Outside Write contributor Matt McGinn went along to one of the world’s great underrated derbies, El Clásico Rosarino in Argentina’s second city, Rosario. The two teams that compete this colourful and feisty affair are Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys.
Rosario was peaceful on the Saturday as it flaunted its credentials as a pleasant antidote to the frenetic intensity of Buenos Aires. In the late afternoon sun, I took a boat trip along the Paraná River, which flows alongside Rosario. On the opposite bank to the city, clusters of Rosarinos wiled away their Saturdays with riverside asado (barbeque), having crossed from the city by kayak or small motorboat. Rosario vies with Cordobá for the accolade of Argentina’s second city. There can be few cities of such size, where absolute tranquillity is so close to hustle and bustle.
As the boat chugged upstream, the four towering floodlights of the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito, the yellow and blue home of Rosario Central, came in to view. The lady delivering the “and coming up on your left”-style commentary noted its presence, and mentioned its significance as a host stadium in the 1978 World Cup. But there was no mention of the impending Clásico Rosarino, which would see Central host their fierce rivals, Newell’s Old Boys. The stadium looked serene as I squinted in to the lowering sun. The next day, it would become a cauldron of visceral raw emotion unlike anything I had seen before.
Pathetic fallacy was the literary dish served on the day of the match. The atmosphere simmered and bubbled as the heat intensified. I struggled out of the city centre along Boulevard Avellaneda Bis in a northerly direction. It was a little before midday. The match would not kick off for another four hours but the street became increasingly blue and yellow with every passing block.
At a petrol station, a boy got out of his father’s car and assessed the surroundings. His next action was to remove his Newell’s shirt and continue across the forecourt topless. It was a wise move and a natural instinct. Natural selection looks dimly upon those who flaunt their colours in enemy territory. The back end of this description would not sound incongruous in the soothing tones of David Attenborough. Perhaps there is a parallel to be drawn. Derby day in Rosario reduces the city to animalistic emotion and territorial pride.
When I reached the junction between Avellaneda Bis and Reconquista, a sea of supporters filled the road, pulsating to the beat of a drum and the continuous fizzle of firecrackers. Pop-up parrillas (grills) and unofficial merchandise stalls ran along the pavement. Many Central supporters took liquid refreshment in the form of trago loco; large plastic bottles that are cut in half and filled with Fernet, coke and ice. The carnival atmosphere took place amid a thin haze, as the smoke from the parrillas mixed with the acrid smoulder of the fireworks.
Having collected my press accreditation in the good name of Outside Write, I settled in one of the bars along Avellaneda. Rather incongruously, the bar was called Heisenberg, but carried a Wild West theme. Nevertheless, I had an excellent vantage point to watch the steady migration of fans making their way to El Gigante.
The stadium was relatively full when I took my place alongside the perpetually excited Argentinian commentators two hours before kick off. A steward explained that fans had arrived early in order to avoid clashes with the police. Events that unfolded after the match suggest that this wise.
About an hour before kick off, a small herd of tracksuit-clad Newell’s players strolled on to the pitch. I admired their brevity. The Central hinchada (fan base) greeted them with an ear-splitting barrage of whistles and a smattering of plastic water bottles. They shuffled around the centre circle, seemingly unsure of where to look. This was the biggest taste so far of the wild Rosarino partisanship.
One Clásico Rosarino stands out amongst the others. The semi-final of the 1971 Nacional, the first time the two clubs had faced each other in a knockout match. Jonathan Wilson discussed the match in his irresistible recent book on Argentina football: Angels with Dirty Faces. With the match at 0-0, Aldo Pedro Poy threw himself at a cross and became the architect of the most iconic moment in Rosarino football history. Wilson explains that “all diving headers are known in Argentina as palomitas, little pigeons, but this is La Palomita, a goal with quasi-mystical significance.” Every year, on the anniversary of that match, Poy re-enacts the goal.
Back in 2016, the reception that the Central hinchada gave the tracksuited Newell’s lambs took me aback. The reception that the Central hinchada gave their own players was spectacular. It was sensory overload; a raw, bulk-deposit of emotion that cannot be replicated beyond the stands of a football stadium. The fans’ chanting gave way, in unison, to a coarse roar. It was as if their emotion was too primal to be construed through coherent words. They soon disappeared behind a blizzard of torn up paper and a thick fog of blue and yellow smoke.
