Forget Buenos Aires’ Superclásico … this is the fire of the Clásico de Avellaneda

Forget Buenos Aires’ Superclásico … this is the fire of the Clásico de Avellaneda

When one thinks of football in Argentina, it;’s usually the Superclásico. There are few exceptions. The clash between River Plate and Boca Juniors is one that defines not just Buenos Aires, but much of Argentina at least twice a year. In the words of These Football Times’ Matt Gault, “It is not merely a football match; it is a national event that commands an unrivalled level of attention.” 

However, there are parts of Argentina’s vastly diverse, sprawling capital that see this titanic clash as something of a sideshow. Across the River Riachuelo from Central Buenos Aires, in the port city of Avellaneda to the south of the capital, all that matters is their very own Clásico. At least twice every year, Racing Club and Independiente do battle in El Clásico de Avellaneda, a match as intense, and at times bizarre, as the city it calls home.

As with most clubs in Argentina, Racing and Independiente came from humble beginnings. Racing Club were formed in the neighbouring province of Barracas al Sud in 1898, when some employees of the Sud Railroad asked their superiors if they could use some scrublands around the railroad to play football on breaks. The answer was yes, and soon afterwards, Argentinos Excelsior Club were formed. 

Three years later, this single club had split into three separate entities, of which one,  Sud América FC de Barracas al Sud, would become the first club in Argentina principally created by ‘criollos’. By 1903, the club members decided to ditch the Sud America moniker and, inspired by the name of a popular motor racing magazine, changed their name to Racing Club. 

Having settled on the name, the newly-formed club needed to settle on a kit, and in order to save money, decided on an all-white strip. Soon after, this became a yellow and black striped jersey inspired by Peñarol, only for this to be changed just a week later in favour of a chequered light blue and pink number. Finally, in 1910, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the May Revolution, Racing adopted the colours of the Argentine flag and never looked back.

Independiente’s roots were not dissimilar. This time it was the employees of a fashionable department store by the name of A La Ciudad de Londres (To the City of London) in Monserrat, Buenos Aires. But while Racing were formed from a place of understanding, Independiente were born out of conflict. 

The department store had grown enormously since its foundation by French entrepreneurs, the Brun brothers, in 1878, so much so that its football team, Maipu Banfield, now had far more employees than places in the squad. Unsurprisingly, it was the young apprentices who were first to be cut from the team, with their club membership now stipulating that they were now only allowed to watch matches, rather than play in them. 

Infuriated, the apprentices sought to form their own club, and after deciding upon a blue and white kit inspired by Argentina’s first champions, the St. Andrews Scots School, the club was founded as Independiente Football Club on 1 January 1905. After difficulties securing a home field, the club moved to Avellanada in 1907, and changed to its current red strip – inspired by a touring Nottingham Forest – in 1908.

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By 1907, both clubs had joined the Argentine Football Association, earning themselves the right to gain promotion to the First Division. In doing so, they joined the more established sides such as Boca and River, and by 1912, both had achieved this. 

During this era, any rivalry was passing at best, with the clubs based in different areas of the city, which was to prove fortunate for Independiente. Racing were imperious during the 1910s, winning seven consecutive league titles between 1913 and 1919, losing just five games (including a 2-1 defeat to Independiente in 1914) during a remarkable era of dominance which earned them the nicknamed La Academia (The Academy), such were the lessons they handed out to their hapless opponents. 

Naturally, Racing’s popularity within Buenos Aires grew to an extent where their facilities in Barracas were no longer adequate, and in 1915, the club moved to their current location in Avellaneda, mere metres from Independiente’s home. These were to prove the beginnings of one of Argentina’s most intense rivalries.

The Clásico de Avellaneda began to intensify in 1919, when both sides joined the dissident amateur league, the Asociación Amateurs de Football (AAmF) leading to more frequent clashes of local rivals. Racing, already six-time champions by this stage, would dominate the early matches in the burgeoning rivalry, with their legendary attack spearheaded by the mysterious figure of Alberto Ohaco, whose intense, moody disposition gave rise to rumours of a double life as a murderer and thief. 

La Academia would add two more titles to their tally with Ohaco in the side, bringing their haul to eight by 1922. But while Racing were dominating, Independiente were beginning to find their feet. Middling performances in early editions of the competitions gave way to far stronger showings, and by 1921 they were beginning to challenge their neighbours’ dominance, securing a third-place finish. 

A year later, inspired by their own outstanding striker Manuel Seoane and his partners in crime, Los Diablos Rojos would secure their first championship. By the end of the 1920s, Racing would be the nine-time champions of Argentina, with Independiente claiming two. Compared to this success, the 1930s would be quiet for the Avellaneda clubs, with the exception of back-to-back titles for the red half 1938 and 1939, both sides taking a back seat as River’s La Maquina swept all before them.

Nevertheless, the period of relative famine was to produce two early classics in the history of the derby. The first came in September 1931, with Racing, who just five months earlier had failed to put a team together for the big game, winning a 7-4 thriller still considered the best match played between the two sides. Racing legend Pichin Del Guidice bagged a hat-trick, while the ageing Seoane was said to have dragged his teammates through the game to no avail.

In 1940, Independiente would have their revenge, with the two-time champions demolishing their local rivals 7-0 in a merciless display. 

Argentine football would continue through the 1940s as war raged around the world, with the Avellaneda sides enduring another phase of relative obscurity which would last until 1948, when an Independiente win would inspire Racing to three straight titles. With success and professionalism now part and parcel for both clubs, it seemed that Avellanada’s Clásico was becoming more intense by the year. In 1961, that tension flared up into acrimony.

