The city of La Plata lies just under an hour’s drive south from the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. A settlement of just under 900,000 inhabitants, it’s the capital of Buenos Aires province. A relatively new city, it was founded in 1882. The province needed an administrative hub. Buenos Aires was too busy being the capital of the nation.
The city was designed by Pedro Benoit. His design was based on the idea of the layout being a square with a park in the centre and two diagonal avenues running from north to south and east to west. This reoccurs as the city expands. For every six blocks, there is a small park or a square and numerous diagonal streets. Thus La Plata is named the city of diagonals.
Benoit’s design has meant that La Plata is full of green spaces and this is perfect for the participation of Argentina’s national obsession: football.
Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata was the first club to appear in the city. Formed on 3 June 1887, this makes them not only the first club to be formed in La Plata, but it also gives them the distinction of being the oldest surviving club in Argentina with a football wing. Their formation came just five years after the foundation of the city, but at first, football was not a concern.
Gimnasia y Esgrima translates into English as Gymnastics and Fencing. These sports were particularly popular amongst the middle classes at the time. Other sports such as rugby and football were offered later on. This has led to supporters of other clubs to question their claim as Argentina’s oldest football club.
It wasn’t until 1905 that Gimnasia decided to include football amongst its sports, but shortly after, they decided to close the football arm, not offering it again until 1915. This led to a group of high school and university students to leave the club and form their own. Estudiantes de La Plata came into being on 4 August 1905 and the name was a nod to the occupation of its founders. La Plata now had a football club and when the game was back on the menu at Gimnasia, the city had a clásico.
The first meeting between the two clubs came in 1916 with a 1-0 win for Gimnasia. This was thanks to an own goal by Estudiantes Ludovico Pastor. Estudiantes had been promoted to the top division in 1911 with Gimnasia joining them in 1915. Gimnasia won their first and only league title in 1929. Estudiantes had already bagged theirs in 1913 when Gimnasia was still excluding football from the club’s repertoire.
Gimnasia became the team of the working classes drawing on support both within the city and in the surrounding La Plata area. Estudiantes, perhaps due to their origins in academia, became the team of the middle classes. Today, that’s not necessarily the case. Many years ago class considerations would shape a club’s support but as time has gone by this has become less and less prevalent. It’s probably fair to say though that Estudiantes can claim the most fans in La Plata these days and that’s down to their later successes.
Neither club pulled up many trees in the professional era which started in 1931, although in the 1960s, Estudiantes claimed a groundbreaking honour. In 1967, they became the first club outside of Argentina’s ‘big five’ to win the championship. This enabled them to go on to claim, what was at the time, a record three Copa Libertadores titles in a row.
They were certainly a great side. However, this team was not revered and for good reason. They had outstanding players such as Carlos Bilardo and Juan Ramón Verón, that was in no doubt, but they became the epitome of anti-fútbol with their win at all costs attitude. Tales abound of Estudiantes players stabbing their opponents with needles to put them off their game, particularly at set-pieces and at corners.
Bilardo was a fully qualified gynaecologist and practised this before choosing football. Bilardo even used his former profession to his advantage. Finding out the medical details of opponents wives and whispering what he knew to them to distract or provoke a reaction. With such underhand practices, it’s perhaps not a surprise that Bilardo was the coach of Argentina when Maradona produced his hand of god goal.
One such incident came in a match against Racing, a strong club in Argentina at the time. He had found out that the wife of their right-back Roberto Perfumo had undergone a procedure to have a cyst removed. Bilardo taunted him about this, resulting in a kick in the stomach for Bilardo and a red card for Perfumo.
It seemed that Bilardo saved all his most dastardly antics for Racing. During a different match, Bilardo targeted Racing’s goalkeeper. The goalkeeper in question was renowned for having a very close relationship with his mother. So close in fact that she didn’t want him to marry. When he did and she passed away not long after, Bilardo said to him on the pitch “Congratulations, finally you’ve killed your mother.”
Bilardo went on to become coach of the club in 1971. It was during his tenure that one of his teammates and stars of the 1960s, Juan Ramón Veron, was re-signed from Panathinaikos. In the clásico of 1975, an event occurred off the pitch that would come to define the future of Estudiantes.
The 3-3 draw at the Estadio Jorge Luis Hirschi seems innocuous enough, as does the goal scored by Veron that day, but off the pitch, Veron’s wife was in labour. Bilardo kept news of this from him until he came off the pitch at the end of the match. The next day the couple welcomed a baby boy into the world and named him Juan Sebastian.
He would go onto play a big part in the history of Los Pincharratas (The Rat Stabbers). Estudiantes got this nickname not from their anti-fútbol era but due to one of their early players, Felipe Montedónica, who was famous for spending his free time in La Plata market chasing after rodents.