CRACK. The first of six or seven ear-splitting bangers landed on the pitch, just to the side of the penalty box. They left a cluster of brown scorch marks. As the fog lifted and the blue skies returned to view, a silhouette emerged on top of a stanchion in the top tier of the home terrace. Arm held aloft, as if leading a charge in to battle, the silhouetted figure thrust a blue and yellow flag above his head. He had the best view in the house.
Alas, I have no photographs of the most photogenic moment I have seen in a football stadium. My phone alerted me, moments before the recibimiento (the reception of the home players) that its memory was full. That’ll teach me to not delete old podcasts. But in a way, I am now glad. If I had attempted to capture the moment on camera, it might have detracted from the cabooming apocalyptic power of the moment itself. Due to the wonders of YouTube, you can view footage of the recibimiento here:
The match was cagy, as is often the case when the stakes are high. Newell’s had not beaten Central for eight years. They were not willing to concede an early goal and risk perpetuating this barren spell.
The best chance of the match fell to Central in the first half, directly in front of the club’s barra (fanatics). A powerful back-post header led to a goalmouth scramble, but the Newell’s defenders desperately clawed the ball to safety. This sudden burst of excitement caused a surge in the lower tier of the tribuna (standing terrace). Blue and yellow shirts cascaded down the terrace. For a moment, it looked like it could develop in to a concerning situation. In Argentine stadiums, towering wire fences with curly barbed-wire hair separate the fans from the pitch. The Hillsborough disaster has been particularly prevalent in the British media in 2016. Now more than ever, packed terraces and wire fences hold a grotesque symbolism in the collective consciousness of British football. I was relieved to see the fans in question dust themselves off and reassume their positions.
The match bumbled along. For the bulk of the second half, both teams appeared keener to avoid defeat than make a decisive push for victory. A 0-0 appeared inevitable.
Enter Maxi Rodríguez. The thirty-five year old in his second spell at Newell’s collected a rebound from his own corner before calmly guiding the ball in to the far corner. The Newell’s bench erupted. It was the 93rd minute. Rodríguez leapt in to his manager’s arms before falling to his knees, overcome. His team celebrated wildly beneath a shower of plastic bottles.
The rest of the stadium was stunned. The barra continued to sing, as they always do. But it sounded hollow, like they were going through the motions. After the final whistle blew, many sat in silence on the terrace in salubrious clusters. I suspected that feelings of gut-punching hollowness would be fading, giving way to the realisation that they would be the recipients of gleeful gloating from Newell’s supporters.
Outside the stadium, there were skirmishes between Central fans and riot police. I watched from the open-sided concourse as a topless man with a bloodied arm hurled abuse as tooled-up policemen stood, chins high, in a line. “¡La concha de tu madre, hijo de puta!” he bellowed, repeatedly. The police were extremely liberal in their use of rubber bullets to disperse small pockets of men throwing stones in their direction.
I was grateful to have access to the post-match press conference, not least to allow the crowds to disperse before I left. The conference took place in a rectangular room in the bowels of the stadium. On my way down, I passed the barra’s band. They were sat in an entrance tunnel to the stadium. Some disconsolately fluttered on trumpets. Others sat on bundles of yellow and blue flag, looking dejected.
The press conference was, in itself, a form of entertainment. The collection of TV crews and journalists waited for Eduardo Coudet, the Central manager, to address them. A faint sound of victorious chanting, presumably from the Newell’s team, began to increase in volume, comfortably pervading the thin interior wall. It soon gave way to the sound of a fracas as someone took umbrage. The hacks flocked to the partition wall like moths to light. One shoved a dictaphone through a small window, intent on recording the dialogue. Something hit the window. He recoiled, almost falling off the chair he was perched on. Someone had thrown a bottle of water from the other side of the partition. A member of the Central media team came in to give the journalists a curt ticking off for their nosiness. In comparison to this episode the actual press conference was rather pedestrian.
I strolled back to central Rosario, the route scattered with discarded plastic bottles, cans, and fireworks. I thought about the banner that hung from the opposite platea during the match: “La Pasión Mas Grande De Argentina” (The Biggest Passion in Argentina). It is a difficult claim to dispute. River versus Boca, Huracán versus San Lorenzo, Racing versus Independiente. These are intense rivalries. But they all co-exist in the same city. In Rosario, there are just these two clubs. The resulting atmosphere is special.
Listen to Matt describe his experiences in Argentina in the latest episode of the Football Travel podcast.