Illustration by Maya San Diego
In one of the biggest soccer hotspots in the world, Argentina, there lives a century old rivalry: Boca Juniors versus River Plate. It originated around 1905, when the two clubs played in very close proximity in Bueno Aires’ Boca district, and today it is still one of the most heated rivalries worldwide. Just three years ago, a match between the two teams had to be cancelled at halftime because Boca fans attacked River supporters with pepper spray. And now, for the first time ever, the two teams are facing off in the finals of the Copa Libertadores, the pinnacle of competition in South American soccer.
The final of the Copa is played in two legs, and the first ended in a 2-2 draw with tensions high. But before the second leg could be played, River fans attacked the Boca team bus on its way to the stadium with a variety of projectiles and pepper spray.
Boca’s Pablo Perez was taken to the hospital with slivers of broken glass in his eye, while another Boca player, Gonzalo Lamardo, suffered a cut on his forehead. Many players suffered dizziness and vomiting due to the heavy use of pepper spray, as well as tear gas used by police. Fans still waited hopefully in a packed stadium, but they were disappointed. A few of Boca’s players weren’t in good enough physical condition to play, and none of them were mentally prepared after the attack.
The final was eventually cancelled and rescheduled for December 9. For safety, it was decided that the final would move to Madrid to be played in Real Madrid’s stadium, where River took a 3-2 win to become South American champions.
Boca president Daniel Angelici reflected the general sentiment of the soccer world and of Argentinian fans when he said, “This should shame us as a society.” Over the years, many people have been drawn to South American soccer, in Argentina especially, because of the passion. Rivalries like this add a new element to the sport, and it’s become a way of life. But this time, it has undeniably gone too far. And this is the problem that we often encounter in the fiery, passionate fandom of soccer: at what point does fandom cross the line?
Many would assert that physical violence is the point at which it’s gone too far. The problem is, violence has been a part of soccer since the 13th century, and it’s ingrained in sporting culture around the world. In big sporting events, fans often take any chance to cause mayhem.
For many sports, especially contact sports, the fans see violence as an essential part of the sport’s character. This violence is a release for fans, a way to get out other frustrations in the name of your team. But people just don’t know when to stop. There’s been an increasing epidemic of highly damaging riots.
After the 2014 World Series, Giants fans started a riot that ended with two people being shot and one stabbed. 50 masked men with axes cornered and assaulted Croatian fans on their way home after the 2012 European Men’s Handball championships. This widespread wave of sports-related violence offers a view of the extremes of fandom around the world. People resort to any means to defend their allegiance, and it often ends badly. Violence in sports is symptomatic of the flaws in the way people view competition in general.
It seems often that the rivalries we see in soccer are a facade for underlying issues. Like many, the Boca-River rivalry is also one between the rich and the working class, stemming from River’s history of splashing out on expensive players to gain success. The allegiance many fans feel to their club is a matter of pride, but also purpose. Incidents like the bus attack are a symptom of a more fundamental divide among the people of Buenos Aires. For the violence to end, the culture in and around soccer needs to change too.