The Ciudad Deportiva

In 1959, Congressman Angel Beiró proposed a resolution denouncing the soccer clubs of Argentina and their governing association, the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA). Bieró urged the removal of all public subsidies for soccer, expressing his dismay that clubs had become “mere commercial entities that only seek profit and forget that their existence has only been made possible by fans of that beautiful and manly sport.” Beiró’s condemnation signaled the contentious growth of commercialization in Argentine soccer, as clubs benefitted enormously from public subsidies and their status as non-profit civil associations. My dissertation explores the history of soccer clubs in Buenos Aires from 1950 to 1976, a pivotal yet understudied transitional period in Argentine history. The historical tensions within soccer clubs revolved around their roles as civic associations providing pubic services and space for political activity while they simultaneously mirrored and shaped the inequitable dynamics of a mass consumer market in Buenos Aires. Studying these tensions will shed new light on wider debates over citizenship and capital in Argentine society.

While clubs were a key site of sociability and politics for urban males, they were also extensive civic associations that provided a variety of services for a wide membership. Soccer clubs had grown in prominence through the professionalization of the game in the 1930s, yet Buenos Aires also possessed dozens of clubs with tens of thousands of members because they also offered schooling, cultural activities, social services, and a site for local politics. While congressman Bieró’s outrage may seem unremarkable to our contemporary understanding of a globalized and commercialized sports landscape, Juan Domingo Perón - Argentina’s most famous populist who was in power between 1945-1955 - had politicized soccer in Argentina, tying soccer clubs and their services to new notions of consumption and citizenship that emphasized social justice for workers. After Perón’s ouster in 1955, the subsequent series of democratic and military governments attempted to enact their own visions of a modern Argentina in which questions of leisure, civic association, and consumption continued to be of primary importance.

My project is a cultural history of soccer clubs in Buenos Aires from 1950 to 1976, a pivotal yet understudied transitional period in Argentine history. Soccer clubs were a privileged site of associative life and political activity in the city, and my project uses them to examine the time’s changing political structure, citizens’ sense of collective belonging, and the physical geography of Buenos Aires. This paper explores one aspect of my project - Boca Juniors’ Ciudad Deportiva: A failed project that was a mix between a stadium complex and amusement park, built over seven artificial islands on sixty hectares of land filled in the Rio de la Plata. The Ciudad Deportiva’s history is profoundly important because it demonstrates how public and private capital combined to use soccer for the construction of an idealized (and ultimately failed) notion of middle-class consumption and modernity.

         Before discussing the Ciudad Deportiva, it’s important to note that soccer clubs entered into an economic crisis after 1955 - ticket sales declined sharply and clubs began to accumulate significant state debt. In response to the crisis, club officials combined public subsidies and private capital to produce a new type of soccer called fútbol espectáculo (or spectacle soccer). Futbol espectaculo was characterized by high spending and expensive club projects. I argue that studying the tensions produced by fútbol espectáculo sheds new light on how and why Argentines were unable to negotiate a social compact following the political proscription of Peronism, an important factor leading to the bloody repression of the military government in the 1970s.    

  One of the two club presidents who shaped the era of Futbol Espectaculo was Boca Juniors president Alberto J. Armando. Orphaned at fourteen, the young boy from Cordoba would eventually make his way into car sales, and in 1952 young Alberto traveled with a group of Peronist functionaries to Detroit, Michigan. After touring automobile factories, Armando made four million pesos by acting as an intermediary in the purchase of 681 Fords. With this initial fortune, Armando would open a car dealership and eventually expand his operations into a considerable collection of corporations involved in finance, imports, media, and automobiles. By the mid sixties he was one of the ten richest men in Argentina. In 1954, he was elected president of Boca Juniors and after a six year hiatus, remained there for two decades. One historian has described his style of leadership at Boca as “concentrated power with sheer demagoguery.” Politically, Armando supported whoever was in power at the time. Under Armando, Boca had one of its most successful periods domestically and internationally. They won multiple league titles throughout the 1960s and won the Copa Libertadores in 1977 and 1978. Boca was at the forefront of the spending craze that many clubs embarked on throughout this period. Player wages increased 48% between 1966 and 1969. After the monetary change in 1970 player wages rose another 41% between 1970 and 1973. Armando passed much of the cost onto the socios, or the club’s members. 

