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An Outsider's Perspective on River's Relegation and Soccer in Argentina

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RIVER PLATE
AP

On Sunday, the River Plate soccer club, a giant of national soccer, tied a game that demoted them from primera división to the second-tier B nacional and profoundly changed the Argentine soccer world.

In River's 110 years in existence, the club, which claims more national titles than any other club and one of the highest percentage of fans in the country, has always been an "A" team. The red and white jerseys are a fixture in the top level, the club lures some of the country's best talent and the stadium in Nuñez, Buenos Aires is the largest venue in the country, where touring international stars like Paul McCartney perform and the Copa América final is slated to be played. That River is out of primera is unfathomable to most of the Argentine populace.

One of the greatest losses to come with River's relegation is that of the Superclásico. The Superclásico is the term for any match between the country's two superpower clubs and fierce rivals, the scrappy Boca Juniors, where Diego Maradona was more or less born and raised, and River. The two teams are the most popular and successful Argentine fútbol teams.

River's inglorious drop from primera means the two teams will not meet again until at least another year, when fans are praying they earn a return to primera. Thus, for at least the next year, one of the greatest sporting events in the world, number one on the Observer's "50 sporting things you must do before you die," will not happen. Though the two have a chance of facing off in a "friendly" January summer match, it does not officially count, and most categorize such games separately from league matches. Boca remains in primera, where River always has been and, as many fervently believe, always should be.

After losing by two to Belgrano de Córdoba on Wednesday, River Plate needed to win by two in Sunday's game to hold their position in primera. River was up by one at halftime, and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. The conclusion of the game, subsequent realization that River had lost its "A" position and the aftermath of it all was revelatory for many tourists, outsiders and non-native residents. It exposed deeper levels of the Argentine psyche, that of the ardent passion of a culture where, for many, soccer is life and supporting one's team, religion.

To see broadcasted on television the pained screams of fans at the field, the incessant sobbing of the River players and the riotous aftermath, tear gas, fires, spewing hoses and flying rocks, few would dare to write it all off as "just a game." It was a moment not lost on six "Yankee" girls, watching the game together on television from an apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires.

For a foreigner living here, the whole event was insightful and, at the same time, strangely alienating. It was more apparent than ever the importance of soccer in Argentina, but also, for me, that the culture is something I will never truly understand. That zealous love for a team does not course through my veins like it does for so many Argentines. For them, their team identification, the team of which they are hinchas (fans), is a vital part of who they are.

The 2010 Oscar foreign film winner El Secreto de sus Ojos contains a quote that alludes to the fanaticism of hinchas in Argentina. It loosely translates to, "A person can change names, streets, faces, but there is one thing he cannot change. He cannot change passions." Hinchas are fans of their team for life, often generations. "Me llamo _____ y soy hincha de _______." ("My name is _____ and I am a fan of ______.") When they introduce themselves to others, it is one of the first things they share or ask.

Even after nine months of living in Argentina and making close Argentine friends, many of whom are hinchas of either Boca or River, I still feel undeserving of the opportunity to choose and identify with a certain team. It is because I can understand that I might never really understand the passion of a hincha. Though I in no way condone the violent manifestations of fury, sorrow and shock that followed yesterday's game outside the stadium, I respect and appreciate the love a hincha, such as the friends who Tweeted and posted Facebook statuses akin to, "I will follow you forever, River!!!!"

Instead, I declare myself in support of keeping alive the greatest tradition and rivalry in the world of Argentine sports, the must-see event for sports fans and tourists to the city: the Superclásico. I hope to one day have a chance to attend a Boca-River match, matches where nobody ever sits, where the music and screaming last the full 90 minutes of play and the energy of the impassioned fans can make a concrete stadium shake and vibrate.

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