Tonight, Boca Juniors will receive Corinthians for the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final, which means that many football fans’ heart will fill with anticipation of the crazy scenes we might witness at La Bombonera.
Few stadiums have the reputation of creating atmosphere as does La Bombonera, and it confidently ranks among the continent’s, and arguably the world’s, most mythical stadiums.
However, if it had not been for a random series of events, La Bombonera would not have been here anymore. While the initial reflex may be to breath a sigh of relief, this relief may turn into despair upon realising that the alternative could have seen today’s final played in a stadium almost three times the size of La Bombonera.
This stadium got never built though, and we will tell you how and why. It is a fascinating story, and it starts in the early months of 1965.
In those months Boca Juniors was on the verge of winning a third Argentine title in a period of four years, and they would soon make the semi-final of the Copa Libertadores again, having reached the final of the tournament two years earlier.
These were golden years for the club, and this was in no small part due to club president Alberto J. Armando, which is, if it had rung a bell, the official name that La Bombonera carries these days.
Alberto J. Armando had become the president of the club five years earlier, for the second time after an earlier short spell in the mid 1950s. He was an ambitious president, some might say even delirious.
His first act had been to sign a bunch of top players, including the great Silvio Marzolini, Argentine international Ernesto Grillo, goalkeeper Antonio Roma, Brazilian striker Paulo Valentim, and Uruguayan international José Sasía. And when the expected successes came, it was time to focus on the facilities of the club.
When ambitious men build new stadiums, there tends to be few modesty involved, and Armando’s plans did not differ from that rule.
It all started in early 1965 when the Argentine government granted the club a “sector” in the Río de la Plata river, which kind of translates as “the land is yours, but you have to create it first by filling up the river.”
While you may wonder why Boca was interested in a not yet existing piece of land in a river, it should be noted that the area was actually very close to the La Boca area where the club had been born and come to maturity (see map further below). And though the sector was bordered on one side by an area that is now an ecological reserve and one the other by a petrochemical plant, ambitious men can make everything happen.
And by everything we really mean everything. Because from this sector of 40 hectares was to arise the “Ciudad Deportiva de Boca Juniors”, a city of sports spread out over seven artificial islands consisting of football pitches, tennis courts, swimming pools, an amphitheatre, restaurants, amusement park rides, a drive-in cinema, and a tea room.
But the masterpiece of it all, to be built on island number seven, was a massive new stadium with a capacity of 140,000 places.
Were these plans megalomaniac? Perhaps, because Boca Juniors had only moved into La Bombonera 25 years ago. But then, a surge in popularity had meant that the stadium was already reaching the limits of its capacity. And what’s more, Armando saw the new stadium as the perfect flagship venue for the 1978 World Cup that was to be played in the country.
A date and time had already been set for the opening: the 25th of May 1975 at 11:00 am. The stadium was to be financed by the pre-sale of long-term season tickets (flyer above), several raffles, the sale of merchandise, and various other funding initiatives. Boca was furthermore helped by the Dutch Unido Bank (Hollandsche Bank-Unie), at which Armando was a director.
Of course there were many sceptics who doubted the viability of the project. Though others compared it with the city of Brasilia and lauded its modern architecture. But that the project was both ambitious and risky was for both sides clear, and Armando’s project motto “Fe y Trabajo” (“Belief and Work”), and in particular the “belief” part, sure seemed appropriate.
But soon enough the first trucks with sand indeed arrived and started filling up the river. And by the early 1970s seven islands had risen out of the river and many of the facilities started to take shape. The final piece was still missing though, which was the centrepiece stadium.
Football and politics have an intimate relationship in Argentina, and with the rise of Boca fan Alejandro Lanusse to the leadership of the military government, Armando received exactly what he needed. With the necessary political support for his plans arranged, then finally on the 25th of May 1972, three years before the planned opening, the first stone of the stadium was laid.
But Argentine politics were far from stable at that time, and just as construction of the new stadium gathered pace, Lanusse was forced to step down and make way for the return of former president Perón.
Perón’s return had promised stability, but his quick death after resuming power led to a period of political turmoil, terrorism, economic stagnation and hyperinflation. Awful conditions to build a new stadium.
Works on the stadium had already slowed down due to these problems, but the increasingly powerful position of a personal enemy of Armando, José López Rega, spelled the end of the project. By the time the military dictatorship of Videla took control in 1976, all dreams and ambitions of building a new stadium had already died. All of the grand stadium that had been built were the bottom 10 rows of one stand.
Various of the facilities had still been completed though, and for several years the swimming pools, football pitches, rides, and drive-in cinema were used by the youth of Buenos Aires. However, a lack of budget and resulting lack of maintenance meant that the state of the complex quickly deteriorated and by the mid 1980s most parts had closed down.
The tearoom was one of the few buildings left, but got rented out in the 1980s to the USSR Chamber of Commerce, which used it to display the country’s export products.
While the “river sector” had been a gift from the Argentine government, there was one clear condition in the contract that Boca had signed, which was that the terrains would return to public ownership if the club failed to complete the project. Which it did.
Boca challenged this though, and after a long legal process it did receive definite ownership of the complex. This time the club refrained from grand plans, and due to its precarious financial situation it was soon forced to sell it again.
We have arrived in the early 1990s now, a time when the city of Buenos Aires started the regeneration project of the Puerto Madero area. Imagine an area full of high-rise luxury apartment towers, modern offices, upscale hotels and fancy restaurants, an area not far away from the by then deserted complex.
It is therefore no wonder that the terrains of Ciudad Deportiva ended up in the hands of an investment group, which had of course no intention of restoring any of the previous facilities. Instead it is planning to turn the area into a development with gated apartment buildings.
Right now, in 2012, the investment group has already filled up the canals separating the islands and cleared away the remaining bits of the one stand that got built. All other sports facilities have gone too. The only reminder of Armando’s dreams that is still left after 40 years is the tearoom. Whether it will still be there tomorrow, nobody knows.
For more information (in Spanish) or photos we recommend you to visit the Imborrable Boca blog. Its article on Ciudad Deportiva has been one of the principal resources for this story.