         In 1965 the major sports weekly El Gráfico ran a story about club finances - they surveyed a number of large clubs, examined their annual accounts, and interviewed club officials and treasurers. At Boca, Armando declared the club debt-free. He optimistically declared that a new sporting complex and stadium that the club was building on land granted by the city would eventually yield eight billion pesos in profit. However, El Gráfico also interviewed an ex treasurer amongst the opposition party at Boca who charged that the club’s balances were false. He alleged that “an accurate study of the balances lets us see a deficit of more than 35 million pesos. The biggest error is in the imbalance of spending over revenue, treating the club’s money as if it was a personal account. The balance is false.”

The Ciudad Deportiva

         In 1962, the city planning committee of Buenos Aires designated the stretch of coastline east of downtown as an area for development, entitling the project “Area Costanera Sur.” The committee had identified a “considerable deficit” in the city of areas for recreation, leisure, and green space. Because of the city’s already considerable outgrowth away from downtown and the river, city planners wished to redevelop the coast and dock regions. They proposed to either redevelop 150 hectares in the old Puerto Madero district or to fill the river with earth to create an area of 40 hectares.

         In 1964, the national congress passed a law donating 40 hectares of reclaimed land from the river to Boca Juniors for the construction of a new sporting complex named the Ciudad Deportiva. In addition to a new stadium, the law called for skating rinks, tennis courts, an area with games for kids, and covered spaces for sporting and artistic spectacles.” The city emphasized the need for zones of ‘active recreation’. The city and national government not only donated the land, but also promised to construct surface streets, dig subterranean tunnels, and link two major city thoroughfares to provide access to the Ciudad Deportiva.

         The city’s plans for development and recreation were reflective of a wider process in which the middle class eclipsed the working class’s political prominence – prompting national leaders and urban planners to reshape Buenos Aires as a ‘modern’ city built around middle-class leisure and consumption. Since the early 1950s, the working class had been losing much of organizational strength, social weight, and economic health. Real wages for industrial workers declined throughout the late 1950s and by 1957 inflation had reached 25%. The degree of social antagonism between the working class and the military government was also exacerbated by what historian Danny James has described as a “direct result of government attack on the unions and a government-backed wage freeze.”   Many of those who fell on hard times were pushed to the periphery of Buenos Aires – south and west in the rapidly expanding Conurbano Bonaerense. As a result, city planners were increasingly attentive to the patterns of consumption and recreation of the middle class in downtown areas.  Thus, the Ciudad Deportiva was to be accessible from downtown areas and located in the city proper rather than the suburbs.

         Congress’s law called for Boca Juniors to construct a stadium of no less that 140,000 spectators, a social club, swimming pools, tennis courts, and various other facilities. However, before construction began the project needed financing. In 1966, the club began selling bonds to socios and various investors and surpassed their own expectations by raising nearly two million pesos that year. By 1967 the bonds had raised three million pesos and one year later that figure rose to five million pesos. The club also lobbied for the passage of a congressional exemption on paying taxes for all imported materials for the Ciudad Deportiva, but this was later overturned because other clubs complained that they too provided a valuable national service that warranted tax breaks.  On September 3rd of 1965, Boca began filling the river and, in two years, had built several artificial islands, laid electrical works for lighting, and built two access bridges. The project’s architect, Carlos Costa, had decided to build seven islands divided into three sectors. Sector A included five islands and would have social activities, summer sports, and year-round sports. The islands of Sector A would contain Boca’s new social club, a concert pavilion, a 500 car drive-in theater, Olympic swimming and diving pools, eighteen tennis courts, and an aquarium built in the shape of a fish. Sector B’s only island would be the site of the microstadium, planned to seat two thousand spectators and host smaller events. The incredible Gran Estadio was to seat 140,000 spectators, double the capacity of cross-town rival River Plate’s Estadio Monumental.   The scale and ambition of constructing such a large stadium on a man-made island was unprecedented. It required constant dredging, shoring, and support structures and ignored studies that showed it would sink into the river.

