This feature is part of A World of Ultras
On the exterior of the world-famous La Bombonera stadium sit two outstanding murals by painter and sculptor Pérez Celis. They give a telling insight into the wonderful world of Boca Juniors and what heroes of yesteryear and the struggles of the support mean to the raucous fans of the Argentine club.
They force you to look up. You take a step back, wondering what it all means. And in that moment, staring high into the Buenos Aires sky, taking in the splendour of the Celis’s exceptional work, you realise you’ve made it. You’re there, standing proudly in front of the most exceptional, awkward, dominating and beautiful stadium in world football, La Bombonera.
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He stood surrounded by family and friends in his lavish box. Diego Maradona, the king of La Bombonera, the man who spent just a solitary season of brilliance in the early 1980s and won a single league title in Buenos Aires, saluted his followers. They bowed back, aware that the king had acknowledged them.
Despite his high perch in the strangely shaped stadium, El Diego belongs to his people. He belongs to the Los Xeneizes, the fans of this great institution.
Many decades before Maradona, before Boca were the world-renowned club they are today, Italian migrants left the shores of the poverty-ridden peninsula and made their way across the South Atlantic to Argentina. There they would discover a land of limited opportunities, Spanish speakers and stunning scenery.
A large number of migrants to the capital Buenos Aires were from the northern city of Genoa. With them they brought their flair for calcio and in this melting pot of cultures, backgrounds and history, formed an alliance that would eventually result in the birth of a club from La Boca, their neighbourhood.
Having brought famous dishes like pizza and pasta from their homeland, they now established their very own club, under the guidance of Irish footballer and boxer Paddy McCarthy. In a city just shy of a million inhabitants, the Italian migrants, who accounted for 50 percent of the new arrivals on Argentine shores, had a club to call their own.
It was a community struggling to survive but close-knit and determined to overcome the challenges of life on the other side of the world. Boca Juniors would grow from a tiny local club to the focal point of the community; it remains exactly that over a century later in the community of La Boca.
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The club’s influence quickly spread across Argentina and the club claims today that over half the nation support its famous blue and yellow jersey. Despite being difficult to verify, there’s no question that Boca are the most widely-supported club in Argentina and the most popular South American side in the world. From humble beginnings as the brainchild of struggling Italian migrants, they have become a true global super-club.
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It’s then a pleasant surprise to note the ferocity with which the fans today aim to preserve their history. There’s a very real acceptance of the struggles that the early migrants had to overcome – of how they used football to bring their community closer together and find a place of joy for their children.
Perhaps that’s why the Boca fans so fiercely defend their club in the face of adversity. Whether it’s the chants of Los Bosteros (The Manure Handlers), in recognition of the brick factory outside La Bombonera that used manure in its bricks, or River Plate fans hoisting an inflatable pig in the colours of Boca above their rivals’ support, the club will go to extreme lengths to defend their history and place as the biggest club in Argentina.
Unsurprisingly, things don’t always remain cordial in the city that hosts almost half of the 30 Primera División clubs. Boca were last year unceremoniously booted out of the Copa Libertadores after their fans were found guilty of spraying rival River players with irritant sprays as they made their way out of the tunnel for the game.
It was a black mark on the reputation of the Boca support and one that landed the club a $200,000 fine.
River defender Rogelio Funes Mori, now of Everton, was heard shouting, “I can’t see, I can’t see. I am burning. This is not a war!”
The incident highlighted two clear points: firstly, Argentine football has a very real problem with violent hooliganism and secondly, that a small section of Boca fans are willing to sacrifice the fundamental, honest morals that the club was built upon to break down their rivals’ resolve.
The incident comes after years of violence at stadiums in Argentina. A report from the football reform group, Salvemos al Fútbol, found that an average of five people died each year from fan related violence in Argentina between 2000 and 2009.
While Boca have not been the only culprits, they have failed to lead a positive response from their perch as the biggest club in Argentina.
That said, many fans Boca fans have taken to social media and internet forums to display their anger at the incidents that have cast a shadow over the support of the Buenos Aires club and many others in the top flight. The vast majority of fans, peaceful but vociferous with their support, are against violence. After all, this is traditionally a family club that prides itself on a long and glorious history.
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Despite violence often detracting from the true nature of support at La Bombonera, the vast majority of fans inside this iconic arena support their club in the best possible way: through decibel-busting chanting, incredible tifos and unconditional support.
Labelling their local rivals River Las Gallinas (The Chickens) for their perceived tendency to choke in big games is a humorous retort that has been passed down the generations. In fact, the club’s fans, famously directed by the excellent Número 12 society, have nicknames for most of their top flight rivals. They verge from the extreme to the downright funny.
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The number 12 has been an integral part of Boca’s history, representing the fans for almost a century. The club is acutely aware that their support lends itself as the 12th man on match day and they are often treated with the same reverence as players and staff at Azul y Oro.
These fans really come alive when match day rolls into town. With their famous display of blue and gold tifos – some covering a third of the stand – around the stadium, the fans create a visual atmosphere like no other in the world of football. Streaks of gold paper rush down from the highest reaches of La Bombonera and fans clamber atop the mesh fences to perch themselves above the pitch and in the greatest vantage points of all.
From there many direct the support. The chants are pre-rehearsed, known by all the Xeneizes before they enter the stadium. From historic legends like Maradona and Mouzo to modern heroes like Riquelme, Tevez and Palermo, they all have a song. They’re all serenaded and made to feel like they’re the most integral part of the family. The Boca fans can make you feel love like few others.
As the jungle of blue and gold bubbles with life, swaying from side to side in a stadium with acoustics to rivals any other in the game, the players ride on their shoulders, taking in the electric atmosphere and often rising to the occasion. That’s what the fans expect – that their support of the club is repaid with honest performances. There’s no time for passengers and passers-by; you’re either 100 percent or 100 percent out. That’s the Boca way.
Perhaps that’s why Carlos Tevez was so hungry to move back to his beloved Boca. It’s like a bug you can’t shake; a disease that eats at your very core, calling you back and making you want another fleeting moment in the sun. It’s spectacular how La 12 can make you feel like the most special player in football.
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In a world where footballers share their every move on social media, where their lifestyle is on show for everyone to see, it’s not hard to imagine what life must be like for the professional player. It’s a good world – one where you’re paid incredible sums of money to do what you love.
Few things in the world are left to the imagination anymore. We simply know what to expect wherever we go and whatever we do. While that statement holds true in most cases, it fails to explain what it means to watch a game at La Bombonera. You just can’t imagine what the atmosphere is like, especially if you’re a fan from outside South America.
Boca Juniors are a club like no other. They’re the embodiment of worlds colliding in the beating heart of Argentina. Their colours are taken from a Swedish boat adorning the national flag, their early talent was taught by a rabid Irishman and they were formed by a group of Italian working-class migrants. They still represent values, and boast a history, that’s the antithesis to much of football today. Their fans, La 12, are much the same.
In a sport losing touch with the men and women that for so long made it tick, Boca Juniors’ support, the good and the bad, represents an ideal. They represent the acute meaning of loving a club through everything; of loving their players and keeping them as one of their own. And through their support, their deafening, brutal support, they’ve managed to retain a relationship with the men they come to watch every week. They’ve made Boca Juniors a club like no other. A club where players feel like they’re a part of the stadium.
La Boca may just be a working-class neighbourhood in Buenos Aires to many, but it’s one of the last bastions in football where through their actions, fans have managed to maintain a bond with their players like no other.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem