By Manuel Veth –
Carlos Tevez’s return to Boca Juniors this summer in many ways was the return of a long lost son to his former home. It was always clear that Tevez, who left Boca in 2004, would one day return to finish his career in Argentina. The only question that remained was the date of his return, but when Tevez decided not to renew his contract with Juventus in 2014 it appeared that a move back to Argentina was immanent.
Originally Tevez was supposed to be presented to the Boca fans on match day 17 of the Torneo de Primera División, when they will host Quilmes Atlético Club at La Bombonera. But as it often is the case in Argentina, politics got in the way of football as match day 17 has been delayed by one week due to mayoral elections in Buenos Aires that will take place on July 19.
To Live and Die for Boca
Tevez, or “El Apache”, is one of many living legends at the club, and in many ways his scruffy appearance, and his playing style that combines a mixture of aggression with elegance is symbolic for Boca as well. This sets Boca apart from other Argentinian clubs such as River Plate—Boca’s biggest rival—which throughout its history was represented by gentleman stars like the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, or Mario Kempes. Also it would be hard to imagine a football philosopher like César Luis Menotti, who briefly played and coached Boca, among the club icons—instead he will always be more closely associated with the Argentinian national team that won the World Cup in 1978.
Instead, Boca is best represented by players like “El Titan” Martin Palermo, who despite being a terrible football player managed 236 goals in 404 matches, or “El Torero” Juan Román Riquelme, who despite his genius on the pitch has also been called pecho frío—literally cold-chested—apparently a phrase born among the gauchos which refers to a horse that is unwilling to pull a heavy cart and is much used in football to describe players who go missing or fail to give the impression that they are making much of an effort. Then there is Diego Maradona who is perhaps the best football player of all time, but who also managed to be involved in any possible imaginable scandal.
Boca is a club which, like the above-mentioned players, has a strong connection to the folklore of the working class community in which it is based. The neighbourhood, La Boca, is one of Buenos Aires’ most notorious. The colourful aesthetics of La Boca’s architecture make the area a desirable place for tourists to visit, but at the same time, guides like Tripadvisor are full of stories written by tourists who were mugged there in the middle of the day.
Boca’s stadium, La Bombonera, is situated in the heart of La Boca, and plays an important part in the history of the neighbourhood. The La Bombonera, the chocolate box, is often considered one of the most beautiful stadiums in the world. When visiting La Boca, one has the impression that the surrounding area, and the stadium are one, as everything is painted in the blue and yellow colours of Boca Juniors.
But while the stadium certainly is beautiful it is also in dire need of repair. The stadium was built in 1930, and has become a paradise for nostalgic football fans. When taking a tour of the stadium one realizes right away that the colour is coming off everywhere, even from the advertisement boards. The concrete of the stands is cracking, and behind the goals are mostly standing places that are fenced, in order to protect the players from the notorious Barra Brava hooligans.
The Barra Brava’s Boca Juniors Fan Problem
The Barra Brava is responsible for both the colorful displays for which Boca Juniors’ and Argentinian fan culture in general has become famous, and also in recent years for fan violence for which Argentinian football has also become increasingly notorious, Much of the violence is instigated by the Barra Brava, which strongly compare to ultra groups in southern and eastern Europe both in terms of the level of brutality associated with them as well as their mafia like structures. Aside from clashing with their favourite clubs, the Barra Brava are also involved in dealing drugs, weapons, and money laundering.
These criminal activities have led to even more clashes between various fan groups, even if they support the same club. In 2013, for example, a Boca Juniors match had to be suspended because of a shootout that had taken place before a Boca Juniors game. Two people were killed in that particular incident in which 150 bullets were fired. Drive-by shootings between different fan groups have also become a common occurrence.
The Barra Brava also has taken control of ticket sales, and controls parking areas around the stadiums where they charge 100 pesos to anyone who wants to safely leave his car. People who don’t pay are told that they can pick up their cars at the dump. The Barra Brava also force players to participate at fan festivals which have become an important source of income for the Barra Bravas as they charge entry to these events.
When speaking to average Argentinians one quickly gets the impression that it has become not only too expensive but also too dangerous to visit a regular football game.
Reforming Boca Juniors
Yet when one visits the La Bombonera and its lavish football museum, one gets the impression that this is a club, which sees itself on par with the great football aristocracy of Europe. In truth the brandname of Boca Juniors might indeed be on par with that of clubs such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich. Boca has 7 million Facebook friends, and 1.3 million Twitter followers, more than any other club in Argentina.
A slogan in Spanish and English at the club museum reads “Rey Mundial de Clubes” and “World King of Clubs”—this despite the fact that Boca is not even record champion of Argentina, as River Plate has 35 titles versus Boca’s 30. Despite the numbers, Boca sees itself as the true king of Argentinian football, and is ready to gear up to take its place among the world football elite.
In terms of actual income, however, Boca is far behind that of Europe’s biggest clubs, and there is little hope that the club can generate extra income while being located in a stadium built in 1930, and at the same time being held hostage by a large group of its most fanatical fans. Argentinian football also receives very little TV-money and the increase in TV money that has been agreed upon for the 2015 season is unlikely to mean a larger share for each club because the new league has been increased to a 30 team format. The new figure quoted by local press is $165 million, which will be shared out amongst the clubs over the course of the year. The new English Premier League deal, however, pays that much for just 11 games.
One way to increase revenue would be by increasing income generated on match day through ticket sales, but this would be extremely difficult with an old stadium in which a large segment of the fans has control over ticket sales. The club has understood the pressing need for a newer more modern facility. Plans to renovate La Bombonera have existed since 2009, and the club’s administration has even considered building a new stadium right next to the current location of La Bombonera. It would be difficult to imagine Boca Juniors playing anywhere other than at their current historical ground. It now appears that La Bombonera, and the surrounding neighborhood will be renovated in order to create a stadium that is not only built to the most modern standards, but is also a safe place to visit for both tourists, and fans.
The return of Carlos Tevez is supposed to be a major step in guiding the club to what it considers its rightful place among the world football aristocracy. Tevez’s return to Boca is intended to help the club generate the much needed income that will be necessary to pay for upgrades of the stadium and other infrastructural changes that will be necessary if Boca wants to become not only a powerful trademark, but also a strong football club.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.