23 December 2020
As I wind down for the Christmas break, I have started watching the documentary series Boca Juniors Confidential on Netflix. It is an “exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Argentina’s legendary club”.
Boca is arguably Argentina’s biggest club with millions of fans including Argentines in the Diaspora. They are the current league champions and have won the league 34 times. The club’s biggest ever name was the late, great Diego Maradona, who used to have his own box at the 54,000 capacity La Bombonera stadium. Boca’s rivalry with the other big Buenos Aires club River Plate is known as the Superclasico and rivals the Real Madrid v Barcelona El Clasico in intensity and possibly bitterness.
Argentina, like Nigeria, has had more than its fair share of economic woes, but unlike many Nigerian clubs, Boca has remained well-run and continues to attract fanatical supporters who pack La Bombonera to the rafters each home game. The Boca area of Buenos Aires is the more deprived part of the city and that’s where the club draws most of its support. In stark contrast, most Nigerian fans have abandoned their local clubs and pledge allegiance to English clubs thousands of miles away.
It was fascinating to watch the programme reveal how Boca has continued to be a big draw for fans, despite being considerably poorer than the top European clubs. The best Argentine players still move to European clubs to earn more money and fame. But quite a number of them return to the Argentine league in the twilight of their careers. The documentary showed how one such player, Carlos Tevez, who started out at Boca, before playing for some of the biggest names in Europe – Manchester United, Manchester City, Juventus – and then returning to his hometown club. Tevez is idolised by Boca fans for his warrior spirit. Maradona also returned to Boca in the mid-1990s, as did another club legend, Juan Roman Riquelme, who like Maradona had played for Barcelona. Fernando Gago’s career followed a similar path – starting out at Boca, taking in Real Madrid, Roma and Valencia, before returning to Boca.
It must take a well-managed club to be able to attract and pay its returning stars in salaries they have become accustomed to. Boca combines the experience of veterans such as Tevez, with a decent academy that brings through a lot of youngsters. Training alongside those experienced pros is a massive bonus to the football education of the young players. The club also has an extensive scouting network in South America that allows them to poach talent from countries like Colombia, long before such players come within the radar of big European clubs.
A developed academy system with a highly competitive league, and young players learning from playing alongside teammates that have played at the highest levels, mean that Boca continues to produce very good players that they can make a profit from when they are sold to richer European clubs. The documentary showed that the profits from such sales are invested back into the club. This is because the training facilities next to La Bombonera would not look out of place in Europe. Such high standards mean the club remains attractive to its returning former players.
It also means that Boca can retain the loyalty of its fans in the battle for patronage with bigger European clubs, such as the English clubs benefiting from worldwide TV coverage. The programme showed the importance of supporters to Boca as an institution. The club runs several outreach programmes in the community, including players making visits to disabled children’s homes. Boca fans refer to themselves as the “12th Man” because playing them at the intimidating La Bombonera puts opponents at such a disadvantage like being a man down. One of the leaders of the fan groups said the fans prepare for games like players. They have their own routines. It is planned like a military operation, involving ensuring all the banners and flags are ready, the drums and other instruments are ferried to the ground and so on.
This type of passion, affinity to your local club and loyalty have all but vanished from Nigerian domestic football. The key to getting it back is learning from the experience of Boca Juniors.