Fans crazy over Boca Juniors

From the Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- They are a soccer-crazed nation's most ardent fans.

Trumpets blare and drums pound out a warlike beat as shirtless supporters set off showers of blue and gold fireworks when South America's most famous team -- Boca Juniors -- takes the field.

"Boca is about passion," said lifelong fan Cesar Fabiano. "You can get divorced, change your religion or change your friends, but you can never change the team jersey."

During a recent game against Venezuelan team Maracaibo, Boca boosters fired so many flares that blue smoke choked the field at "La Bombonera." The team's notoriously intimidating stadium thundered and star forwards Martin Palermo and Rodrigo Palacio dominated Maracaibo's hapless defense in a 3-0 victory.

But there is nothing like a showdown with archrival River Plate to bring out the passion of Boca fans.

The 180th "Superclasico" today will showcase Argentina's most famous teams in a drama that weaves pageantry and athleticism into one of South America's greatest soccer events.

"The spectacle is fantastic, magnificent," said Fabiano, who has attended games 64 of his 68 years. "People hug strangers they didn't even know when there is a goal or the game ends in victory. And in defeat, there is also plenty of hugging and crying."

The emotions, the shouts and the insults at rival teams are all magnified in the close confines of "La Bombonera" -- Spanish for "The Chocolate Box" -- where 55,000 fans will pack the stands today.

River is the red-and-white clad foe from just across Buenos Aires and Boca is the everyman's team in "blue and gold" that boasts fans from as far off as Japan. When these two titans play, normally bustling boulevards empty of traffic, factories idle and Argentines not at the game are glued to their TV sets.

Boca leads the Superclasico rivalry with 65 victories to 59 for River, and 55 draws, since 1931.

The winner of the Superclasico may change from year to year, but the fanaticism of Boca fans never wanes, said Fernando Bonda, who works at a steakhouse in front of La Bombonera.

For as long as it takes to play, there is no letup for the fans, who cheer themselves hoarse.

"The Boca fans cheer for 90 minutes straight," said Antonio Obrador, who has massaged the feet of Boca stars since 1969, including legend Diego Maradona. "The fans don't stop singing, playing trumpets and banging drums."

The awe-inspiring atmosphere at La Bombonera is a mecca for soccer pilgrims.

"It's very intense, almost like a pressure cooker," said Cynthia Neves, a 21-year-old from Brazil.

Many tourists who visit Boca's stadium leave believing that Argentines worship at an altar of blue and gold.

In actuality, about four of every 10 Argentines root for Boca, compared to three out of 10 for River Plate, according to a March 2006 study by polling group Equis.

There are even followers in Europe and Asia who flock to a museum that documents the rabid fan behavior. Its name: "The Passion of Boca Juniors Museum."

"You either have the Boca passion or you don't," said museum guide Daniela Garcia, showing off Boca rosary beads around her neck.

"A match isn't just about coming and going to the game. It's everything -- euphoria, tension, jitters, everything you live before and after the game with your family and friends."

Boca Coach Carlos Ischia, like his players, is royalty here.

"Boca passion is about joy, about great happiness," Ischia said as he fended off 50 children and their families during a museum charity event with Palermo.

Marcos Cazon lives just blocks from Boca's stadium and received an autographed T-shirt from Palermo. Family friend Mirta Franco smiled as she photographed the 10-year-old's big moment.

"In other countries, kids dream about meeting a famous singer or actor. But not here," Franco said. "Argentine kids dream about meeting a Boca player."

Franco whispered quietly that she was a River fan and teased Cazon to switch teams.

"I'll buy you a new bike if you switch sides," she joked.

But Cazon couldn't be swayed. "I'd do it just for the bike, but my heart would still be with Boca."

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