A passion is something that cannot be easily explained. However hard we may try to pinpoint what makes us passionate about something. What makes us swing from the highest peaks of elation to the depths of despair? We will inevitably have to admit that it is simply part and parcel of the human condition.
Interestingly, the word “passion” is often connected to the idea of suffering, as we can see from its etymology: it is derived from the Latin term “passionem”, which means “suffering, enduring”. Football is one of those things that has the power to make passions arise, spirits run high, our heads spin with madness and guts burst with anger. It also opens, simultaneously, the doors to complete joy and absolute despondency.
I didn’t choose my football team. It was a family tradition handed down to me by my father, whose father had also been a supporter of one of Argentina’s “big five”, Independiente of Avellaneda. Avellaneda is located in the Greater Buenos Aires area, connected to the capital by many bridges that cross over the Riachuelo River. Home also to Racing Club – Independiente’s archrivals. It boasts the second most important derby in Argentina, after Boca-River, of course.
Independiente, nicknamed “the Red Devils” or “the Reds” due to the colour of their outfit (which, as legend has it, was inspired by a visit to Argentina by the all-clad- in-red Nottingham forest), used to be an international powerhouse.
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s they featured regularly in international matches against Europe’s big teams, such as Cruyff’s Ajax, to whom they lost the Intercontinental Cup in 1972, or Dino Zoff’s Juventus, who they beat in the following year during the same competition. They still hold the record for the club who has won the Libertadores Cup (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) most times, with an impressive tally of seven victories, four of them achieved consecutively between 1972 and 1975.
Until not long ago they were also the Argentinian team to have won most international competitions ever, with a total of 16, now surpassed by Boca’s 18. Two of those 16 trophies are Intercontinental cups. The first one was won in Rome in 1973, as the then European champions Ajax refused to play in the competition due to financial reasons and the runners-up Juventus took their place with the condition, that only one game be played instead of the usual two-legged format. The venue they chose was, on paper, a “neutral” one, but it turned out to be Rome’s Olympic Stadium, much closer to the Northern Italian’s club headquarters than to those of Independiente. Undeterred, Independiente travelled all the way to Old Continent and achieved an unimaginable feat - they beat Juventus 1-0, in Italy, thanks to a masterpiece by Bochini, the club’s best player of all time.
The second time they achieved glory on the world stage was in 1984, this time in Japan against a Liverpool side who were reigning European Champions and had players such as Kenny Dalglish as well as Ian Rush in their ranks. In a closely fought game they squeezed a 1-0-win, courtesy of a goal scored in the 6th minute of the game. However, Independiente’s history is not just about heroic wins and international fame. It is also about a way of playing, a football philosophy that traditionally gave as much importance to winning as to doing it with flair and class.
People still say that while other clubs might have more passionate fans, Independiente’s supporters are the most demanding in terms of the quality of football they expect from their team. Alas, lately the Red Devils have fallen on hard times, experiencing a decline not only in the number of trophies won but also in the quality of their traditionally eye-pleasing, attacking football.
I was born in December 1986, five months after Argentina won the World Cup for the last time, with a goal scored by Burruchaga, a player who had become famous and achieved every honour imaginable in Independiente before emigrating to France. That is not as important to me as the fact that the last time we won the Libertadores Cup was in 1984, which basically means that every time I boast about (or as a knee-jerk reaction, bring up when confronted by fans of other teams) our seven Libertadores, I’m talking about something I’ve read about or seen on YouTube videos, but haven’t actually experienced myself.
I grew up listening attentively to my father’s accounts of Independiente’s exploits, the then-not-too-distant glory days when Boca and River would dread having to play Independiente and when Argentina’s national team would include regularly players who came through the ranks of the club’s academy. The 90’s was a decade of ups and downs and as a child, later as a teenager, I saw them win two local tournaments and a couple of international competitions. Nevertheless, I also remember seeing Independiente clearly struggle during some seasons, playing low-quality football, signing up lots of new players who turned out to have no love for the club and investing little time and effort in developing young talent.
Having grown up in a small town in the province of Buenos Aires, I went to the games only occasionally. However, I wouldn’t miss a single game on TV, or on the radio if my family decided not to pay the extra fee required to watch football games on cable TV. My whole week would often revolve around the game or games played by Independiente. If they won I would often replay the goals in my head, boast about the victory and enjoy watching the highlights of the game over and over again. If they lost, which was unfortunately becoming more and more usual, I simply couldn’t help feeling overcome by sadness. Much as I tried to tell myself that there was no point in getting sad or worked up about something apparently so irrelevant as a football game, there was a force stronger than myself that made my mood swing drastically depending on the score of the game.
The decline that the club began to experience in the late 90’s was briefly interrupted by a taste of local glory in 2002, when they comprehensively won the Argentinian tournament for the last time, playing top-quality football and steamrolling opponents. The much hoped-for rebirth of Independiente turned out to be an illusion, as the following season they won hardly any games and would later begin to struggle to avoid relegation. With the exception of the Copa Sudamericana (the South American equivalent of the Europa League) of 2010, no trophies have been won since then and the appointment of successive ineffectual managers, together with the board’s mismanagement of the club led to the debacle of 2013, when for the first time in their history Independiente were relegated.
One year before River Plate had experienced such a tragedy and Independiente, together with Boca, were the only two clubs not to have ever got relegated to Argentina’s second division. I remember that season vividly. Tthe speculation surrounding the possibility of the relegation of another of Argentina’s big five, the inevitable comparisons with the season when River got relegated, the reassuring tone of those supporters who claimed the Argentinian Football Federation wouldn’t let that happen. However, disaster struck. Thanks to a combination of poor decisions, players who knew little about the club’s history and were there only to make money, bad luck and a certain complacency in the board and the squad, Independiente got relegated.
For the supporters of a club that boasted about never having gone down to the second division, it was an extremely painful reality check. We suddenly became the butt of everyone’s jokes. As a fan, I remember the feeling of powerlessness every time someone mentioned we were not playing in the first division. I’m a teacher and children can be both particularly clever and ruthless when it comes to mocking the misfortunes of others. In Argentina, the second division of the professional football league is informally known as “Division B”, or “the B”. The Monday after Independiente got relegated a student wrote an essay and handed it in, every single letter “b” in the text had been highlighted.
Football being football, bad times (like good ones) don’t last forever, and the following season we got back to the top flight. Since then Independiente haven’t won any trophies, but they have managed a couple of mid-table finishes and have qualified for international competitions. As meagre consolation, we can hang on to the thought that we still keep beating our derby rivals Racing (not even in our worst days did we stop doing so) and hold an impressive 23 game lead in the head to head record.
We’re currently seventh, but only three points away from the fifth-placed team, with a game in hand. I hope we will manage a top-five finish and qualify for the Libertadores Cup. Perhaps one day I will see my team win that so elusive eighth Libertadores cup and return to their days of glory.
I read somewhere that art is the suspension of disbelief. Football, being a particular form art, not only suspends disbelief but also creates it.
By Alfonso Pastorino. Header image credit: azotesdivinos