When I was thirteen I bought a River Plate shirt from a small sports shop in my Leicestershire hometown. Prior to that Saturday afternoon, I’d never laid eyes on an Argentine shirt in the flesh - twenty-five years ago the replica industry was still in its infancy and “mail order” was the closest thing to online shopping. Even in today’s global marketplace, South American club kits are seldom found in stores — it’s no exaggeration to say that for a young collector in the early-nineties, they represented a football shirt holy grail.
Alongside the River shirt were a handful of other jerseys from Argentina. A friend and fellow enthusiast bought a Boca Juniors shirt (the one with the FIAT sponsor) and I seem to recall they also had Independiente. Quite how this modest establishment in Loughborough had managed to procure an exotic selection of Buenos Aires-based club shirts remained a mystery, but rather than ask further questions I snapped up the River shirt before a less-deserving soccer-mad peer did the same. It cost a mere £10, which even then was a bargain.
Made in Argentina under license by Adidas (la marca de las 3 tiras), the River shirt was a classic cotton-polyester blend template, with three red stripes down the sleeves and the Peugeot sponsor on the upper-right chest. South American jerseys in that period were still, in essence, utilitarian sportswear; with the exception of changes in sponsorship from season to season, River’s strip had remained practically unaltered since the mid-80s. What I liked most about the shirt was its construction; unlike the modern kit on which River’s famous red sash (“la banda roja”) is printed within the material, here it was sewn into the garment as a separate piece of fabric, lending the shirt and its most distinctive feature a little extra weight.
I’d never seen a River Plate match on television — any information about the club I’d learned from the pages of World Soccer, to which I was a monthly subscriber. Without the internet or even satellite television, this was the only way for a British schoolboy to stay informed of football taking place on the other side of the globe. From what I could tell from the magazine’s grainy images of the Primera Division, everything about the Argentine league seemed decidedly ad hoc compared to the increasingly corporate game in Europe. The Adidas Tango was still the match-ball of choice, penalty areas were often partially hidden beneath rolls of toilet paper, while the players tended to wear their hair long and their socks around their ankles.
Of course, the top Argentine footballers were all based in Italy or Spain; those left behind were mostly unknown to European fans, which for me only enhanced the mystique surrounding the country’s domestic game. As a young teenager, I was desperate to be exposed to football in other (warmer) countries, where each Sunday colourful fans would pack into vast concrete stadia and convey their allegiance with spectacular displays of amateur pyrotechnics. I soon set my sights on Serie A, and eventually moved to Italy, where watching Zanetti or Crespo from my seat at San Siro or shopping on Milan’s Corso Buenos Aires made Argentina seem a little closer than it had in the UK. Yet despite its strong cultural ties to Europe (I’d even heard Buenos Aires referred to as “the Paris of South America”), Argentina — the place itself — seemed so unfathomably distant to me that it may as well have been the moon.
So when I visited Buenos Aires for the first time in January 2014, I was experiencing a reality that for so many years had seemed beyond reach. Not for the first time, I found myself visiting a place that for a long time had existed only in my imagination, only to have it both live up to, exceed and defy my expectations. Buenos Aires’ exuded an immediate familiarity, its wide boulevards, fluorescent street lamps and balconied apartment buildings pleasingly reminiscent of cities in southern Europe. Meanwhile my football shirt collection had grown considerably over the years; naturally, I packed the appropriate jerseys though not without first double-checking which were safe to wear in each part of town (rule of thumb: if in doubt, opt for plain clothes).
I faced no such dilemma the day I visited El Monumental. I’d hung onto my River shirt for over two decades, perhaps for an occasion just like this. It was a sweltering afternoon as I left the small apartment I was renting in Palermo and began my epic pilgrimage: a two-hour walk up Avenida Luis Maria Campos and Avenida del Libertador, through the affluent Belgrano neighbourhood to the leafy barrio of Núñez.
Unlike Boca Juniors’ home stadium La Bombonera, which is surrounded by concrete shacks daubed in blue and gold paint, Núñez is a middle-class suburb with individual homes boasting front gardens. But that’s not to imply that football passions are any less rife. As I approached the stadium, I noticed a sharp increase in pro-River and anti-Boca graffiti, while all billboards were plastered with election posters promoting candidates for the River Plate presidency. The tree-lined Avenida Lidoro J. Quinteros looks like any other residential street, except looming at one end like a giant Coca-Cola-emblazoned UFO parked opposite a handful of car dealerships sits the Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti.
Fittingly for a club that likes to call itself “El Mas Grande”, the Monumental is the largest stadium in Argentina. Though parts of the ground look as if they’ve barely seen a lick of paint since the 1978 World Cup, the ground’s ultra-modern Museo River is surely the benchmark against which I will measure all future stadium tours. They’ve literally thought of everything: hundreds of trophies, goals on video, an alphabetical listing of every player to represent “Los Millionarios”, a gallery of River-inspired artwork, plus an interactive time tunnel in which River’s successes and failures on the pitch are placed in context with important events in Argentina’s history. Alongside the vintage match-worn shirts on display is a graphic illustrating every River kit from 1901 to 2014, which is how I was able to finally pinpoint mine as the 1989-90 kit, the same season Gabriel Batistuta made a handful of appearances for River before finding fame at Boca.
It being January, Argentina’s domestic league was enjoying its summer hiatus — in fact, that same week Boca and River were set to face each other in a friendly down the coast in Mar del Plata. Nothing compares to a live match, but without the action to focus on an empty stadium can be an oddly rewarding spiritual experience, the unusual space and quiet allowing memories, both remembered and imagined, to flicker through the mind. Staring out into the sunny arena from the comfort of the stands’ old wooden seats, I tried to picture what it must have been like to be here in 1978, when Argentina defeated the Netherlands to win their first World Cup, beneath brewing storm clouds and showers of ticker tape unleashed by hoards of bundled porteños. That historic victory took place the year before I was born: it was something I could never have witnessed, yet suddenly I was in the stadium where it happened and I felt like I could almost touch it. I thought of the thirteen-year-old boy who’d bought the River Plate shirt I was now wearing and what it had meant to him and how he’d imagined this place from the other side of the world. That world had now become smaller, and I was both sad and happy.
Incidentally, modern reproductions of my River Plate shirt can be purchased from the official club shop for 229 pesos.