When Boca Juniors step out at the Estádio do Pacaembu for the 2nd leg of the 2012 Copa Libertadores Final this Wednesday night away against Corinthians of Brazil they will surely take heart (and maybe even a slight psychological advantage) from their club’s recent history of grinding out crucial results in the competition.
Remarkably, for a club of their stature and resources, Corinthians have never won the trophy. Boca, on the other hand, have styled themselves as the masters of continental tournament football since the turn of the century, at times at the expense of their own domestic league.
Indeed, Julio César Falcioni’s side start the game in search of a remarkable 5th Copa Libertadores triumph (and a 7th continental triumph including the Copa Sudamericana in 2004 and 2005 too) since the turn of the century. As an ominous warning to Corinthians fans, Boca drew the 1st leg of the 2000 Final at La Bombonera only to overcome another Paulista team Palmeiras at the Estádio do Morumbi on penalties after another hard fought draw. A year later they overcame Cruz Azul of Mexico after another nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out in the final, this time with the support of La Doce (the twelfth man) at their comically named fortress La Bombonera (the chocolate box).
On both of those Xeneizes glory nights one of the penalty-takers was one of the main authors of Boca’s ‘Rey de Copas’ legacy: talismanic captain Juan Roman Riquelme. Riquelme, for many, is the last of the great midfield plodders, a player deep-rooted in the Argentine tradition of technically gifted playmakers. He has played an integral role in three Boca Libertadores winning sides, dictating the tempo of the game and finding incisive passes at the key moments.
For all his failings, he has rightly earned himself a place in Boca Number 10 folklore in his two spells with the club sandwiching an eventful period in Spain’s La Liga in between. First he struggled to make the grade with Catalan giants Barcelona before finding his feet in his familiar role as the star attraction with unlikely Champions League challengers Villarreal during three magical seasons on the Costa Blanca.
As he enters his 34th year he remains the proud captain of Boca Juniors. Next Wednesday, one would logically (but perhaps wrongly) assume will be his last stand. When he finally hangs up his boots, more than likely he will be replaced by a different kind of player, maybe a faster player who requires less time on the ball, and better conforms to the rigours of the modern game, but what is absolutely certain is that he will be sorely missed not only by Boca fans but by fans of the beautiful game across the world.
Aided by the juxtaposition of star players destined for Europe like Carlos Tevez, Ever Banega Nicolas Burdisso, Fernando Gago, Rodrigo Palacio and the stability and experience of club stalwarts like Roberto Abbondanzieri, Mauricio Serna, Rolando Schiavi, Clemente Rodriguez and Guillermo Barros Schelloto, Boca Juniors have finally achieved continental glory on the scale the club’s immense fanbase demanded.
Despite the obvious presence of technique and quality on the ball, if Boca’s glory years from the turn of the century had to be personified by just one player however, no one embodies Boca Juniors successes post-2000 more than Martin Palermo.
Outside (and inside) Argentina, prior to his time with Boca Palermo was best known as the clown who fluffed three penalties in one game in the 1999 Copa America against Colombia. At first the Argentine press and opposition fans revelled in labelling him a donkey, until of course, he silenced them and even gained a begrudging respect from opposition fans in the best way possible: by bagging 236 goals in a Boca shirt, making himself their all-time top scorer. At the crucial moments Palermo came up with the goods, leaving behind a memorable back catalogue of goals including this seemingly impossible header from more than 40 yards out, his brace in Tokyo against ‘los galácticos’ and a half-way line strike against Independiente . Palermo was ungainly, relatively slow and technically inferior to many of his contemporaries, but he was gutsy, used the ball intelligently and at his best was absolutely unplayable in the air.
Palermo is a player that invites a thousand big-target man football clichés, but in the psyche of Boca fans, he typifies the ‘never-say-die’ spirit that has pulled Boca through so many difficult games and difficult moments.
The Azul y Oro achieved their zenith with spectacular Intercontinental victories in Japan over Real Madrid and AC Milan. In five Libertadores finals this century, only once have Boca come out on the losing end, finally succumbing in 2004 to unfancied Colombian upstarts Once Caldas in the heart of Colombia’s coffee-growing region, Manizales.
Under the shrewd stewardship of Carlos Bianchi, Miguel Russo and now Julio César Falcioni, Boca have time and again risen to the occasion in the big continental games, coping admirably with the transient nature of South American football with its pernicious dependency on selling its best talent to Europe to survive.
Boca Juniors coached by Bianchi morphed from the people’s football club to an all-pervasive cultural institution. Consumer goods ranging from Boca deodorant, pet food and Boca wine to ‘personal’ local touches like the Boca cemetery in Buenos Aires where Swedish flag coloured flower arrangements and gravestones with Boca badges stamped on them, have consolidated Boca’s reputation as the countries most loved and hated club.
During this incredible period, across South America and beyond, thousands have been converted to the club from the working-class Italian waterfront barrio, captivated by the club’s lofty achievements in continental competition since the turn of the century.
