The World and the Game
The Copa Libertadores final exposed tensions not only in Argentina but in globalised football
The 2018 Copa Libertadores final was a game too big actually to be played – or at least to be played when and where it was supposed to be played – and a game that ended up shining an uncomfortable light on modern football and the direction it may be headed. It had been called the superclásico to end all superclásicos, the ultimate derby, and that may end up not being hyperbole. Nothing, after all, can ever feel quite the same after a Copa Libertadores final has been played, with a symbolism that in fiction would feel unbearably clunky, in Madrid.
In the moment, seismic events can often feely oddly unexceptional. Saturday 24 November 2018, the day scheduled for River Plate v Boca Juniors in the second leg of the final, was warm and bright. The first leg, after a 24-hour delay because of torrential rain that soaked the pitch and flooded the stands, had finished 2-2. With no away-goals rule, it was perfectly set up.
In the shopping streets around Calle Florida – not my preferred environment, but a couple of other UK-based journalists I was with wanted to buy souvenirs for family and friends – the atmosphere was pleasantly expectant. There were a lot of football shirts about, of various teams, as though Argentinian fans in general had felt the need to express their loyalty on this day of days. But there was no sense of menace.
We took the Subte to Congreso de Tucumán from where it’s about a 20-minute walk to el Monumental. There were still more than three hours until kick off. The sense of anticipation was palpable – although such things, I suspect, are often a matter of projection. I was looking forward to it and therefore so was the world. I remember being struck by a profound sense that this was like the FA Cup finals of my youth, although when I tried to pin down the feeling, to work out what had stimulated the memory, it proved elusive: perhaps it was just the combination of late spring sunshine, the trees in bloom and excitement about a match.
And there were, of course, thousands of fans, a great procession of white and red under the plane tress and bougainvilleas, some chanting, but most just walking and chatting, looking forward to it. Avenida del Libertador had been closed to traffic and large numbers of fans massed there. We wandered about as fans danced and sang and let off flares, pinkish-red smoke mingling with the greasy fumes from the chori-stands. In the absence of away fans, this was about River celebrating themselves. It was all very unthreatening.
We carried on, to the first of a series of police checks, squeezing round the left edge of the crowd. A wave of the press accreditation we’d picked up the previous day got us through (they were not on lanyards, but pieces of string so short that to have tied them round our necks as we were supposed to would have risked asphyxiation; we fastened them to old lanyards from European games we happened to have in our bags – again, the symbolism seems almost too obvious).
At the next check, though, a steward pointed us towards the middle. There were already hundreds of fans massed in the road but with a Japanese camera crew we edged our way along the barrier. Two people in wheelchairs broke a path in front of us and a heavily pregnant woman joined us. There was a surge and I was pushed into a barrier, suddenly finding my face about six inches from the visor of a policeman in riot gear.
Fans were being let through in waves, to be searched or have their tickets examined at each line, and the crush soon receded. At the next line of police we found somebody more receptive to our passes and were allowed through, shepherded around the edge of the checks. It would be wrong to overdramatise the situation – unpleasant although it clearly was for both the people in wheelchairs and the pregnant woman – but given subsequent events, that vague sense of an unyielding police force not quite in control would come to seem significant.
The stadium was already almost full. It was a spectacular sight, a great bowl of white and red. There were intermittent songs and chants and a constant hubbub of excitement. The television screen mounted onto the stadium roof above the press area showed the Boca Juniors team bus leaving la Bombonera, around eight miles to the south-east. There were thousands there as well, the streets thronged with blue and yellow. With away fans banned from stadiums – as they have been in Argentina since 2013 – this was their way of participating in the game. Its route takes it past the grassy expanse outside the Planetarium where football was first placed on Argentinian soil, with a game between two teams of British freemasons played in 1867.
Kick-off was scheduled for 5pm. It was a little after 3.30 when the first rumours began. The screen began to show footage of the Boca team bus approaching the stadium, turning right down Avenida Monroe and being pelted with bottles and rocks. It happens. It had happened in Liverpool last season to the Manchester City team bus on its way to the Champions League quarter-final. In the stadium everything was still calm.
Then a rumour sprang up that the team had been gassed. In 2015, Boca had been disqualified from the Libertadores after a last-16 tie against River in which their fans had fired pepper spray into the tunnel at half-time. Was this a retaliatory act? Then more rumours. Boca were saying they couldn’t play, players had glass in their eyes, the gas was police tear gas that had drifted through broken windows as they sought to disperse the crowd. There was footage of the Boca players getting off the team bus. A few looked in distress, coughing, eyes streaming. And then the announcement, greeted with sighs and then whistling by the crowd: kick-off delayed by an hour.
