Friday, August 16, 2013

Retro Friday - a packed River Plate Stadium for Argentina v New Zealand in 2001

A local family attends a Pumas match
at River Plate Stadium
One of the central challenges of hosting a World Cup in any sport is to capture the imagination of the local population. While there will always be thousands of visitors it is the locals who can really make or break a global tournament such as the Rugby World Cup. The need to sell the product to the national population is nothing short of crucial. A failure to do so can see the least marketable matches fail to attract crowds. Every Rugby World Cup thus far has examples of under attended matches and there are some clear patterns. In 2011 Rotorua responded poorly to Namibia v Fiji on a Saturday, in 2007 both Wales v Japan and Fiji v Canada in Cardiff failed to sell enough tickets as did Scotland v Romania in Edinburgh. Melbourne had 20,000 unsold tickets for the France v Ireland Quarter Final in 2003 and Perth had significant issues for all but one match it hosted. In 1999 Glasgow had 3,000 people in a stadium seating 50,000 for While even two out of three of Scotland´s matches at home struggled.

Competition from other sports in all of these cities aside from Cardiff can be used to explain, in no small part, the failure to have bigger crowds in attendance. One of the potential criticisms directed at Argentina as a future Rugby World Cup host nation is this same factor - the belief that Argentina is a soccer loving nation and that rugby lacks the required profile. This perspective is highly pessimistic and arguably lacks a genuine understanding of the sport in Argentina. The extensive use of a variety of venues across the country has been a tremendous success with the UAR being able to sell out stadiums for June internationals and matches in the Rugby Championship.

In 2001 Argentina played host to New Zealand in an end of year match in Buenos Aires. It was the final test for both sides of the year but was not the first match between the teams in 2001. Earlier in the year New Zealand had completed a big home win in Christchurch but Argentina´s form in defeating Scotland and Wales in Europe in the weeks prior to the match made it a different scenario altogether. Although the match is remembered for New Zealand getting a lucky escape with a try on full time the most important factor to emerge from the fixture was the occassion itself. It was strongly attended and was certainly a sign of things to come both in terms of Argentina entering the Tri Nations and in terms of hosting a Rugby World Cup.

The match caught the imagination of Buenos Aires as a packed River Plate Stadium gave the All Blacks an atmosphere they had never experienced previously. Indeed, playing in Argentina is comparable to nothing else in global rugby. Amongst the supporters was Argentina´s most famous product of the twentieth century - Diego Maradona. The former Argentine soccer captain and World Cup champion was at the ground in a Pumas shirt showing just what the national mens rugby team means. When Los Pumas play a test they are representing all of Argentina which firmly suggests that Argentina 2023 could be just as successful as any other Rugby World Cup. Indeed, the difficulty of selling tickets to all matches requries outside intervention and Maradona is a case in point of how the UAR and IRB can attract more people to attend more matches.

Located in the capital city of Buenos Aires River Plate Stadium is very much the Eden Park, Maracanã, or Murrayfield  of Argentina. It is also, currently, of a comparable size to both Eden Park in 2011 and Murrayfield making it an appropriate centre piece to host a Rugby World Cup. Like other previous centre pieces it could be upgraded ahead of 2023 to transform what is a classic stadium into a contemporary world class venue. As it stands, however, it meets the requirements specified by the IRB. The stadium carries significant historical importance both for the country of Argentina and in global terms. It hosted the final of the 1978 FIFA World Cup and, more recently, hosted the final of the 2011 Copa América. It is the usual home of the Argentine national men´s soccer team and is very much a strong option to be utilized by the UAR and the IRB in the event that Argentina do host Rugby World Cup 2023. 

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