough to turn up got to see Boca notch their first win in six games and climb off the foot of the ladder, they were regaled with a vintage Riquelme highlights reel, and they were able to toast the fact their newfound status as el único grande: a seriously weighty achievement, even for an institution not shy to pat itself on the back (their crest has more stars than the US flag, keep in mind). Then, as their loyal followers returned home to wring out their raincoats and tuck into a nice warm mate, they flicked on their TVs to watch Newell’s spank River 5-1 to wrap up the title, giving their great rivals a chance to dust off the Ñuls tops they bought to goad Boca in the wake of Los Xeneizes’ Libertadores elimination at the hands of the Rosario club. To finish on a cliché, a little ray of sunshine poked through the clouds after all.