When you think of iconic football stadia there are a few that come to mind, but if you are looking for the most iconic stadium in world football, there really is only one contender; La Bombonera in Bueos Aires, home of Boca Juniors.
The legend began in 1940 when the stadium was opened with a 2-0 friendly victory over San Lorenzo. The stadium was designed by the Delpini-Sulcic-Bes Architectural Office and a little known member of the design team provided the unofficial name for the ground.
Legend would tell you that Slovenian born Viktor Sulčič would carry an old chocolate box to meetings after noting its similarity to the design of the new stadium. The building has been known as ‘La Bombonera’, or ‘chocolate box’ since it opened in 1940 and didn’t receive an official title until 1986.
Faced with a lack of space in the docklands district of La Boca, developers resolved to destroy the original wooden stadium and build vertically to accommodate Boca’s huge numbers of supporters. The top two tiers were added in stages with the ridiculously steep third tier being completed, along with the lighting system, in 1953. Indeed the friendly that opened the ground in 1940 had to be shortened to two halves of 35 minutes to compensate for the fading light.
Perhaps more so than any other ground in world football the home support is actually considered a numerical advantage. Boca fans refer to themselves as ‘La Doce’, or Number 12. Due to the stadium’s incredible acoustics the deafening noise spurs on the home side while intimidating even the most seasoned of opponent.
The fans are so fervent in their support that they actually shake the stadium to its very core. When 54,000 Boca fans get going the cement and steel of La Bombonera rocks, literally. Similar to the way buildings in San Francisco or Tokyo are built to withstand the shocks and tremors of earthquakes, La Bombonera’s tiers also allow for some built-in movement to prevent cracking
Visiting players have said that they can actually feel the earth shaking beneath their feet. Hernan Crespo, an icon for Boca Juniors’ city rivals River Plate, admits he was shocked when he made his first appearance there: “I thought my legs were shaking,” explained the Argentina international years later. “Then I realised it was the people. When you’re 18, as I was, it’s not easy.”
Opposition players regularly run a gauntlet of missiles and abuse to take corner kicks, adding to a febrile atmosphere that has helped Boca to a record of only 11 Copa Libertadores defeats at their iconic home, winning nearly 80% of the games played.
The ground is a fortress for Boca, but it is also a source of inspiration for the national team. At the time of writing Argentina haven’t lost there since 1977. In a total of 27 games, the Albiceleste have won 18 and only lost twice at the home of Boca Juniors. That said, at the end of the 70s the country's internationals have mostly been hosted at River Plate's homeground, El Monumental.
But it seems the national side prefer La Bombonera. Sitting 5th in the South American qualifying group for the 2018 Fifa World Cup, Jorge Sampaoli’s lacklustre Argentina needed a boost. After a 0-0 home draw with Venezuela, the AFA thought it best to move the following game against Peru away from El Monumental, to La Bombonera, where the fans are packed in closer to the pitch and the support is more fervent. They only managed another 0-0 in that one too but eventually qualified in 4th spot in the qualifying group.
If you visit La Bombonera you may well see members of La Doce dressed up as ghosts or chickens to taunt their fierce local rivals. These nicknames refer to two of River Plate’s most devastating defeats. River were given the nickname of ‘Las Gallinas’ or ‘little chickens’ for losing the 1966 Copa Libertadores final after being 2-0 up against Peñarol. Then, in 2011, River lost a home playoff against Belgrano which saw them relegated to Serie B for the first and only time in their history. Boca fans duly started to dress up as ghosts with big red ‘Bs’ on the front to remind their friends from Nuñez of the darkest days in their club’s history.
Such is the rivalry with River and their association with the colour red in Buenos Aires, that Coca-Cola folded to Boca Juniors’ demands for them to change their logo colours to black and white before being allowed to sponsor drinks stalls in and around the stadium.
Whatever your allegiances, whatever your passion, there surely is no greater venue to watch football in the world.