Some magazines are meant to be kept

The 1961 season was one of mixed fortunes for these two sides. For Independiente, they had secured local bragging rights with a 4-0 hammering of their rivals at their newly renovated home, La Doble Visera, only to watch as their neighbours romped to a comprehensive title win. With Los Diablos Rojos scarred and La Academia hell-bent on revenge, the rematch in November was of greater importance than met the eye. 

Referee Juan Brozzi was having difficulty controlling players from the outset in a raucous atmosphere at El Cilindro, and with the score at 1-1, the match descended into farce. There is little to document what started it, but what is well known is that a fight ensued between the players for seven minutes taking place across the field. When all was said and done, seven players had been sent off and the match had died as a spectacle.

Four years later came another farce, only this time instigated by one of the more infamous referees in Primera División history. Humberto Dellacasa was already a feared referee before he was given the privilege of marshalling the derby at La Doble Visera. Independiente were the newly crowned Copa Libertadores champions, but Racing were still proving a thorn in their side, and were leading 2-1 despite Dellacasa sending four Racing players off in just 20 minutes for menial offences. 

Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back. When Racing’s Chango Cardenas was penalised for encroachment, Independiente were awarded a penalty. Incredulous, Racing’s Martín argued with the controversial referee, only to see himself sent off too. With Racing down to six and the game technically abandoned, Independiente were allowed to take the penalty, and duly converted. The match was abandoned at 2-2. Dellacasa was banned for three months, but Independiente were still given the points.

Remarkably, this was not to be the enigmatic Dellacasa’s final involvement in an Avellanada Clásico. Five years later, with Independiente needing a win to pip River Plate to the title on the last day, Los Rojos visited El Cilindro to face their eternal rival. Racing took the lead twice only for Independiente to peg them back twice. 

With 21 minutes to go, Dellacasa awarded the visitors a penalty. Independiente’s forward Anibal Tarabini had to step up three times to take the penalty, but each time, Racing’s goalkeeper Agustín Cejas came off his line. After warning Cejas twice, Dellacasa remarkably abandoned the penalty and awarded Independiente a goal, declaring that the retaken penalty was “benefitting the offending side”. Independiente won the game 3-2, and in doing so, pipped River to the title by a single goal.

With histrionics and oddities occurring on the pitch, it would be remiss not to mention one of the more bizarre off-field incidents inspired by the now fervent hatred which had developed between the clubs. In 1967, Racing Club and Celtic, champions of South America and Europe respectively, played out one of the most acrimonious Intercontinental Cup finals of all time. 

At Hampden Park, Celtic edged a tight game 1-0, before the Lisbon Lions were attacked mentally and physically by Racing and their fans in the return leg, which the Argentines won 2-1. With extra-time and penalties not an option, a third leg was played in Montevideo, where Racing won a violent match 1-0, one branded a disgrace on both sides of the Atlantic. 

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While the players and supporters of La Academia were celebrating their victory, Independiente’s fans sought an unusual form of revenge. Under the cover of darkness, fans of Los Rojos broke into El Cilindro to place a curse on their rivals, burying seven black cats around the ground. Racing would not win another title for 34 years.

The curse would become the subject of intense paranoia amongst some Racingistas. Not only had their success dried up since their rivals had cursed them, but Independiente, inspired in no small part by Diego Maradona’s idol, Ricardo Bochini, were now entering a period of dominance. While Racing were digging up the pitch at El Cilindro after only locating six of the seven cats, Independiente would go from strength to strength. 

In the 34 years between Racing’s titles, they would be relegated for the only time in their history, while Independiente would become El Rey de Copas (the King of Cups), claiming eight domestic league titles, seven Copa Libertadores and two Intercontinental Cups. They had even inflicted a most painful of wounds on their rivals in 1983, when they won the title by beating an already relegated Racing 2-0 at El Cilindro. 

Growing increasingly desperate, Racing went to extreme measures to try and lift the curse, and in 1998, with the club facing bankruptcy and struggling on the field, president Daniel Lalin arranged a mass to “exorcise the club’s demons”, attended by 100,000 people. Racing lost the next game 2-0. Finally, in 2001, when Racing, despite being in financial turmoil, decided to renovate their stadium, the remains of the seventh cat were found. Racing would go on to win the Apertura title that very year.

The 21st century has seen the two Avellaneda giants fade once more. With two titles per season usually on offer, Racing have secured three titles – including in 2018/19 – to Independiente’s one, while Boca Juniors alone have won nine. That is not to say that this game is no longer significant. 

On 9 February 2020, the two clubs played out a game for the ages at El Cilindro. With the match level at 0-0 after 39 uneventful minutes, Racing’s goalkeeper Gabriel Arias saw red for a blatant handball outside the area when Independiente’s Cecilio was clean through. Just 20 seconds into the second half, Racing’s day descended into a farce reminiscent of their 1960s derby clashes when centre-back Leonardo Sigali was also sent off for an elbow on Fernández. 

For 40 long minutes, chances came and went for Los Rojos as Racing clung on for dear life. That was until the 86th minute when Dario Cvitanich bundled his way into the Independiente area to tee up Marcelo Diaz (who had just finished eating a banana he had been given during a pause in play) to calmly slot home and provoke pandemonium inside a shaking El Cilindro. 

A frustrated Independiente promptly got themselves reduced to nine men; they knew their place in the history of this particular fixture would not be a celebrated one. As the final whistle blew, Racing players hared onto the pitch to celebrate wildly in front of their fans, who hugged, laughed and cried, unable to process what they had just witnessed. An attending Diego Milito let out a mighty roar. It was just another unlikely chapter in the remarkable story that is El Clásico de Avellaneda.

By Simon Cripps @AI_Football

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