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Miami Herald Article

Miami Herald, The (FL)
April 2, 2005
A NATION, A TEAM, SHARING ONE HEART 
Author: SANTOS A. PEREZ, sperez@herald.com

For 100 years, the Boca Juniors soccer team has made Argentines cheer - and sometimes cry - but always care passionately. The team has helped produce some of soccer's most famous stars, including Maradona, and has drawn the praise and admiration of players from aroud the world, including the great Brazilian Pelé. The emotional bond that unites Argentina and Boca will be on full display Sunday, when the soccer club holds its centennial celebration. The highly decorated squad, whose exploits touch the sentiments of Argentines within the country and abroad, will be celebrated at Boca's famed ``La Bombonera'' stadium in Buenos Aires and will honor the lengthy and storied tradition of what many Argentines consider ``the people's team.''

THE NATION'S TEAM

For Argentina , Boca Juniors is the equivalent of the New York Yankees, with all the same emotions - both love and hate - attached. ``When ! you become a Boca fan, you worship the team as if it were a religion,'' said Andres Cantor, who narrates soccer games for Telemundo and doesn't hide his allegiance to the club. ``You are born and you die being a Boca fan.''  Cantor, who also called Olympic soccer games for NBC in 2000 and 2004, said the attraction with Boca and the fans originated because of the team's style of play. ``Boca is identified as the team from the neighborhood,'' Cantor said. ``Their performance has been recognized for hard work and sacrifice. It is a team that personifies the common man.''

HIGH ASPIRATIONS

Boca Juniors has long been associated with the working class of Argentina , dating back to its origins when the team was made up of Italian immigrants. The team's foundation was traced to a poor section of Buenos Aires known as ``La Boca.'' The word ``Juniors'' was added to the team's name as a contrast to any unpleasant association with the neighborhood.  But the team's popularity extends beyond Buenos Aires as evidenced by the current running of a symbolic torch throughout the country, celebrating Boca's history. Just as any Boca symbol would prompt rabid and heartwarming response from fans in its home environs, the torch also attracted similar reactions when it was paraded in the country's outer provinces.

The ``Centennial Torch's'' final destination Sunday will be ``La Bombonera,'' the unique, three-sided structure known for the fans' proximity to the playing field. During home games the stadium becomes a prolonged song festival. ``The fans are literally singing nonstop for five hours, two before the game, two during the game and one after the game,'' said Carlos ``Cacho'' Cordoba, who played for 11 years with Boca.  In addition to fans, players who have worn Boca's blue and yellow uniform profess permanent loyalty even if separated by transfers or departures to other clubs. ``The moment you wear the Boca jersey, it becomes a ! very special feeling,'' Cordoba said. ``You just can't put a price on it.''

Diego Maradona started his professional career with Argentino Juniors and played only the 1981 season with Boca before his celebrated transfers to European clubs. Nonetheless, Maradona never cut ties with Boca and returned to the club for a farewell season in 1997.  In fact, Maradona is scheduled to play a prominent role during Sunday's ceremony. The player many fans and experts consider the best in the history of the sport will be the final person in the torch relay, carrying the flame into the stadium.  The celebration also will feature a match between Boca and Velez Sarsfield. There also will be a video presentation of the team's history on a 300-foot-wide screen. Musical acts also will be part of the celebration. Representatives from more than 300 civic organizations from around the country will parade through the stadium. The ceremony also will ! include a fireworks show and, in addition to Maradona, former Boca pla yers Hugo Gatti, Antonio Rattin and Silvio Marzolini.

THE TITLES MOUNT

The 1981 season proved to be a special one as the Maradona-led Boca squad, which also included Cordoba , won the Metropolitan championship. The 2003 Apertura championship earned Boca its 19th national professional league title. More recently, Boca's accomplishments have surpassed Argentina's borders. The team won international titles in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004.

Boca also is known for its yearly matches with bitter league rival River Plate, which is associated with the upper class of Argentina. If a season's results don't indicate success in the standings, a victory against River Plate soothes the pain for Boca fans. ``What makes a rivalry strong is if there is minimal difference in the games won by each team, and Boca-River is that example,'' Cantor said. ``But this rivalry goes beyond the game. You are dealing with a clash in cultures! . There is a genuine dislike between Boca and River fans.'' The rivalry intensified in the late 1930s, after River Plate moved its home games to a more affluent section of Buenos Aires.

CONNECTING WITH FANS

Cordoba, 46, played in several Boca-River matches, referred to as ``Super Clasicos,'' and always noticed the heightened emotion of facing the bitter adversary. Yet Cordoba acknowledged Boca fans' loyalty. ``If you give everything you can on the field, you have won over the fans for life,'' Cordoba said. ``You might think playing for a team with such passionate fans would put additional pressure on a player. But to a player who was born to play for Boca and is aware of what the people want, there is no pressure whatsoever. ``The fans become the 12th man. When the team is going through a rough period in a match, the fans will lift you. Suddenly the player acquires additional strength to motivate him.'' Cordoba, who left Boca Juniors in 1985 and would later coach the Miami Fusion during the Major League Soccer franchise's first season in 1998, did return to Argentina in 2004 after a 17-year absence and took his son, Patricio, to his first match at La Bombonera. Cordoba's visit came some 20 years removed from his last Boca appearance, yet he made a lasting impression. ``Fans still recognized me and that was very touching,'' Cordoba said. ``You had grandparents informing their grandchildren of my playing days with the team.  ``What I lived and gave to Boca will always remain close to my heart.''

Boca All Stars

Some of Boca's all-time best players include:

* Mario Boye (1941-1949): Recognized as one of the early prolific goal scorers in Boca history. Scored 112 goals in 208 matches.

* Antonio Rattin (1956-1970): A midfielder who played in 353 games during his Boca career. His ejection against England in the 1966 World Cup quarterfinals remains a sore spot for Argentina fans.

* Angel Rojas (1963-1971): Scored 67 goals in his Boca tenure.

* Silvio Marzolini (1966-1972): One of the top defenders in Boca history. Also represented Argentina in the 1962 and 1966 World Cups.

* Jorge Benitez (1973-1983): Boca Juniors' current coach. Scored 40 goals in a 305-game tenure with Boca.

* Hugo Gatti (1976-1989): A goalkeeper who finished his career with Boca after earlier stops at Gimnasia La Plata and bitter rival River Plate. Played until his mid-40s.

* Diego Maradona (1981, 1995-1997): Considered one of the greatest! players in the history of the sport. Helped lead Argentina to the 1986 World Cup and a second-place finish in 1990.

* Gabriel Batistuta (1990-1991): Had a brief stop with Boca, scoring 13 goals in 30 matches. Represented Argentina in the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups.

* Martin Palermo (1997-2000, 2005): He scored 79 goals in 70 matches during his first tenure with Boca.

* Carlos Tevez (2001-2004): Left Boca after last season with a record $18 million transfer to Brazilian club Corinthians. Considered the next star of Argentine soccer.

Copyright (c) 2005 The Miami Herald
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