The stadium wifi had collapsed. We checked what we could, sponged off local journalists. But in the press box there was an odd sense of nothing much happening. In the stadium as a whole, everybody was just waiting. I copied what I’d written onto my phone and filed a holding piece. There were rumours that Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, was demanding the game should be played, but that didn’t make much sense: the game comes under the jurisdiction of Conmebol and while the Conmebol president Alejandro Domínguez is an ally of Infantino, the last thing he would want is to appear as his poodle.
Nobody came out to warm up. The game clearly wasn’t starting at 6 either. The Boca captain Pablo Pérez was taken to hospital, seemingly with shards of glass in his eye. It gradually became clear that the game couldn’t start. A whisper sprung up that (unofficial) protocol was to delay kick-off at least twice rather than immediate abandonment to try to ease fans into the idea that the game may not take place and so decrease the possibility of an explosion of anger.
Kick-off was rescheduled again, for 7.15pm. Pérez returned, a patch over one eye, and Conmebol issued a statement saying their doctors had assessed him and decided there was no reason that he shouldn’t play. Which seemed astonishing: whether he had shards of glass in his eye or whether the discomfort was caused by the tear gas, Boca had been placed at a significant disadvantage. How can you play perhaps the biggest game of your career a couple of hours after being at the receiving end of an attack of that nature? “They’re obliging us to play,” said Carlos Tévez. “But the truth is we’re not in condition to play… There are many players who were coughing, with feeling of wanting to vomit. As for me, I have a lot of pain in my throat and just now it was giving me a headache.”
“They” in that context seemed to be an unholy alliance of Fifa, Conmebol and the television companies. River’s coach, Marcelo Gallardo, to his credit, also seemed uncomfortable with the idea of the match going ahead, saying the decision had to be Boca’s. “We were very surprised [by the decision to go ahead with the game],” said the Boca midfielder Fernando Gago. “Many players suffered, we struggled to breathe. It’s not the best way to prepare a game.”
More videos emerged. Those taken from the street seemed weirdly anodyne. Bright sunshine. A few missiles, gently arcing. Windows shattering with surprising ease. From inside the bus, though, the terror was clear. Bangs and cracks. The glass splintering. Pérez spinning away clutching his face, dropping to the floor. A club official pulling a curtain over the jagged hole in the window, a dreadfully flimsy cover. The bus driver, it turned out, had fainted when the attack began. Only the quick reactions of the Boca vice-president Horacio Paolini, who had seized the wheel, prevented a crash and possible tragedy. Why, it began to be asked, had the crowd been allowed to get so close to the bus? The usual practice was for police to clear that corner. What had gone wrong?
By 6.30, there was still nobody out on the pitch. Kick off was delayed again, to 7.30. And then to 7.45. The match officials began to warm up. Preparations began for the pre-match ceremonials. Huge banners of each team’s badge were readied. The teams were announced: Pérez, remarkably, would play. But still there were no players on the pitch.
Outside the ground there was serious trouble. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to try to clear rioting fans. Inside, it remained strangely calm. The press-box television was showing fighting happening perhaps 200 yards away, but it may as well have been on the other side of the world.
At 7.23pm, the game was abandoned and rescheduled for 5pm the following afternoon. There was a mass outbreak of booing and whistling, but it felt almost performative, a conditioned reaction rather than one stimulated by genuine fury. Fans leaving the ground were attacked by those outside and robbed of their tickets. Inside, we wrote our pieces and wondered how we were going to get back to the apartment we’d rented in Palermo.
By the time we left, at around 9pm, the immediate vicinity of the stadium was calm. Up the road, towards the Subte station, though, there were flashing blue lights and the distant wail of sirens. There were no Ubers anywhere near, but we saw another cluster of journalists walk angrily away from a taxi parked by the side of the road. We approached and gave the address of a steak restaurant. The driver nodded, but explained he wouldn’t be putting it on the meter. There was a flat fare of 1000 pesos, about five times what the fare should have been.
We snorted and walked away, then began to do the maths. That was about £20. For four people, for a journey of 20-30 minutes. We quickly turned back and accepted. European money goes a long way in Argentina.
Some games lie on the fault-lines of history and end up being about far more than who won or who lost, who scored the goal and who was to blame. This was about old world and new, about wealth and poverty, about globalisation and insularity. It was about violence and corruption and incompetence, about Argentina and Conmebol, about football as a global business. Eventually, much later, it was about River winning their fourth Libertadores.
It was a strange feature of that weekend that, alongside Twitter’s discussion of what was going on, there was also a meta-argument. A number of our colleagues back in the UK seemed overtly scornful of the four of us for going to “the hipster derby”. I could just about understand that if they’d worked for the same newspapers as us and felt that in an age when the industry is cutting back the expenses were unjustified (for what it’s worth, I’m freelance and so pay my own costs anyway) or that we’d be taking up space in the paper that could be better filled by other stories. But they didn’t.
