The fierce rivalry between River Plate and Boca Juniors not only divides the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires but also keeps the whole country on edge.
“There are a few things in life so beautiful they hurt: swimming in the ocean while it rains, reading alone in empty libraries, the sea of stars that appear when you’re miles away from the neon lights of the city, bars after 2am, walking in the wilderness, all the phases of the moon, the things we do not know about the universe, and you.”
The author Beau Taplin may have been talking about a person who did not require the love he had for her when he wrote this, but standing outside the Estadio Monumental on Sunday, one would be forgiven for feeling the same about Argentinian football – for, after weeks of anticipation, the D-Day had finally arrived. 6-time winners Boca Juniors would take on their historical rivals and 3-time champions River Plate in the final of the Copa Libertadores for the first time in the competition’s 58-year-old history.
The two clubs, both based out of Buenos Aires in Argentina have shared a rivalry, any enmity, that according to The Observer,” makes the Old Firm Derby look like a primary school kick-about.” This well-documented and world-famous grudge-fight was all set to reach its pinnacle in the final and was supposed to bring world football to a halt in a manner that was unseen and unheard in the sports’ illustrious history. Well, it did bring the game to a halt but in a manner that does not reflect well on the fan culture and administration of all those involved in organizing the fixture.
This is how the first leg turned out to be between the two Bueno Aires’ clubs
The Copa Libertadores is the South American equivalent of the Champions League, but unlike its European counterpart, the final is also played over two legs. In the case of the Superclasico, the first leg was played out relatively peacefully at the La Bombonero on the 11th of November, after it got postponed a day due to torrential rainfall in the capital city. Goals from Abila and Benedetto for Boca and from Pratto and Izquierdoz(OG) for River Plate had ensured that both sides would go into the second leg on equal terms and the match was tantalizingly poised as the winners would not only have the bragging rights but also would be crowned the champions of South America in the most extraordinary manner possible.
However, heavy fan violence and incompetent crowd management ruined the occasion in an exasperating manner. For decades, frenzied and often, brutal fan-following has been the bane of Argentine football and it reared its ugly head when hours before the game, River fans attacked the bus carrying the Boca players to the stadium.
The melee that ensued saw the glasses of the bus being broken, police opening tear gas on the crowds and players being hurt and injured in the subsequent commotion. As it transpired, several of the away team’s players, including Captain Pablo Perez and midfielder Gonzalo Lamardo had been badly hurt and were vomiting due to continued exposure to the gas. The situation had taken a toxic turn and was made all the worse when instead of attending to the players and trying to locate the culprits, the Argentinian FA decided to reschedule the game the very next day.
It was a move done to appease TV Rights Holders, but the management at Boca Juniors felt it was impossible to play a fair game under such circumstances. As such, despite hundreds of thousands of fans thronging to the stadium to watch the game on Sunday, it was called off a few minutes before kick-off leaving all fans, pundits and players alike in a state of anger, confusion, and bewilderment.
The attack on Boca Juniors’ team bus by River Plate fans
This is not the first instance, however, that the rivalry has been marred by untoward acts. In 2015, River players were at the receiving end in a round-of-16 Copa Libertadores fixture when a few Boca supporters sprayed pepper powder on them. Amongst those caught by the spray was Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori, who had gone down screaming from the bitter burn that is associated with the spray. This time though, the manner in which the attack was carried out spoke volumes about the deplorable attitude of a sect of people who have made hooliganism and wanton destruction the mainstay of Argentinian football, when that is not actually the case.
This faction of fans, the Barra Bravas as they like to call themselves, are as widely denunciated by the regular fans as they are by those not associated with the sport inside the country. The intense hatred these clubs have of each other was nourished by years of footballing excellence and was limited to vociferous support and unconditional love, but the lack of education has led to acts like these happening more often than not.
The Superclasico is something every Argentinian kid with a ball at his feet dreams of playing and it was provided the stepping stone to almost every great footballer ever to step out from the country. Diego Maradona, Daniel Passarella, Alfredo di Stefano, Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo, Carlos Tevez, and Juan Roman Riquelme, all had garnered international attention thanks to their virtuoso performances for either Boca or River Plate in the Superclasico and for many of them; it provided a taste of what the game really means to the fans that follow it. To mar, an occasion like this with such condemnable acts of disruption is something that has since been universally criticized and the country’s FA has not been spared either, and neither should they be.
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There has been talking of awarding the Libertadores trophy to Boca because it was River fans who perpetrated the attack, but that has been met with widespread criticism and disapproval. Sources like ESPN and Gol have suggested the possibility of hosting the final next week in a neutral venue, and after much discussion, it has emerged that the second leg will now be played at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Spain. It is a controversial decision since fans of both sides will now have to travel thousands of miles to watch their teams play but that is what the CONMEBOL has determined.
Football is a sport that was made for the masses but of late, it has ceased to remain in their hands. Institutions like Boca Juniors and River Plate and fixtures like the Superclasico ensure that stays that way, but for too long, safety and security has gone unchecked for occasions like these. It is high time that the lawmakers of the sport take a long, hard look at themselves and address the issues that plague the Beautiful Game at its grassroots levels. For the players and the fans, one hopes that they recover swiftly for this fixture has eternally, provided potential stars a platform like no other and no one deserves to have that taken from them.