In February 2018 a State Championship game in Brazil between Vitória and Bahia was abandoned after a mass brawl resulted in 10 red cards and six cautions. The melee ensued after Bahia’s Vinicius scored a penalty and provocatively celebrated in front of the home fans, to which Vitória’s players took exception.
The story became headline news all over the world, with major media outlets in the United Kingdom – the same platforms that usually ignore the positive aspects of South American football – providing coverage.
Violence in South American society, and by extension football, is hardly a new phenomenon. Perhaps this particular incident gained notoriety due to the fact that this kind of occurrence is rare in the modern game, in stark contrast to the often brutal 1960s and 1970s. The introduction of the Intercontinental Cup, which pitted the champions of South America and Europe against each other to determine the de facto club world champions, was the cause of several key flashpoints.
The 1967 Battle of Montevideo – fought on neutral soil in the Uruguayan capital between Argentina’s Racing and Scotland’s Celtic after two legs failed the separate the teams – has become infamous for the levels of violence on show, which included scything challenges, flying fists, and projectiles raining down from the stands.
Estudiantes, managed by Osvaldo Zubeldía, a man synonymous with anti-fútbol, competed in the Intercontinental Cup three times in a row between 1968 and 1970, beating Manchester United before losing to AC Milan and Feyenoord. Each of those games boasted high levels of brutality and cynicism. Hardly the swinging sixties; more like swinging punches.
The 1966 World Cup was pivotal to both refereeing and, as a side note, relations between Argentina and England. The quarter-final clash with England – a game in which Alf Ramsey labelled the opposition players “animals” – saw Argentina’s captain Antonio Rattín dismissed and unwittingly led to the introduction of red and yellow cards at the 1970 World Cup. Englishman Ken Aston, the official referee coordinator in 1966, came up with the brainwave when he stopped at traffic lights on the way home from Wembley following the game.
In 1971, Boca Juniors faced Peru’s Sporting Cristal in the Copa Libertadores, and the match would go down in the brutality hall of fame, with 19 players given their marching orders. It was one of the ugliest nights in football history, a stain on the beautiful game, and the most infamous of dirty clashes.
Cristal qualified for the cup by virtue of winning the Campeonato Descentralizado, the fourth of their 18 titles, by a solitary point. Boca Juniors won the 1970 Nacional, retaining the trophy they had also won in 1969. The pair were drawn in a group alongside Rosario Central – who Boca had beaten in a one-off final at the Estadio Monumental to clinch their title – and Universitario, Cristal’s rivals from Lima.
After three match days – the halfway point of the group stage – the four sides could barely be split. Universitario had four points, Boca and Cristal three, with Rosario Central bringing up the rear with two.
Sixteen days before the clash at La Bombonera, Boca had been soundly beaten 2-0 by Cristal in the Peruvian capital. On 17 March 1971, Boca sought revenge. The clash, kicking off at 8:40pm local time, was one of the first to be transmitted to Peru via satellite, meaning those in the Andean country could follow events as they happened through the relatively new and exotic medium of television. The previous night, Universitario only managed a draw in Rosario, blowing the group wide open.
Cristal selected the same side as in the first clash, hoping for a repeat victory. The 60,000 fanatical Boca supporters, however, saw their team take a 2-0 lead with goals from Jorge Coch and Ángel Clemente Rojas. Coch pounced on a rebound following a save by the goalkeeper; Rojas chested the ball and volleyed powerfully from close range.
Cristal hit back with Juan Orbegoso scoring from inside the box before, in the 69th minute, Carlos Gonzáles Pajuelo rolled the ball in from close range after goalkeeper Rubén Sánchez had spilt it. From here on in, the game increased in intensity. The crowd became increasingly hostile as the momentum swung back and forth, almost resembling a basketball match, as both sides pushed forward in search of a crucial winner.
With minutes remaining, Boca pushed forward once more, and Roberto Rogel fell to the floor in the penalty area. The home side were incensed when Uruguayan referee Alejandro Otero dismissed their penalty appeal, convinced that the Boca man had fallen of his own accord.
Rubén Suñé – Boca’s captain who years later would attempt suicide by jumping out of a seventh-storey window after struggling with life after football – instigated the trouble by hacking down Alfredo Quesada during the next passage of play. All hell broke loose, with punches and kicks raining down like ticker tape from the stands.
