Could Boca bid farewell to La Bombonera?

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 15/05/12)

La Bombonera, one of the most iconic stadiums in world football, might not be the home of Boca Juniors for much longer after club President Daniel Angelici confirmed that the club is in the process of drawing up plans for a new ground.

The Estadio Alberto J. Armando, to give its full name, has been the home of Boca Juniors since 1940 and has become synonymous with the passionate atmosphere associated with Argentine football.  From the ticker tape fluttering from the throbbing stands, adorned with the gold and blue and of Los Xeneizes, to the unrelenting chanting and signing along to the beat of La Doce – the Boca faithful or ‘12th man’ – reverberating around its perfect acoustics, a game at La Bombonera is a truly unique experience.  This cacophony of noise, colour and energy is intensified tenfold during a Superclásico against bitter rivals River Plate, leading the Observer to vote it as the number one sporting event to do before you die.

However, during a radio interview last Wednesday, Angelici announced that a new 75,000-seater stadium could be built close to their current home, potentially being completed by the 2015/16 season at the earliest, and thus mark the end of an era for one of the great footballing pantheons.

The new stadium would have modern facilities including much-needed increased car parking space as well as a museum, restaurants and other businesses.  There is also a strong possibility that a naming rights deal will be necessary – much like the Etihad or the Emirates – in order to finance the construction and Angelici recently met Dubai Sheik Mohammad Ibn Saqr Al Qassemi, whose petrodollars could be used to fund the project.

Angelici did stress that La Bombonera would not be demolished.   “The idea would not be to destroy a temple like La Bombonera, but to put a roof on it and use it for activities such as concerts,” he affirmed. “There is no way we’re going to tear down our stadium.”

Nevertheless, many fans are outraged by the proposed move.  They understandably see La Bombonera as a sacred ground where they have witnessed their heroes triumph over the years and also something that simultaneously represents the core identity of the club. 

Hailing from the working class area of La Boca in Buenos Aires, the club remains close to its humble roots and, despite being the tourist’s preferred choice, the rugged charm of the stadium with its shabby exterior epitomises this identity.  Would a new modern home with a foreign name be able to represent both this legacy and the character of the club? And would it be able to capture the same atmosphere?  These pertinent questions will be foremost in the fans minds regarding the mooted move.

There are personal reasons for my apprehension too.  I have been lucky enough to see a handful of matches at La Bombonera which I count among some of my fondest footballing memories and also helped cement my love for South American football.

My first trip was Boca Juniors against another of Maradona’s former clubs Argentinos Jnrs in mid-February 2008. Boca ran out comfortable winners 4-0 with goals from Martín Palermo, Rodrigo Palacio, Jesús Dátolo and Leandro Gracián.  The highlight, though, was the fact that we were right in with La Doce – a true baptism of fire thanks to a local contact – and the atmosphere was unlike anything I had experienced before.

The last game I attended there, an otherwise unspectacular game against Banfield, was equally memorable.  Although Boca only managed a 1-1 draw, it was also Martín Palermo’s last ever home game and, the tributes to Boca’s all-time leading scorer before, during and for more than an hour after will forever be engrained in my memory.

Personal attachment aside, there are clearly some advantages to the move, such as increased revenue from higher attendances, easier accessibility in and out of the ground, better parking and presumably some form of regeneration around the stadium.  Whether the fans will it this way is debatable and there still remain numerous stumbling blocks if Boca are to go ahead with this protracted plan. 

It’s not just the Boca stadium that is going under refurbishment; the AFA has announced changes to the league structure ahead of the 2012/13 campaign. 

The substantial alterations will see a return to a 38-game season and the crowning of one champion, decided by a playoff between the Torneo Inicial champions (the team with the most points after 19 games) and the Torneo Final champions (the side with most points at the end of the 38 games) at a neutral venue.  In the case of one side winning both Torneos Inicial and Final, then that club would be crowned automatic champion without the need of a playoff.

While it may seem odd to have this playoff system, rather than simply whoever finishes the season top, it seems to be a compromise with the old format but nevertheless will hopefully reduce the short-termism mentality bred by the current short tournament structure.

There will be three direct relegations for the teams with the worst point averages over three years, with the relegation play-offs scrapped altogether.  In terms of Libertadores qualification the Inicial and Final champions will be joined by the team with the highest annual points tally, the best performing Argentine side from the Copa Sudamericana and the champion of the Copa Argentina (the equivalent of the FA Cup), currently in its inaugural season.

Whereas the league changes will be implanted from next season, it may be some time until Boca move from La Bombonera and it will be very interesting in seeing how the decision-makers at Boca go about trying to replace what for many fans in and outside of Argentina see as irreplaceable.