The incredible level of success Boca have enjoyed in the competition in recent times even leaves their mortal rivals River Plate in the shade. Though Los Millonarios have won the Argentine League on more occasions, success on the scale of some of their bitterest rivals in the Libertadores has always eluded them. Their two Libertadores triumphs came in 1986 and 1996. Unfortunately for them, the golden era of La Maquina in the 1940s pre-dated the onset of continental competition in the 1960s
Thanks to a mix of the aforementioned factors, to fans of a certain age, no side in South America is (currently) as synonymous with the Copa Libertadores as Boca Juniors, however as is often the case with football, the current panorama falls some way short of representing the entire history.
As many Argentines would tell you, particularly those from Avellaneda, the first Argentine team to make its mark on the competition, and the one that is truly defined more than anything else by its Libertadores success, is Independiente. They were the first Argentine team to win the competition in 1964.
They ended the two-year reign of the great Santos side of Coutinho, Gilmar and Pelé, knocking them out in the Semi-Finals before defeating Uruguayans Nacional in the final. They went on to retain it the following year against Peñarol, and opening the way for the exploits of Avellaneda rivals Racing Club and the proud provincial world conquerors Estudiantes La Plata later in the decade.
Indeed, under the highly controversial leadership of Osvaldo Zubeldia, employing a mix of legal and illegal destructive tactics to thwart their opponents that were soon to labelled ‘anti-futbol’, Estudiantes de La Plata won an incredible hat-trick of Libertadores victories and an Intercontinental Cup victory over Manchester United at the end of the 1970s. As with ‘Dirty Leeds’ in England, the collective memory or historical media coverage has perhaps done a disservice to a team not lacking in merit, but there is little doubt they were not averse to the uglier side of the game.
Though Independiente’s breakthrough victory came in the sixties, they really came into their own in the early seventies. If on Wednesday Boca equal and one day (maybe not too far away) better Independiente’s record seven Libertadores victories, the one record that may elude them for some time is that of winning four consecutive Libertadores trophies (or even Estudiantes three for that matter).
For a team to win four consecutive continental trophies, there must have been some kind of Fergusonesque structural and organisational continuity both on and off the pitch. Not so, Independiente’s South American consecutive champion-winning sides were, incredibly managed by three different men.
First, in 1972, Pedro Dellacha oversaw a narrow 2-1 victory over surprise package Universitario of Peru (who had made the final at the expense of much fancied Peñarol and Nacional). Eduardo Maglioni scored a crucial double in the return game in Avellaneda after a tense stalemate in Lima.
Los Diablos Rojos went on to draw with the imperious Ajax of Cruyff, Neeskens and Keizer, before finally succumbing to genius as a young Johnny Rep came off the bench to bag a brace in a comfortable 3-0 victory in front of an expectant crowd at Amsterdam’s Olympic Arena.
The following year (1973) saw Independiente retain the Libertadores trophy. In the days before a penalty shoot-out was viewed as a necessary evil to decide drawn games, Independiente finally saw off a spirited Colo Colo outfit in a play-off game, played in neutral Montevideo after the home and away legs in Argentina and Chile failed to separate the sides.
In the Intercontinental Cup Final game the moment that the team is most remembered for on both sides of the Atlantic came. La Roja came up against against European runners-up Juventus (Ajax having pulled out citing economic difficulties, which some believe were a pretext for their distaste for the brusqueness of the Argentine football). Star players Ricardo Bochini and Daniel Bertoni expertly exchanged three one-twos before Bochini, known as ‘El Bocha’ slotted away the goal that saw Independiente crowned champions of the world for the first time. Independiente won narrowly 1-0, leaving Rome’s Olympic Stadium in shock. The Argentine press christened ‘la pared que cautivó al mundo’ and the orchestrators of the goal ensured their place in history.
Such was the esteem in which Bochini was (and still is) held in Argentina, a precise and incisive through ball has come to be known as a ‘pase bochinesco’ (a Bochini-pass), and no less than Boca Juniors diehard Diego Maradona gushes with admiration in his autobiography:
‘En aquel tiempo, mientras me iba formando como jugador, estaba enamorado de Bochini. Me enamoré terriblemente y confieso que era de Independiente en la Copa Libertadores, a principios de los setenta,¡Bochini me sedujo tanto! Bochini. y Bertoni. Las paredes que tiraban Bochini y Bertoni eran una cosa que me quedó tan grabada que yo las elegiría como las jugadas maestras de la historia del fútbol.’ (p18 Yo soy el Diego)
(Back then, in my formative years as a player, I was in love with Bochini, and I confess I was an Independiente fan when they played in the Libertadores, at the beginning of the seventies, Bochini(‘s style) seduced me! The one-twos that Bochini and Bertoni played stuck in my mind, and I’d put them amongst the greatest pieces of play in the game’.
