There’s nothing random about choosing the team which will forever have your heart. Excluding fair-weather fandom (I’m looking at you, Drake), choosing a club requires deliberation, historical context, and perfect timing. Perhaps you chose Manchester United because of your love for Eric Cantona (guilty). Maybe your undying loyalty for Celtic stems from your Irish-Catholic roots. It’s possible Real Madrid won your heart because they were the first team you were exposed to. Some clubs, like a sad-eyed, eager puppy at the kennel, choose you.
I can’t, to this day, tell you why I chose River Plate as a seven-year-old boy in New York City, with zero access to the team other than my father’s weekly issue of El Gráfico chronicling the week’s action in the Argentine Primera. No one in my family, nuclear or extended, gave much thought to River Plate, the much-hated Los Millonarios, the wealthy team from the posh barrio of Nunez, Buenos Aires. My father’s team is Independiente, from the working-class suburb of Avellaneda, the home also to Racing Club. The expats making up the Argentina diaspora in the greater New York/New Jersey area swore their undying allegiance to either San Lorenzo or Racing Club or Boca Juniors - but not to River Plate.
Perhaps my love affair with River is some subconscious rebellion against the expats, stubbornly clinging to their long-abandoned working-class roots and the teams that proudly proclaim their working-class status. Like Boca.
Maybe, like the aforementioned Cantona, my love affair with attacking, swashbuckling midfielders led me to Beto Alonso, who wore the River shirt as if ordained by God himself to spread the gospel of Los Millonarios and bring misery to the unbelievers.
Or it was just to spite my father, for rooting for a club that would forever exemplify long-suffering mediocrity. To spite Independiente for a true winner was to snub true love for endless riches, and all to rub it in my dad’s face. Except that’s not how any of this happened. My rooting for River was never an issue for my dad, he was fine with it.
But, to be honest, it was probably the River jersey I was given as a birthday gift by a relative visiting from Buenos Aires.
Norberto Osvaldo “Beto” Alonso appeared in 374 matches for River Plate during three stints with the club (1970-76, 1977-1981, and 1983-1987), scoring 149 goals. In Argentina football, and certainly in River Plate football, he is the iconic No. 10, the gifted playmaker who learned and perfected his game in the potreros, the poor suburbs of Buenos Aires. Alonso comes from a long line of playmakers that distinguishes the Argentine No. 10 from any other. The No. 10 is characteristically identified by their mastery of the gambeta, the hyper-stylized form of dribbling that, in turn, prioritises the individuality of the playmaker. José Manuel Moreno, Bernabé Ferreyra, Carlos Peucelle, Ricardo Bochini, Osvaldo Ardiles, Ariel Ortega, Juan Román Riquelme, and Juan Sebastián Verón are the great No. 10s etched in lore. And, of course, its three greatest practitioners are Alfredo DiStefano, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi.
When Alonso became a regular in River's first-team XI, River was suffering through a period of trophy drought. It wasn't that River was bad; on the contrary, they were consistent title contenders. Unfortunately for River, Boca, with their strength-and-tackling football, were slightly better, as were Estudiantes de La Plata, whose anti-futbol (a dour, physical, oftentimes violent methodology that a pragmatist like José Mourinho would no doubt defend) still prompts many to spit on the floor upon hearing their name.
It was also at this time when the much-loathed insult gallinas reared its obnoxious head. Meaning “chickens,” River were branded gallinas after blowing a 2-0 aggregate lead to of Peñarol of Uruguay during the 1966 Copa Libertadores, the grand South American club championship (Peñarol won, 4-2, on their way to winning the Libertadores). Fans of the club Banfield tossed a chicken onto the pitch during a match against River the following week, and, hence, the nickname stuck.
The Libertadores would be the albatross around River’s neck since the tournament’s inception.
All that changed with the River Plate sides of the mid-1970s. With Alonso setting the pace, alongside such club legends as Ubaldo “El Pato” Fillol, J.J. Lopez, “Mostaza” Merlo, and the imperious Daniel Passarella, River finally broke through, winning the Metropolitano and the Nacional in 1975. River’s renaissance coincided with a resurgent national team. Under Cesar Menotti, the free-flowing, passing, attacking football known as La Nuestra (literally, ‘what is ours’) flourished once more, as Argentina won the 1978 World Cup, held in Argentina.