This nickname gained traction as the club had medical students as early members with the association of experimentation on rats. Estudiantes also carry the more conventional nickname of ‘El León’ (The Lion).
If being nicknamed rat stabbers is odd then the penchant for strange nicknames extends to Gimnasia too. They were originally known as Los Triperos (The Tripes) as many of Gimnasia’s working-class supporters worked in the nearby meat processing plants of the barrio of Berisso, not far from their home stadium in El Bosque. The location of the stadium led to another nickname ‘El Lobo del Bosque’ which means ‘The Wolf of the Forest’. The stadium is situated in La Plata’s main park.
El Bosque was the scene of one of the most notable clásico encounters on 5 April 1992. Gimnasia beat Estudiantes 1-0 which was quite unremarkable in itself. Gimnasia was experiencing one of their rare successful seasons, qualifying for the Libertadores while Estudiantes struggled. What stood out from the match though, was that when Gimnasia scored, over at the local astronomical observatory, a low-intensity seismic event was registered. This wasn’t the Punta del Este fault that La Plata sits on moving, but the tremor caused by the celebrations of the Gimnasia fans. Jose Perdomo’s free-kick is now known as “El gol del terremoto” (The earthquake goal).
It’s a wonder that the stadium didn’t collapse. In 2003, the Estadio Ciudad de La Plata, a multi-sport venue, was completed. Both Estudiantes and Gimnasia were invited to become tenants of the stadium. They both declined, deciding to stay at their respective homes. Their hands were forced in September 2005 though as new laws deemed both unsafe. The stadiums were made mainly of wood and had little renovation work carried out to them since they were built. Gimnasia carried out improvements and returned in 2008, while Estudiantes stayed a while longer.
Juan Sebastian Veron came through at Estudiantes becoming a legend there before moving to Europe. When he broke into the side in 1994 the club had been relegated to the second tier. Bilardo was long gone, winning the championship in 1982, before the national side and World Cup success beckoned.
They returned to the Primera División after only one season, with Veron the star before he left for Boca Juniors and later Sampdoria. It was upon his return from Europe that he shone once again for Estudiantes, despite being 31. While he was away he had made donations to the club to improve training facilities and despite interest from both Boca and River Plate, it was clear where his loyalties lay.
He had made a wise decision. With him bossing the midfield, Estudiantes won the championship in both 2006 and 2010 along with the biggest prize of all in South American football sandwiched in between: the Copa Libertadores in 2009.
The record clásico victory came during this period. In October 2006, Estudiantes demolished Gimnasia 7-0 at Estadio Ciudad de La Plata. Estudiantes later won the title with a play-off win against Boca after the two clubs finished level on points. When Gimnasia met Boca at La Bombonera that year, Gimnasia fans threatened their own players into throwing the match to ensure a Boca win thus damaging their rivals title chances. Gimnasia despite being in poor form and finishing in 13th place that season, managed a draw with the equalizer coming in injury time. A good point at La Bombonera would usually be celebrated but the reverse was true this time. Often in Argentina, the desire for your team’s success comes second to your rival’s pain.
In 2019, Gimnasia made a managerial appointment to ramp up their international profile. Bottom of the league and seemingly doomed following several poor seasons, the club was staring relegation in the face. Demotion is decided over the points average of three seasons and Gimnasia were way short.
Step forward, Diego Maradona. The club’s hierarchy admitted the appointment was as much about the name of their boss and the interest it would bring as to his managerial ability. If they were to go down then why not do it with Argentina’s football god at the helm? Despite the poor quality of the team, the crowds flocked back. Maybe Diego’s presence alone could motivate the players to save the club?
In the end, it took a global pandemic to do so. The AFA announced that following the cancellation of the second part of the season, there would be no relegation in 2020. Maradona was rewarded with a new contract. Rumours currently abound that Diego’s old amigo, Claudio Caniggia may join him at the club as his assistant.
In December 2012, Juan Sebastian Veron was appointed director of football at Estudiantes. He has since risen to become president of the club and this season oversaw the move back to their old home. It had long been coming with the demolition of the old stands taking place 13 years ago.
The last clásico before COVID-19 brought the world of football to a halt, was a 1-0 win for Estudiantes at Gimnasia. Maradona was involved with an altercation with an Estudiantes player who he felt dived to try to win a penalty. The irony was not lost on those watching.
Estudiantes will hope their return home improves the club’s fortunes and they can look to challenge for honours again. Gimnasia will look for improvement under Maradona and to be able to compete with their great rivals. Whatever happens on the pitch, whenever the two meet, it will be explosive in the stands.