Right-winger Bertoni went on the shine in Cesar Luis Menotti’s cavalier crowd-pleasing 1978 World Champions scoring the third goal against Holland in the final to ensure Argentina’s first World Cup triumph at River Plates’s Estadio Monumental. Bochini, on the other hand, along with a young Diego Maradona were surprisingly overlooked. For that reason, years later when Bochini was finally given his chance in the dying minutes of 1986 World Cup Semi Final against Belgium, Maradona remembered his idol’s 1978 torment and warmly welcomed him onto the field ‘Maestro, lo estábamos esperando’ (Teacher, we were waiting for you.). When a Boca fan as partisan as Maradona recognises a player from a rival team, it is with good reason.
Mutual admiration has always existed between the two players, but in the eyes of Independiente’s fans, their longest serving player will always be the most special. Julio el Gran Diablo, a famous Independiente fan sums up the differences between student and teacher in the following statement: ‘Maradona es un solista, Bochini un director de orquesta’ (Maradona is a soloist, Bochini an orquestra director’.)
In his own words in a 1994 interview, Bochini clearly positioned himself in the Menottisti camp, showing no bitterness towards the man who overlooked him for the 1978 World Cup. Considering the historical style of Argentine football and the style of the great Independiente sides, he laments the shift towards pragmatism in the following words ‘Argentina siempre se adhirió al jugador de toque y de gambeta, por eso la gente tuvo como ídolos a los jugadores de esa calidad. Eso se está perdiendo ahora porque el periodismo hace que la gente joven se conforme con un resultado y aunque el equipo juegue mal (Argentina always developed the short, sharp passer who could dribble, that is why people here have so many idols of such quality. That is being lost now, as journalism makes people believe that the result is all-important, even if the team plays badly.)
Returning to the exploits of Los Diablos Rojos of Avellaneda, by then under Roberto Ferreiro, they again reached final in 1974, and defeated São Paulo, the first leg being played in the Estádio do Pacaembu. After a narrow defeat Independiente forced another play-off game with victory in Avellaneda.
This time, the play-off game was played in Chile, against the backdrop of the infamous Pinochet coup the year before. In Santiago’s national stadium, Uruguayan left-back Ricardo ‘El Chivo’ Pavoni netted the only goal, to seal a third consecutive Libertadores triumph.
The popular Uruguayan summed up the prevailing mood in the following statement: ‘En la década del 70, Independiente era más famoso aún que el Santos de Pelé. Nos reconocían en todos lados’ (In the 70s Independiente were even more famous than the Santos of Pelé, they recognised us everywhere.)
In 1975 Independiente once again faced a trip to Santiago’s National Stadium, to face Union Española, a game they lost, only to force yet another play-off with a comfortable victory in Buenos Aires. The historic 4th consecutive Libertadores was secured, once again on neutral territory in the hostile surroundings of Asunción’s Estadio Defensores del Chaco.
Critics of Independiente’s golden period correctly point out that, as defending champions, la roja benefitted from the privilege of entering the Libertadores at the semi-final stage. It is certainly worthy of mention, but surely the criticism falls squarely at the door of football’s authorities rather than as any kind of denigration of the achievements of a great side.
Equally it would be difficult to argue that the current seeding system used in many club and national competitions is anything other a transparent measure to protect commercial interests and ensure the participation of the big guns in the final rounds, guaranteeing high television audiences and everything that goes with it. In this respect little has changed.
For good measure Independiente added narrow victories over Olimpia of Honduras (1973), Deportivo Municipal of Guatemala and finally Atletico Español of Mexico (1976) in the now defunct Copa Interamericana, a celebration of Inter-American solidarity that was brought to an abrupt end by being embarrassingly gate-crashed by a gringo victory in the shape of DC United in 1998.
For reasons too numerous to name, one side triumphing year-on-year in this way seems a near impossibility in the modern game. Only maybe the Real Madrid of Puskas and Di Stefano have achieved a similar feat in European football, and in comparison to the modern day greats, even the imperious Barcelona of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, with their tiki-taka possession-dominating, have never managed to retain the Champions League.
The Independiente of El Bocha, Bertoni and Pastoriza will always be fondly remembered in Avellaneda and beyond, and may always hold some small bragging rights over their big city rivals. They have had a pivotal role in the rich history in Argentine football, from Raimundo Orsi (one of the infamous oriundi), through to Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero’s debut in the Argentine top flight at the tender age of 15. They played ‘tiki-taka’ decades before some daft Spanish commentator coined the phrase, and even held the affections of an impressionable young shantytown dweller called Diego for a while.
Independiente remain a force to be reckoned with in Argentine and South American football, having retained their undefeated record in continental finals with a Copa Sudamericana victory over Goiás as recently as 2010. The sale of Agüero helped finance the renovation of their dilapidated stadium. When it was re-opened in 2009 its new name was the Estadio Libertadores de América, complete with a Ricardo Bochini stand, on Ricardo Bochini street.
Boca Junior's remarkable achievements in more recent times should not be taken in isolation, but rather considered in the context of a much larger tradition of Argentine clubs in the Copa Libertadores.