In his latest dispatch from the Argentine capital, guest blogger Matt McGinn visits one of the iconic club grounds in world football, La Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors.
La Bombonera. The name is evocative. It is onomatopoeic too, as if named in recognition of the thuds of noise that boom from its terraces.
I have always romanticised the home of Boca Juniors. I’m not sure why. I don’t have a particular interest in the team, and only since coming to Buenos Aires have I been consciously infected by the passion of Argentine football. For me, its romance must derive from its photogeneity. Perhaps this is shallow of me. Materialistic. But it is undeniably valid.
The steep, multi-tiered terracing behind each goal is gorgeous. So too is the sea of blue and yellow and the blizzard of papellito (small, torn up bits of paper) when Boca emerge. Most of all, I like the incongruity of the flat stand on the side, the wall of windows and balconies that look up to the other three stands, which form a horseshoe shape.
I’m not sure that I have been as excited to be somewhere since my childhood annual visits to Santa’s Grotto in Aylesbury town centre in the 1990s.
Construction began in 1938, after Boca secured a favourable loan from the government. Around that time, a few years after its European counterparts, the political class in Argentina was beginning to value the potential for football as a socio-political tool.
The addition of a third tier in 1953 led to the stadium’s colloquial name: La Bombonera. In English, this translates to ‘chocolate box’. Its official title, El Estadio Alberto J. Armando, is a somewhat less mighty.
Two days before Boca’s match against Quilmes, a fellow footballer at FC BAFA (a 5-a-side football club and community in Buenos Aires) alerted me to a ticket for sale. At 1,000 pesos (approximately £50), the ticket was far more reasonable than those offered by tourist agencies.
Boca’s barra wield significant influence at the club, and control the outward flow of tickets to non-members. Coupled with overwhelming demand to visit the stadium, this means that prices are highly inflated. The self-conscious football tourist in me was also grateful to be going with a Boca fan (I was using his sister’s season ticket), rather than as part of a tour.
I waited on the corner of Santa Fe and 9 de Julio to be picked up by Carlos, the seller of what I considered, in spite of Willy Wonka, to be the golden ticket. I was aware of shouting behind me. I turned around to see a privately-hired bus heaving along Santa Fe. Blue and yellow flags, and blue and yellow-dressed men, hung out of the windows as the bus turned right on to the vast sprawl of 9 de Julio to head south towards La Boca.
Boca have worn yellow and blue since 1906. That year, ahead of a match against Nottingham de Almagro, both teams realised that their kits were similar. They decided, as the story goes, that the loser of the match would have to change their kit. Boca lost, and subsequently decided to adopt the colours of the first ship that they saw come in to harbour. The first ship was Swedish, so they have worn the colours of the Swedish flag ever since. [Read the full story on how Boca Juniors got its colours]
Back on Santa Fe, my excitement intensified. More people in Boca shirts were milling about. I had the embellished sense that everyone was heading to La Bombonera; embarking on a shared pilgrimage to a footballing Mecca.
The arrival of Carlos’ green Volkswagen Fox ended abruptly my trance. I couldn’t help but feel that there was a notable difference in our excitement levels. After all, for him, this was just another match day against uninspiring opposition. As we drove south and parked up in the neighbouring barrio of Barracas, Carlos lamented the absence through suspension of Carlitos Tevez. As we walked towards the ground, and passed countless vendors selling Tevez paraphernalia on the streets, it became clear that Boca supporters venerated Tevez. He is their latest hero.
But that evening, in Carlitos’ absence, Darío Benedetto borrowed the figurative hero’s cape. The striker, a recent arrival from Club América in Mexico, had yet to score for Boca. He broke his duck in style. Thrice. The second of his three goals was a rip-roaring strike from 35 yards. There were groans of frustration as the crowd dismissed his chances of scoring from such an audacious, and selfish attempt. But they swiftly turned to jubilation as his shot arrowed in to the top corner. Benedetto even found the time to assist Ricky Centurión, the fleet-footed Boca winger, for the latter to score a cheeky back heel. Boca were 4-1 up within 25 minutes. They were cruising, and the crowd were jubilant.
The atmosphere had been lively far before kick off. Juan Martín Del Potro, the Argentine tennis star and Boca supporter, flaunted his gold medal from the 2016 Rio Olympics to each side of La Bombonera. The standing terraces at either end of the pitch were full from at least 30 minutes before kick off, with the exception of the space reserved for La Doce (the ‘12th man’). As they filed in, the noise began to build up.
At points in the match, when the hinchas (fans) on both terraces were jumping in unison, the rest of the stadium physically shook. It was the closest I have been to seismic activity. It encapsulated, through the movement of concrete, the quasi-religious fervour that courses through the veins of Argentine football. This passion extends far beyond Boca Juniors, but La Bombonera is the most potent symbol of it. This is how it is presented overseas, at least.
After half time, both teams began to settle in to an attritional rhythm. Both knew that Darío Benedetto had already decided the outcome of the match. I spoke to Carlos about the future of La Bombonera. He explained that Boca supporters were divided on the question of whether Boca should change their ground. Some believe, with heavy hearts, that modernisation is necessary, and could regenerate a largely down-at-heel barrio. This could happen by ‘completing’ the fourth side of La Bonbonera to create an oval bowl, or by moving to new pastures. Others argue that retaining the character of the stadium is more important, particularly as corporate interests would undoubtedly gobble up the additional capacity. Carlos believes in the former. Meanwhile, the rest of his family cling to the latter. It is clearly a point of serious dinner table contention. There are clear parallels to West Ham United’s recent move to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.
Naturally, as someone with a greater affiliation to the stadium than to the team that plays there, I hope Boca stay put. As the final whistle drew closer, the Boca hinchas sang to the tune of Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival: River decime que se siente, haber jugado el Nacional. This translates to ‘River, tell me how it feels to have played in the second division’.
I wondered how Boca would feel about playing elsewhere? La Bombonera had captured my imagination. For fans of Boca Juniors, the attachment must be immense.
How to get to Boca Juniors
La Bombonera is located in the La Boca area of Buenos Aires, to the south of the centre. La Boca is also home to Caminito, the iconic pedestrianized area of brightly painted metal houses. But be careful elsewhere in La Boca. Parts of the barrio are run-down, and petty crime can be an issue.
La Boca is within walking distance of San Telmo.
Buses, known as colectivos, are plentiful. Check http://www.omnilineas.com.ar/buenos-aires/colectivos/ to find the most convenient for you.