River won the Metropolitano in 1977, and the Nacional/Metropolitano double in 1979. Anti-futbol was now a thing of the past. Beto Alonso and River Plate were now the high priests of La Nuestra.
There are rivalries. And then there are rivalries that transcend mere definition. Take the regional divisions and star power of Real Madrid vs Barcelona, and the sectarian hostilities of Celtic vs Rangers, add a massive dose of class warfare, and you have River vs Boca. The posh Millonarios against the working-class Xeneizes. Rich versus poor.
This is pure nonsense. Both clubs have strong working class roots, and supporters for both clubs are made up heavily from the working class. Both clubs also enjoy strong support from the upper class. Marcelo Macri, the current president of Argentina, was once Boca Juniors' Club [G3] president, and Macri did not come from working class roots.
But, like the eternal Beatles vs. Stones rivalry – squeaky-clean mop tops versus the boys you’d never let your daughter be alone with – narratives that have been etched in stone for eternity must be honoured, even if both sides know it’s bogus.
So when El Super Clasico takes place, all of Argentina comes to a standstill. The insults are hurled – Boca tosses the now-familiar gallinas to taunt River Plate and their fans; River fans love reminding Boca fans their beloved stadium La Bombonera sits on the bank of a polluted river in La Boca, therefore earning Boca fans the charming nickname Bosteros (loosely translated to mean “shit baggers”). Violence erupts in the stands, rival ultras practically beating each other up (sadly, a few murders have been attributed to El Super Clasico). It can be argued, quite easily, that there is no derby that matches El Super Clasico for its importance and its ferocity. It's deeply ingrained in Argentina, on and off the pitch.
The rivalry is, without exaggeration, at times a matter of life and death.
I wore my River Plate shirt everywhere. To the park, when pick-up matches would frequently break out. To school, to church, out for dinner, everywhere, the crispy ivory with the blood-red sash ever so ubiquitous. During pickup games, I demanded to be the No. 10, just like Beto Alonso, although my skills as a playmaker left much to be desired. I was short, overweight, and seemingly lacking the gift of the gambeta, I was often forced to play the keeper role. I was equally as bad in that role too.
I could barely contain my excitement when my relative came over with her finished handiwork on my River Plate replica kit.
It wasn't handiwork. The words ALONSO were stitched so thin, you'd thought she was fearful of running out of string. The number 10 had been ironed on, poorly, and it was already starting to bubble in some parts and peel loose in others. I mumbled my thanks, my disappointment barely concealed.
The shirt went into a drawer. There was no way I was going to wear that in my pick-up games, not with those idiot Bostero kids ready to ridicule my relative’s un-handiwork.
Remember the New York Cosmos? Of course you do: the flagship super-team of the North American Soccer League, who boasted legends like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Johan Neeskens, and Giorgio Chinaglia. They were the Galacticos before Real Madrid could truly lay claim to that superlative. Well, when the Cosmos weren’t laying siege on inferior opponents (except for the Rodney Marsh-led Tampa Bay Rowdies, who always gave the Cosmos fits), the Cosmos spread their gospel of rock-star football, scheduling friendlies against all comers, any time, any place.
One of those friendlies was against River Plate. At Giants Stadium, in New Jersey. River Plate was coming to town! I was going to see Beto Alonso play! For this momentous occasion, I would swallow my pride and wear my River Plate jersey with the sorry stitching.
We very nearly didn't get to see the match. When we arrived at the terminal to catch the bus that would take us to Giants Stadium, my dad realised he'd left the tickets back home! But we did make it, halfway through the first half, but in all honesty, we probably should have stayed home. The match was a typically lacklustre affair like all friendlies tend to be, each side scoring late in the match for a 1-1 draw. I'm assuming Beto Alonso was in the lineup, but an internet search doesn’t yield any information about the lineups for either side.
Side note: what was left of the New York Cosmos played a friendly against my dad’s beloved Independiente in the summer of 1984. Other than a 300-word write-up from the Associated Press, there's precious little written about the match, in which Independiente and the Cosmos battled to a 2-2 draw in from of 16,000 at Giants Stadium. I have zero recollection of the game my dad and I attended, other than a Cosmos fan heckling Independiente all match long. Independiente had defeated Liverpool for the World Club title the previous December, but that clearly didn’t impress the heckler, who, throughout the 90 minutes, insulted Independiente lack of finishing.
