BY PETER COATES
The Superclasico between River Plate and Boca Juniors is a fixture in the world football calendar that’s steeped in history, one that halts all activity in Buenos Aires but also captures the imagination of football fans around the globe. It has witnessed some of the game’s greats take part on either side: Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Maradona, Enzo Francescoli, Juan Roman Riquelme and Gabriel Batistuta to name just a handful and is credited with being one of the most incredible spectacles in sport.
The intense rivalry between the supporters has been particularly evident in recent weeks with the attack on River Plate’s players during their Copa Libertadores clash but the fixture was also witness to the worst stadium disaster in Argentine football history in 1968.
A goalless draw between the two great rivals in a season where neither were crowned champions of Argentina would ordinarily be a result that would be reserved only for the statisticians and their record books, but June 23rd 1968 is still a significant date in Superclasico history. Nearly 50 years after the event there is still a great deal of ambiguity and resulting anger over the event that left 71 people dead and another 150 injured.
With so many conflicting versions and a lack of official findings from the subsequent investigations it is perhaps easiest to state what we do know.
On Sunday June 23rd 1968, Boca Juniors made the journey across Buenos Aires to River Plate’s El Monumental for what was already the 89th league meeting between the rivals since the first in 1913. The match itself provided few headlines as the sides battled to a reportedly dull, goalless draw. However, at full time as the visiting Boca fans made their way down from their position in the upper Tribuna Centenario towards the ill-fated gate 12, disaster struck. In spite of the blocked gate 12, supporters continued to pour down the poorly lit stairwell, crushing those who had already arrived at the bottom.
Of the 71 supporters killed, most were teenagers and the average age of the victims was just 19. Tragically, the families of those who had died never really received any explanation and certainly no one was held accountable for what happened that day in the Monumental.
The accounts of what happened in the aftermath of the tragedy varied and even today matters are no clearer. Some accounts suggest that Boca fans had thrown burning River flags from the upper tier which caused a stampede in the tier below, while others claim that River fans had entered the Boca section and prompted a rush down the stairs to the exit. Both of these accounts place the responsibility with the supporters but there are other versions of events that suggest that La Puerta 12 was either locked or at least blocked making exiting the stadium impossible.
The River president at the time, William Kent, placed the blame at the feet of the police. It is claimed that police outside the stadium refused to allow Boca supporters out through the gate after having urine thrown on them from the stands. As they forced the exiting supporters back in to gate 12 they were met with the hundreds that were still coming down the stairs to leave.
The many accounts of witnesses since the day give credence to a number of these theories, although none have ever been verified. Notably when the two sides next met in October of the same year, both sets of fans sang “No habia puerta, no habia molinete, era la cana que pegaba con machete” – There was no gate, there were no barriers, it was the police hitting with knives.
The official stance appeared to simply claim that too many people leaving at once en masse created a bottle-neck at the gate, causing the resulting crush. Ariel Angel Dasso, the former lawyer of River said “What happened was an accident caused by the misconduct of the crowd rushing out”. This explanation does not seem to fully account for what happened nor why it would not have happened before or after but at the very least it leaves the stadium and the security operation open to serious criticism in the face of such a devastating failure.
The investigation into the disaster threw up more questions than answers. The security operation came under scrutiny in the months following and two River Plate directors, Americo Di Vietro and Marcelino Cabrera, were both sentenced to jail for negligence. However, just five months later both were cleared after appealing the decision and the following year the case was archived, with still no explanation for the events.
At the end of the 1968 season, the 68 football clubs that made up the Argentine Football Association (AFA) at the time collected $100,000 pesos to donate to the families who had lost loved ones in the tragedy. While this represented a moment of often lacking solidarity among Argentine football clubs, it did little to give these families the closure that they demanded. It has also since been reported that only two families accepted the money; in doing so, they were made to sign papers which meant they were unable to claim further action from River Plate or the AFA.
Similarities were drawn to the tragic events at Hillsborough in England in 1989; the families of the 96 who died there also received no reasonable explanation for what happened. The police and even the government covered the facts of what actually occurred and it is only now that the truth is being published. That is not the case for what happened in the Monumental in 1968.
While the families have had to wait 25 years to get some form of justice regarding Hillsborough, the events of that day did see changes to match day security in England. In Argentina it would appear little was or has been done to improve security. At the Monumental, River Plate replaced the numbered gates through which people enter and exit the stadium, so although La Puerta 12 is no longer visible, gate L is more or less the same.
Thankfully, a similar event has not occurred in Argentina in spite of the often slack security at stadiums around the country, but sadly, we are unlikely to ever know exactly what happened on June 23rd 1968.