The proud home of the mighty Club Atletico River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti – better known as the Monumental – is one of South America’s three great stadiums along with the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the Centenario in Montevideo, Uruguay. Situated in the suburb of Belgrano, it has hosted some of the Argentinian national team’s most memorable games and provided a suitably dramatic setting for the Opening Match and the Final of the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™.
The largest football ground in the country, it is also the oldest surviving stadium of those used by Argentina’s big clubs and has staged some of South America’s biggest concerts, with the likes of Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC and U2 having all played there. River Plate have won most of their national and international titles at their beloved home ground and went 47 matches unbeaten there between 19 September 1954 and 6 July 1958, a national record.
The story of one of South America’s most famous stadiums is almost as fascinating as the feats of the great teams and players who have graced it, as FIFA.com explains in its tribute to a great footballing venue.
A pioneering vision
River Plate had established themselves as one of the most popular clubs in Argentina by the time the 1930s came around. Nevertheless, in the years following their foundation in 1901 in the suburb of La Boca, a mere stone’s throw away from the home of their long-standing arch rivals, they were forced to move on several occasions. In 1923 they finally made a more permanent home for themselves on Avenida Alvear y Tagle, in the Recoleta district. But when the lease ran out on the site 14 years later, the club were left looking for a home again.
In response to the problem, River Plate’s then president, Antonio Vespucio Liberti, came up with an idea that was initially dismissed as being totally impractical. His solution involved building a concrete stadium in an uninhabited part of the city, on land that had been reclaimed from the River Plate 50 years earlier. The plan’s many detractors said that the marshy site would not be able to support such a building.
Though it was no easy task in gaining approval for the project, Liberti managed to convince everyone of its viability, with the club eventually purchasing an eight-and-a-half hectare site for the construction of an Olympic stadium with a 400-metre athletics track and further sports facilities both inside and outside of the venue. The club would also set up its offices there.
Work began September 1936, a year before the advent of Argentina’s professional era, and was completed a few days before its official opening on 25 May 1938. Though grandiose in scale, the stadium should have been even bigger.
The original project put together by the architects Jose Aslan and Hector Ezcurra envisaged the construction of four stands, each with a capacity of between 30,000 and 40,000. At the time, however, only three of them were built, due to a lack of funding, with the grandstands forming a horseshoe.
It was not until 1958 and the lucrative sale of Enrique Omar Sivori to Italian giants Juventus that River Plate were able to build the fourth and final stand, which now bears the name of the player whose transfer made its construction possible. Upon completion the stadium had a capacity of nearly 100,000, while its various stands extend in length for fully 70 kilometres.
A long-awaited triumph
The last time Argentina failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup was in 1969, the fatal blow to their hopes of reaching Mexico 1970 coming when Peru held them to a surprise 2-2 at La Bombonera, Boca Juniors’ home ground. Mindful of that setback, the organisers of the 1978 world finals, to be played in Argentina, had no doubt as to which venue should be the centrepiece of the tournament.
In preparation for the competition, the Monumental underwent a 16-month renovation. To the existing construction was added an upper stand now known as Sivori Alta. A large electronic scoreboard was erected on the new stand as well as a new lighting system, with outer stairwells also being built.
The stadium cut an imposing sight at the Opening Ceremony and hosted a number of first and second round matches before staging the match for third place and the Final. The tournament showpiece pitched an Albiceleste side containing luminaries such as Mario Kempes, Daniel Passarella, Ubaldo Fillol, Osvaldo Ardiles and Daniel Bertoni against the Netherlands, with the hosts running out 3-1 winners on a historic night to claim the World Cup for the very first time.
Aside from the goals scored by Kempes and Bertoni, one of the most abiding memories of that compelling game was the sight of ticker tape cascading down from the stands when the teams walked out on to the pitch. Argentina’s captain on that unforgettable day was none other than River Plate idol Daniel Passarella, who had the honour of lifting the World Cup at a stadium where he excelled on so many occasions for his club, both as a player and a coach.
A setting fit for stars
While the 1978 World Cup Final is unquestionably the most important match the Monumental has ever staged, it has seen many other big occasions and welcomed some of the most famous names in Argentinian football.
The setting for the 1951 Pan American Games and the finals off the 1987 and 2011 Copa America, the Monumental has also been the scene of five Copa Libertadores finals as well as a final apiece in the Supercopa Sudamericana, Copa Interamericana and Copa Sudamericana. On top of all that, Argentina have played more World Cup qualifiers there than anywhere else in the country.
River Plate fans have been entertained by some great names at their famous home, starting with the fabled Máquina team of the 1940s, which included Juan Carlos Munoz, Adolfo Pedernera, Jose Manuel Moreno, Angel Labruna and Felix Loustau. They were followed by the much-idolised trio of Amadeo Carrizo, Alfredo Di Stefano and Omar Sivori, and the stars of the 70s and 80s, namely Passarella, Kempes, Alonso, Americo Gallego, Fillol, Enzo Francescoli, Nery Pumpido, Claudio Caniggia and Oscar Ruggeri.
In the 90s it was Ramon Diaz’s trophy-hungry teams’ turn to grace the Monumental stage, with Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Salas, Marcelo Gallardo, Juan Pablo Sorin, Hernan Crespo, Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola all lighting the stadium with their skills.
Described by the great Pedernera as “the giant’s first step”, the concrete mass that is the Monumental has proved a fitting venue for the many matches and triumphs it has witnessed over the years. A symbol of football’s glorious past, its present and its future, it has rightly earned its status as one of world’s great footballing arenas.