Before River Plate tweeted news of another postponement of their Copa Libertadores final against Boca Juniors on Sunday, they were letting fans into their stadium. In a two-day cacophony of mixed messages, they had insisted the match would go ahead.
The cancellation was merely another jab in a fusillade of blows to Argentina’s reputation. The country’s premier teams meeting in the competition was a gift, a chance to sparkle under the world’s spotlight, but now, after a shameful weekend, no one knows if the second leg will even be contested.
The Copa Libertadores is South America’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League but, as with many aspects of Latin American culture when viewed from the globe’s cushier enclaves, with a persisting whiff of lawlessness. And, given the Buenos Aires rivalry’s notoriety and the menacing reputation of Argentinian football, it was inevitable that the final would descend into some sort of drama.
However, the actions of those in charge – the security minister and local government, FIFA, and the region’s football governing body, CONMEBOL – made sure it was complete chaos. So much danger and idiocy for 22 men kicking a ball, and much of it avoidable.
River Plate should have been expelled from the Copa Libertadores weeks ago. Marcelo Gallardo was serving a touchline ban for the second leg of the semifinal against reigning champions Gremio, but the River manager did little to hide his disregard for the rules. He wore a disguise – but he was certainly detectable, as he pulled his baseball cap low and turned up his collar – to sneak into the dressing room and deliver a team talk that seemingly turned the tide of the fixture. In another breach of his punishment, he delivered instructions to his assistant during the match via a walkie-talkie.
River’s goal to get back into the two-legged affair, from Rafael Santos Borre, was directed into the net by an arm. The video assistant referee wasn’t consulted. Gremio were rightfully aggrieved.
Banishing a team from the Copa Libertadores has precedence. When River visited La Bombonera in the last 16 of the 2015 edition, Boca fans attacked visiting players with pepper spray. The match was abandoned, River Plate were rewarded a 3-0 win, and they then went on to win the competition. In 2018, Gremio could have taken River Plate’s place in the final.
Incredibly, allowing away fans to attend this year’s two-part final was under consideration. Mauricio Macri, the country’s president and former chief of Boca Juniors, was wary of the two matches’ potential for trouble but wanted to show that Argentina was capable of staging a safe event with both sets of supporters attending games in the Buenos Aires districts of La Boca and Belgrano.
Macri’s past association with Boca makes it even more astonishing that he would think this was a good idea, and banning away supporters in Argentina has been a common feature for some time. Traveling fans haven’t been admitted entry to big Argentinian domestic matches since a Lanus supporter was killed during clashes in a 2013 match against Estudiantes, and River and Boca – 70 percent of Argentinians support either club, according to statistics reeled off by Daniel Pardo on the BBC World Football podcast – are the biggest clubs in the continent.
Thankfully, when it was left up to them, the teams made the correct call in not allowing opposition fans in.
But the government and security missteps were just beginning. La Bombonera being over capacity at Boca’s open training session on Thursday was a warning.
Avenida Monroe is flooded with River fans on a matchday and, as a result, is often a no-go zone for visiting teams. Under police escort, the Boca team bus drove straight down that street prior to Saturday’s scheduled second leg. Roads weren’t closed off. No barriers had been erected. The driver fainted as at least five windows of the bus were shattered. Boca vice president Horacio Paolini had to take the wheel. The club captain, Pablo Perez, held his face after shards of glass entered his left eye. When Boca players entered El Monumental they were retching and coughing, presumed to be the effects of pepper spray or tear gas that had entered the bus after being used by police to disperse the crowd.
Perhaps the security staff with experience and organization skills – well, any discernible skill – were being given time off to prepare for the G20 summit which begins in Argentina on Thursday. Saturday’s policing was reckless and scarily inadequate.
CONMEBOL was unsympathetic and, it seems, forceful. ESPN’s Tim Vickery noted that the body showed little concern for the fans that had been baking in the stadium for up to seven hours, but appeared desperate not to displease FIFA president Gianni Infantino with a postponement. CONMEBOL also seemed to prioritize FOX Sports’ demands, the network televising the final. Boca’s injuries from the bus attack were deemed superficial by medical staff working for – surprise, surprise – CONMEBOL. Perez returned from hospital with a bandaged eye.
“The presidents of FIFA and CONMEBOL are making us play,” Carlos Tevez, a Boca icon and former forward for both Manchester clubs, complained.
The match was scheduled for 5:00 p.m. local time (3:00 p.m. ET) but, after three delays and two-and-a-quarter hours, it was moved to the following day. It had to be done, but it was still unexpected – the referees were warming up, and cones were set out for River’s pre-match drills – and the news could have been delivered much earlier. There were clashes in and around the stadium as disappointed River fans left.
“Another opportunity lost in front of the whole world that observes us,” Argentinian legend Gabriel Batistuta tweeted on Saturday, with translation from the Guardian’s John Brewin. “Shameful, regrettable.”
There were mixed messages from the clubs on Sunday, with Boca stating they had requested the game’s postponement around the same time River said the stadium was opening and Saturday’s tickets were valid. Once again, nobody knew what was going on until CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez announced the match was off on FOX Sports. Thousands of supporters were let into the stadium – their tickets and traveling costs escalating amid an economic crisis – but the television company was tended to first.
This wasn’t just a wasted opportunity to showcase Argentinian football. It went much further than that. In the same way El Clasico attracts tourists to Barcelona and Real Madrid, this was a chance to advertise a more fervent alternative in South America. Instead it was a deterrent; a public declaration that Buenos Aires cannot handle an event of this magnitude.
The Argentine Football Association wants the country to host the 2030 World Cup. From what has transpired over the past few days in the capital city, Argentina should not even stage the second leg. The country should be left to tend to stubborn stains from a weekend when confusion and calamity somehow didn’t stumble into a full-blown catastrophe.