Classic Rivalries

A derby that defies logic

Newell's Old Boys Nicolas Cabrera vies the ball with Rosario Central Emilio Zeleya during the Rosario derbi, April 5 2008

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that the clásico between Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys is the oldest in Argentinian football. For anyone who does not live in Rosario, a city that is split down the middle when it comes to football, that fact perhaps explains why the rivalry between Canallas and Leprosos, to give the clubs their respective nicknames, is so fierce.

And while it is a fixture that needs no extra spice, the recent return of Central to the top flight and last term’s championship win for Newell’s will see passions inflamed that little bit more when they next meet. looks back at the history of a derby that, after a three-year absence from the fixture list, has feelings running high once again in Argentina’s north east.

The originsIn 1869 an Englishman by the name of Isaac Newell arrived in Rosario to work as a telegraph operator on the railways, though his love of teaching would eventually lead him to found a college in 1884. It was through this institution that he would bring the first leather football to Argentina and introduce the first set of rules, though it was his son Claudio Isaac who would help set up a team to play the game, joining forces with some of the college’s students, teachers and ex-alumni to bring Club Atletico Newell’s Old Boys into existence.

The date was 3 November 1903, though football had long since been a popular pursuit in the local area, with the outfit today known as Club Atletico Rosario Central having roots that date all the way back to 24 December 1889. It was then that British railway workers founded the Central Argentine Railway Athletic Club. Fourteen years later, following pressure exerted by the Spanish-speaking players who had since joined the team, the club adopted its current name.

The first Rosario clásico was played on 18 June 1905, a cup match organised by the local league. Newell’s won 1-0 with a goal by Faustino Gonzalez, a triumph they would cap with the first amateur title of their history.

Facts and figuresThe two have faced off 160 times in the Argentinian first division, with Central having the edge, winning 45 games and to their rival’s 42 and scoring 192 goals to their 177. When it comes to titles, however, it is La Lepra who hold sway with six championships to El Canalla’s four. On the international front Central won the 1995 Copa Conmebol, while Newell’s have twice finished runners-up in the Copa Libertadores.

The fixture’s leading scorers in the professional era are Edgardo Bauza of Central and Santiago Santamaria of Newell’s, both with nine goals. Santamaria also shares with Mario Zanabria the honour of having played in more clásicos in the Leprosa shirt than anyone else, 31 in total, while the Uruguayan Jorge Jose Gonzalez holds the Canalla record with 45 derby appearances. 

Tales of derbies pastLegend has it that the nicknames of the two clubs stuck after a friendly match they were due to play in the 1920s was cancelled. The game had been arranged to raise funds for lepers receiving treatment at a local hospital, but Rosario Central refused to go ahead with it, prompting Newell’s fans to call them canallas (swine), an insult that led to Central supporters dubbing them leprosos (lepers).

Their encounters at local level generated many a story, but it was not until the 1970s, with the spread of the professional game, that the derby began to attract national interest. Indeed, the decade began with Rosario Central becoming the first team outside Buenos Aires to win a professional title, the 1971 Torneo Nacional, a triumph made all the sweeter by a famous defeat of their old foes.

That highlight came in the semi-finals, where they took on Newell’s before a full house at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental. Central won 1-0 thanks to Aldo Pedro Poy’s fabled diving header, a goal that is celebrated every 19 December by Canalla supporters’ clubs the world over.

“That goal was the defining moment in my career and it’s given us a reason to come together and be happy for a little while every year,” Poy said recently of a goal that has inspired more than one fictional tale.

Newell’s got their own back in 1974 when they won their first professional title, the Torneo Metropolitano, on the final day of the season. Needing a point against Central, their opponents that day, to clinch the championship, Los Leprosos came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2, with Mario Zanabria scoring the legendary equaliser. That oft-remembered Newell’s side featured the likes of Americo Ruben Gallego and Jorge Valdano, who would later become world champions with Argentina.

The rivalry grew to such an extent that it was considered an act of high treason to swap from one side to the other, something no player has done since 1982. “I wouldn’t put on a Newell’s shirt for all the money in the world,” Canalla idol Cristian Killy Gonzalez once said before retiring.

The 1980s proved to be an eventful decade in the derby’s history. Leprosa *fans gloated noisily when Central were relegated in 1984, though *El Canalla had the last laugh when they came back up two years later and promptly won the 1986/87 Torneo Metropolitano, a season in which they went undefeated in the two clásicos.

Then in 1989, just a year on from losing their first final in the continental tournament – a setback that incidentally brought a lot of joy to the Canalla faithful – Newell’s had the pleasure of knocking Rosario out of the Libertadores qualifying competition. Following a 1-1 draw in the first leg, La Lepra romped to a 5-3 win in the return, two of their goals being scored by a promising 20-year-old called Gabriel Batistuta.

The 90s were notable for not one but two abandoned games. The first came in June 1996, with Newell’s, playing at “home” at Central’s ground, leading 2-0 and having just been awarded a penalty. At that point the “visiting” fans invaded the pitch, causing the match to be suspended and Newell’s supporters to dub the event “the day the Canalla fans abandoned ship”.

The second occurred in November 1997. Central were leading 4-0 with 25 minutes remaining when the game had to be called off after Newell’s were left with six men on the pitch following four red cards and an injury to one of their remaining players. Coached by their current boss Miguel Russo, Los Canallas accused their rivals of feigning the injury in a bid to avoid a calamitous defeat.

The rivalry todayCentral suffered relegation again in 2010, with the derby being put on hold for a whole three years before they made their return to the top flight. Newell’s trumped that achievement by winning the 2013 Torneo Inicial, and head into this Sunday’s derby as league leaders and with a record of two wins and three draws in the last five cross-town encounters. 

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