         Despite the high costs and inherent risks of the project, by 1971 all but the final island had been formed through an enormous process of filling, dredging, and shoring conducted by contractors and the city. In six years 675,000 trucks had moved four million cubic meters of earth over 1400 working days. Armando offered a monthly raffle to truck drivers who hauled earth - every time you brought a truckload of dirty you got a ticket to draw for a brand new Ford truck. The concert pavilion, the fields, the tennis courts, the cafeteria and social club – almost everything but the stadiums - were all opened to the public in phases between 1967 and 1970. In 1971 Boca began the first phase constructing the Gran Estadio; Armando promised to have it built by May of 1975, three years ahead of its planned use for the opening match and final of the 1978 World Cup hosted by Argentina. Despite the visible progress at the Ciudad Deportiva, the project was rife with problems and escalating costs.  By 1973 the costs for just the stadium had risen 270% in that year alone. The club was able to successfully lobby the Ministry of Social Wellness to authorize a series of lotteries over the next few years to continue financing the stadium construction. While the foundations for the stadium had been laid, the structure was never completed and financing for the project ran out.

         The financial mismanagement of Armando and the club are only partially alluded to in the club documents, but even these recognize the consistent failure to accurately predict costs and anticipate sufficient forms of revenue. In 1968 the treasury department began their report by detailing a “comprehensive audit of the revenue generated from the Títulos Pro-Patrimoniales” on behalf of the Ministry of Economics and Ministry of Justice. The findings “gave our members and bondholders ratification that what we have always assured is true: that their money is being spent on the Ciudad Deportiva.”  It is unclear whether Boca was responding to charges of fraudulence, but the irregularity of an inspection of their own accounts was notable in itself. Armando also lost crucial government support when Perón returned to the presidency in 1973. Armando had allied himself to the military governments of General Onganía and General Lanusse and backed the candidate running against Perón’s candidate in the 1973 elections.

Conclusion

         The Ciudad Deportiva represented a clear effort by Boca Juniors to increase their revenue and attract the middle class in Buenos Aires. The drive-in movie theatre, mini golf course, and aquarium were evidence of Boca’s and the city planning committee’s emphasis on the importance of leisure space and recreational infrastructure as part of a continued effort to make Buenos Aires a modern capital. The fact that the city turned to a soccer club to assist in this task reveals the central role clubs that played in the urban development of Buenos Aires over a longer historical trajectory.

         The financing of the project was made possible by the political links between Armando and the municipal and national governments, especially during General Lanusse’s presidency. Boca was able to secure the donated land only through favorable relations with the city government, as there were many other clubs in the area that might have been candidates as well. Armando twice needed state authorization to sell the bonds that would finance the initial construction in 1965 and run the raffles to later save the project’s dwindling resources. Alongside these political ties, Armando was able to use his business connections to secure favorable contracts with a number of firms, emphasizing the importance of position as a prominent business leader and new type of club director. I plan to conduct more research on the Ciudad Deportiva – specifically on the clubs internal club documents that contain the director’s meeting minutes and have been opened to me for my next visit to Buenos Aires. The internal debate over the future of the club will help fill in the question of how everyday club socios and their elected representatives envisioned the future of the club, and what sorts of tensions arose over the public financing and private capital involved in the project. I also plan to conduct oral histories that will help contextualize the wider process of economic and political change during the era of fútbol espectaculo as well as discerning contemporary meanings