Suñé attacked Alberto Gallardo with a corner flag; Gallardo responded by launching a flying kick to the head of his assailant, opening a bloody wound on Suñé’s head that would later require seven stitches in a local clinic. Boca’s captain, like a man possessed, needed several policemen to subdue him. The iconic image of a bleeding Suñé (main photo) was captured and adorned the front cover of classic monthly Argentine sports magazine El Gráfico.
Coch, one of Boca’s scorers on the night, was in the eye of the storm, kicking both Eloy Campos and Fernando Mellán as they lay on the floor, fracturing a skull and breaking a nose in the process, causing the pair to need treatment at the nearby Hospital Argerich. Orlando de la Torre bravely fought with two or three Boca players at a time although, sadly, his distraught mother died of a heart attack after watching the events unfold live on television.
The only three players to escape Otero’s wrath were the two goalkeepers – Boca’s Sánchez and Sporting Cristal’s Luyis Rubiños – along with Boca’s Peruvian defender Julio Meléndez. Ironically one of the players of the match, Cristal’s Ramón Mifflin, was red-carded despite staying fairly neutral in the brawl, and Boca goalkeeper Sánchez escaped punishment despite being at the forefront of the trouble. However, no blame whatsoever should be laid at the feet of the referee for these minor transgressions given the scale of the violence on show. This was in the days before the scrutiny of VAR and dozens of camera angles.
Whilst the rest of the officials escaped to the relative sanctuary of the dressing room, referee Otero remained in the heat of the battle in the volatile Bombonera. This perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise given his day job as a policeman who was used to fighting left-wing guerrillas back home in Uruguay.
Barring those receiving medical treatment, the culprits of the evening’s shenanigans were sent to a police station just three blocks away from La Bombonera on Calle Pinzón, with many forced to spend the night there in close quarters. Those involved were later given 30-day jail sentences, although they were soon quashed after a bit of back-door diplomacy.
The initial reaction to the event was one of anger. In Peru, an angry mob gathered outside the Argentine Embassy in Lima. The incident was huge news in both countries, with press on each side trading ugly insults. Boca were ultimately ejected from the competition, with their two outstanding fixtures awarded as walkovers to the opposition. It was even questioned whether a violent country such as Argentina should be allowed to host the World Cup in 1978. Given what would happen politically in the subsequent years, this sentiment is steeped in the cruellest of ironies.
Boca president at the time, Alberto J. Armando, was disgusted, claiming to be embarrassed to be Argentine and involved in football, and asked for the heaviest punishment possible from the confederation for all involved. Stiff suspensions were meted out to players and officials on both sides.
Sporting Cristal, whose players were greeted as heroes upon their return to Lima airport, continued in the tournament but, with a raft of injuries and lengthy suspensions as a result of their evening in La Bombonera forcing them to field reserves and youth team players, succumbed to two heavy defeats, failing to score a goal and conceding seven in return.
The infamous event was later labelled the “Stalingrad of Football”, a reference to the largest confrontation of World War Two. In five months, almost two million people were either killed, wounded or captured as the Soviet Union fought the German forces and their allies. It’s ridiculously hyperbolic to compare such a seismic historic event to a football match but, in relative terms, it at least gives an idea just how the Bombonerazo was perceived at the time.
It’s easy to admonish the violence but it must never be forgotten that football is a reflection of society, rather than the other way around. In the 1960s and 70s, South American countries suffered as a wave of brutal military dictatorships swept the continent. Argentina was no different. In September 1971, six months after the game, democratic elections within two years were promised by the incumbent military leader, General Alejandro Lanusse.
Rather than placating the fragile nation, this pledge failed to halt the violence, and chaos ensued. The promised elections did take place in 1973, with Juan Domingo Perón returning from exile to sweep to victory, but his death a year later plunged Argentina into yet another crisis. A coup in 1976 installed another military regime – perhaps the cruellest of them all – which inflicted seven years of misery and death upon the Argentine people.
Democracy returned to Argentina in 1983 and, thankfully, there and across the South American continent, political violence, whilst still existing, is not as prevalent as it once was. The same can be said on the football pitch. Though the incident between Bahia and Vitória caught the headlines worldwide, it was precisely because it was such a rarity in modern football.
The fateful night at La Bombonera was one of most infamous and severe in a couple of decades in which violence on the pitch was much more common. Thankfully, although there will always be exceptions, football on the whole has moved on.
By Dan Williamson