Some people are just hard to please.
A brief period of instability in the mid-1980s saw River go through seven managers in a two-year period, and River very nearly avoided relegation. Not coincidentally, Beto Alonso left the club for crosstown rivals, Velez [G10] Sarsfield. But a return to glory was inevitable; Alonso rejoined River in 1983, and, paired with Hector Enrique and the emerging Uruguayan superstar Enzo Francescoli, River won the league title in 1986. Making the league title win even sweeter was the coronation, against Boca, no less, capped by a 2-0 win. The match was made even more memorable because of its use of an orange ball after the pitch having been covered with ticker tape. Both goals in the 2-0 victory against Boca came courtesy of Beto Alonso.
More importantly, the Libertadores albatross was laid to rest. A 3-1 aggregate win against América de Cali, and the Copa Libertadores was finally River’s (they would win it twice more, in 1996 and 2015).
The stupid gallinas insult, though still hurled, just wouldn’t have the same sting like it used to. The name gallina sticks in the craw of every River Plate fan. But, in time, [G12] gallina became something of a badge of honour[G13] . Insults and slurs sometimes have the opposite effect; calling me a gallina doesn’t bother me; after all, gallinas have their day, frequently, and at least our shit doesn’t stink.
The jersey, the Beto Alonso jersey with the sorry stitching and the now-missing Number 10, went back to Argentina. Having finally outgrown it, my mother packed it along with dozens of hand-me-downs and donated them to our relatives. I would see a young cousin of mine wear the same shirt many years later, now faded and grimy. I mentioned to my not-so-impressionable young cousin that his shirt was once mine.
“But it’s mine now!” he declared, running off.
That same visit to Argentina saw me make a pilgrimage to El Monumental, River Plate’s majestic, iconic stadium, the largest in Argentina (of course). Home also to Argentina’s national side, El Monumental looms large, in both presence and in the imagination of River Plate fans everywhere. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to take part in a stadium tour. El Monumental is sacred ground; I wasn’t worthy enough to win entry into this cathedral.
I never understood why my dad indulged my love for River Plate. Like any football-mad father, he should have forced his club loyalties onto me, yet he never did. As such, I could never talk trash about Independiente. They’re like Tottenham Hotspur, in that regard, a club with a devoted yet long-suffering fan base. Like Spurs, they’re hard to dislike, unless you’re Arsenal or Racing Club, Independiente longtime rivals. My dad will still celebrate River’s victories with me. Within seconds of River winning the 2015 Copa Libertadores, my dad called, seeming out of breath. River suffered through a tense 0-0 first leg draw against Tigres UANL of Mexico, only to soundly win 3-0 at home to capture their third Copa Libertadores triumph. For River, this was a sweet triumph, after the wilderness years of the early 2010s, when River was ignominiously relegated to the Nacional B. That's right: River, relegated, through a perfect storm of gross mismanagement, organisational indifference, and poor play on the pitch.
In addition to the 2015 Libertadores triumph, River added a league title in 2014, and a Copa Sudamericana (South America’s equivalent of the Europa League) victory, also in 2014. River Plate is stable again, currently in a league-title dogfight with Boca; as of the writing of this piece, three points separate River and Boca, with three games remaining.
And there’s El Super Clasico, disputed once again. The most recent edition saw River concisely defeat Boca, 3-1, at La Bombonera. A first-half display of attacking football and clinical finishing saw River take an early 2-0 lead before Boca tallied one back as half-time struck. A defensive masterclass from River shut down Boca's frenzied, disorganised attack, not before current legend Sebastian Driussi put the game away in the final seconds.
Phone in hand, I was about to call my brother-in-law, as die-hard a Bostero as there is. I wanted to hear his anguish over his beloved side losing to their hated rivals and rub it in. But he beat me to the punch, sort of; his Instagram post complemented River on their victory. No hard feelings, just a tip of the hat to the victors. No sense, then, in gloating; I “liked” his post, and left it at that. We gallinas can be gracious in victory. Sometimes.
By Gus Sanchez. Header image credit goes fully to Rogério Tomaz Jr.