More than any other barrio in Buenos Aires, Boca (or “La Boca”) and its inhabitants seem to flaunt their idiosyncrasies. Located in the capital’s southeastern corner, this working-class riverside neighbourhood has been nicknamed the “República de la Boca” since 1882, when a group of local youths declared the barrio’s secession from the country. Even today, its residents – many new immigrants from other South American countries – have a reputation for playing by their own rules and are most famous for their brightly coloured wooden and corrugated-iron houses. The district was originally the favoured destination for Italian immigrants, and the colours of the houses derive from the Genoese custom of painting homes with the paint left over from boats. Boca’s other most characteristic emblem is its football team, Boca Juniors, the country’s most popular club and probably the most famous one abroad.
Named after the boca, or mouth, of the Río Riachuelo, which snakes along its southern border, Boca is an irregularly shaped barrio, longer than it is wide. Its main thoroughfare is Avenida Almirante Brown, which cuts through the neighbourhood from Parque Lezama to the towering iron Puente Transbordador that straddles the Riachuelo. Apart from some excellent pizzerias, there’s little to detain you along the avenue: the majority of Boca’s attractions are packed into the grids of streets on either side. Even then, there’s not a great deal to see as such, and unless you plan to visit all the museums an hour or two will suffice; morning is the ideal time to go, when the light best captures the district’s bright hues and before the tour buses arrive.
Be warned that Boca remains a poor neighbourhood and has an unfortunate reputation for crime, with muggings a fairly common occurrence. There’s no need to be paranoid, but it is advisable to stick strictly to the main tourist district and follow the advice of the police who patrol the area; keep expensive watches and cameras out of sight.
The true heart of Boca is Boca Juniors’ stadium, La Bombonera. Built in 1940, it was remodelled in the 1990s and the name – literally “the chocolate box” – refers to its compact structure; although Boca has more fans than any other Argentine team, the stadium’s capacity is smaller than that of most of its rivals. This is the place where many of the country’s best young players cut their teeth before heading to Europe on lucrative deals – the Bombonera’s most famous veteran is Diego Maradona, who retains a VIP seat at the stadium. Seeing a game here is an incredible experience, even for non-soccer fans.
Just inside the stadium entrance, there’s a large painting by famous local artist Benito Quinquela Martín entitled Orígen de la bandera de Boca (“the origin of Boca’s flag”), which illustrates one of the club’s most famous anecdotes. Though the exact date and circumstances of the event are disputed, all agree that Boca Juniors chose the colours of its strip from the flag of the next ship to pass through its then busy port. As the boat was Swedish, the distinctive blue and yellow strip was selected.
Around the stadium, a huddle of stalls and shops sell Boca souvenirs while, on the pavement outside the stadium, stars with the names of Boca players past and present, some featuring their footprints, were laid as part of the club’s centenary celebrations in 2005. Some of the neighbouring houses have taken up the blue and yellow theme, too, with facades painted like giant football shirts.
Few people have captured the imagination of the Argentine public as much as Diego Armando Maradona. A bull of a player with exceptional close control, balance and on-field vision, the diminutive no. 10 was the finest footballer of his generation and arguably of all time – though the latter title is now seriously contested by his compatriot, Lionel Messi. Born in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Maradona’s playing career (1976–97) was peerless. He made his first-team, first-division debut for club Argentinos Juniors in 1976, when he was just 15. Maradona wore the colours of seven clubs in total, including Boca Juniors, Barcelona and, most famously, Napoli, where he is still venerated as the player who brought southern Italy’s poorer brother glory and silverware. He also led Argentina to win the World Cup in 1986, a campaign that included one of the most celebrated of all World Cup games, the quarter-final played against England, just four years after the South Atlantic conflict. Maradona scored two goals, including the infamous “Hand of God” goal, in which he tapped the ball in with his hand, and a second, legitimate goal considered to be one of the finest ever scored.
Like many geniuses, though, Maradona was flawed – in his case, by the excesses of alcohol and, particularly, drugs. He was suspended in 1991 for testing positive for cocaine, and then again for the banned substance ephedrine during the 1994 World Cup. After a low point in 2004 where he was hospitalized following a cocaine-induced heart attack, he bounced back to host his own talk show in 2005, where guests included Pele and Maradona’s friend Fidel Castro. In 2008 he surprised many when he took over as coach of the Argentine national side and during qualifications for the 2010 World Cup was strongly criticized for his tactics (or lack of them) – which led him to more notoriety, this time when he launched an obscenity-laden tirade against the press following Argentina’s qualification. He lost his job after a humiliating 4-0 defeat by Germany in the South Africa finals, but was soon after appointed manager of Al-Wasl FC, based in Dubai, earning €3.5 million a year.