By Alex Galarza –
In Buenos Aires, the ruins of an abandoned restaurant lie a stone’s throw away from the city’s most expensive district. Today’s trendy Puerto Madero waterfront was itself abandoned in the early twentieth century, filled with derelict warehouses. Since the 1990s it has transformed into a site of luxury housing, hotels, entertainment, and office buildings. The Peruvian, Paraguayan, and Bolivian immigrants who labored on the highrises and now form the kitchen and cleaning crews of Puerto Madero live in the shantytown Villa Rodrigo Bueno, only meters away. The villa, Puerto Madero, Rio de la Plata, and city’s ecological reserve all surround the abandoned Cafeteria Neptuno. Sitting between Argentina’s haves and have-nots, the decaying restaurant stands for a largely forgotten vision of Boca Juniors leading the charge to modernize the city.
The Ciudad Deportiva, or Sports City, was built on seven artificial islands spanning forty hectares off the coast in the Río de la Plata. The ambitious plans aimed not only to build the world’s largest soccer stadium and a sprawling athletic site, but also novelties including a drive-in movie theatre, a fish-shaped aquarium, and a tower with a rotating restaurant. The city master plan envisioned the Ciudad Deportiva as an anchor for redeveloping the neglected port district on the southern coast. Boca Juniors lobbied the federal government to donate an area of the river and enlisted municipal support to help create the artificial islands. This considerable support from federal and local officials was buoyed by an eager public who bought hundreds of thousands of shares sold by the club, financing the rapid construction of much of the project by the end of the decade. The video above shows the restaurant and other installations at the moment that funds were raised to construct the stadium. One can experience an interactive panorama of the site today.
La Bombonera – The Stadium would have been converted to Apartments
While Boca Juniors’ successful global brand is now indelibly tied to the neighborhood of La Boca and it’s iconic ground, La Bombonera, the plans for the Ciudad Deportiva would have seen the club move. La Bombonera was to be converted into apartments and the club’s facilities turned over to the city. Indeed, one of the original agreements with the government of Arturo Illia included the provision that part of Boca’s fundraising would subsidize affordable housing in the southern neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.
Club directors, engineers, architects, state officials, and a wider public shared the dream of building the Ciudad Deportiva, yet this vision was troubled by rising inflation and political instability in the early 1970s. As the project’s fiscal viability evaporated, political infighting at Boca Juniors and a withdrawal of public and private support halted the project just as the stadium’s construction was set to begin. Although the club did attract some new financing and state support, stadium construction never advanced beyond the foundations, dooming the entire project.
A fellow soccer researcher first suggested the topic to me and I began to ask around about the project. It was immediately apparent that even the basic elements of what happened were unclear or forgotten. As I made contacts at Boca Juniors amongst older members, I noticed a distinct tone of lament and bewilderment in their memories about the Ciudad Deportiva. Always, they and their family had bought shares in the project and always, their stories were couched within a wider reflection on an Argentina that “could have been.” It was obvious that the project galvanized resources, political will, and public support at an impressive scale. Yet, a clear explanation of why it had failed was elusive.
After two years of dissertation research, I found out (mostly) what happened and what the story helps us understand about soccer and society in Buenos Aires. The three most important factors that enabled the project’s initial success – wide public support and investment, political favors and government subsidies, and a national economy keeping project costs stable – all evaporated at the start of the 1970s. Increasing construction costs, poor planning, and inflation in the early seventies led two of Boca’s vice presidents to openly rebel against club president Alberto J. Armando, an episode that ended with gunshots and police at the director’s’ meeting room. An engineer and member of the political opposition at the club denounced the project at the Argentine Football Association (AFA), calling it a “farce” that was structurally impossible due erosion and the weight of a stadium sitting on an artificial island. In 1973, president Armando lost key political support at the national level by backing the wrong candidate as Juan Domingo Perón returned to Argentina’s presidency.
The Ciudad Deportiva’s initial success reveals how Boca’s directors and socios (members), a wider public, and municipal and state officials transformed urban space and articulated specific visions of consumption and modernity. Over 200,000 fans, members, and ordinary people invested in shares and raffle tickets with prizes that included new apartments, cars, and race horses. Records of at least three legal cases where prize winners sued the club for failing to deliver winnings, two of which Boca lost and was forced to pay large compensations. The project’s failure reveals how wider socioeconomic changes and the dynamics of club politics foreclosed those visions.
Ciudad Deportiva – The Documentary
I made the decision early in my research to share my sources and findings online, which paid off when a group of young journalists seeking information on the Ciudad Deportiva found me in 2012. They wanted to make a documentary and conduct investigative journalism, work that is underappreciated and underfunded in the world of sports journalism in Argentina. We decided to work together, share research, and tell the story as widely as possible. We’ve completed our research and filming, but need support to finish the documentary – so we launched a kickstarter. Please consider donating and sharing the link widely, as we are in our final days of fundraising and need to reach our goal to receive any of the donations. We’re releasing the documentary under a creative commons license for free. The documentary won’t generate any revenue to cover the costs we’ve already incurred on our own. Telling this story to as wide an audience as possible has always been our top priority. Your support makes producing and sharing this kind of work possible!
Today, the ruins remain but they are now owned by IRSA, a leading Argentine development firm that has built many of the largest and most luxurious shopping centers. IRSA had plans to build a “Dubai of Buenos Aires”, but suspended the project when it didn’t clear the city legislature. Boca Juniors is moving ahead with plans for a new Ciudad Deportiva, a comprehensive training complex for its teams and academy. IRSA’s project is reminiscent of Real Madrid’s canceled resort island in Dubai. In many ways, the fate of both the ruins and the new Ciudad Deportiva are tied to Mauricio Macri, ex-president of Boca Juniors from 1996-2008, mayor of Buenos Aires, son of Alberto J. Armando’s business partner Franco Macri, and one of three leading candidates in the 2015 Argentine presidential election. Boca Juniors is also holding elections at the end of the year that will surely be heavily influenced by whoever wins the national presidency. I’ve counted on the help of fellow academics and journalists to tell this story so far, supporting the kickstarter will help us continue showing the these links between politics, soccer, and society.