Perhaps they just felt that nobody cared, that this was self-indulgence in a niche interest (albeit that niche interest was arguably the biggest club game in the history of South American football), but given four of Twitter’s top 10 trending terms in the UK that weekend were related to the game and that at one point on the Sunday both pieces I’d written for the Guardian on the game were in the top 10 most read things on their sports site, there was clearly a general interest – albeit inflated by the violence (but then, recognising the potential news value of a game is part of the trade).
Which leaves, well, what? Perhaps there is another explanation but it’s hard to avoid the slightly awkward conclusion that the sneers were prompted by insularity, by a sense of discomfort at journalists in a rapidly changing industry who had an interest in something they neither knew nor cared about.
But that’s not to claim some sort of moral high ground, to suggest that we were somehow enlightened for having gone to Buenos Aires. On the contrary, we were part of the reverse issue, that of globalisation feasting on the Other. Part of the reason we were there was the likelihood of violence, a fetishisation of the ‘colour’ that Argentinian football naturally provides. Two days before the game, Boca’s last training session before the final was played out before packed stands. I’d been delayed by three days and was still in the UK at that point but two of my colleagues were there. Their videos of the heaving blue and yellow stands attracted hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets as the images were lapped up across the world. This is the raw passion that Argentina provides and that the Premier League simply doesn’t.
This is not in any sense a criticism of my colleagues. Had I been in Buenos Aires I would also have been there, doing exactly the same thing. The spectacle was extraordinary. And yet they also spoke of a sense of apprehension as, missing the press entrance, they found themselves caught up in a slight crush. It subsequently turned out that too many people had gone in, breaching safety guidance and leading the municipality briefly to suspend the stadium licence. The general reaction in Europe where that news was reported tended to be along the lines that such craziness is only to be expected in Argentina. Certainly an expectation of craziness is why so many tourists go to watch Boca and River matches.
Perhaps that wouldn’t be an issue if the tourists (and visiting journalists, for that matter) were there only for the colour, but that passion seems always to come with an undertone of violence; achieving the one without the other is the holy grail of footballing PR (although even then there is a danger: who really wants to live in the anodyne world of those adverts produced by the official World Cup sponsors that feature a perfectly diverse crowd of attractive young people having a tremendous time in surprisingly tidy bars? Pass the soma and don’t ask too many questions about where the ugly, the fat, the poor, the disappointed and the angry have been shipped off to).
But even then, it probably is an issue. At the first Boca game I went to, a Copa Libertadores game against Cruzeiro in 2008, I remember being handed a flyer promoting one of the prospective candidates for the club presidency. “Socios sí, turistas no!” it read, and promised to try to restore the atmosphere by reducing the number of tourists. This is becoming a problem for the Premier League as well: once you reach a certain number of people coming to experience the atmosphere, the atmosphere is itself diminished: the spectators, by their existence, damaging the spectacle they have come to see. Which is itself a problem of globalisation.
And this was a superclásico beyond all others. Before 2018, the furthest stage in the Libertadores in which Boca and River had met had been the semi-final in 2004, a tie that lived up to all expectation. Boca won a tempestuous first leg 1-0, a game in which Marcelo Gallardo, the current River coach, was sent off along with Boca’s Raúl Alfredo Cascini. Boca had Fabián Vargas sent off just after half-time in the return before Lucho González levelled the tie. Rubens Sambueza was then sent off for River, a decision that provoked such anger that their coach Leo Astrada, his assistant and the physio were all dismissed. When Ricardo Rojas limped off with all three substitutes having already been used, River were left to battle on with nine men. That looked decisive when Carlos Tévez, now back at Boca, smashed in a cut-back from the left with six minutes remaining. But he was red-carded after celebrating by removing his shirt and flapping his arms by his sides – a reference to River’s reputation as gallinas, chickens, a nickname they acquired in 1966 after Banfield fans threw a live chicken onto the pitch to taunt them for losing a Libertadores final play-off against Peñarol after being 2-0 up, the latest in a string of chokes. Cristian Nasuti equalised in injury-time and, away goals not being applied in those days, sent the game through extra-time to penalties, which Boca won. Who wouldn’t be looking forward to a possible re-run of that drama?
Yet that interest in the superclásico is also a boon to Conmebol. It’s disconcerting to a journalist to find themselves part of the story, however minor, and yet we were. Boca reached the final by beating Palmeiras 4-2 in the semi-final.
In the other semi, River faced Grêmio. They lost 1-0 at home and their manager Marcelo Gallardo was banned from the touchline for the second leg after sending his players out late after half-time. In Porto Alegre, River conceded in the first half. 2-0 down on aggregate at half-time, Gallardo decided he had to act. Pulling his collar up and his baseball cap down, he evaded security and made it into the River dressing room. Throughout the game Gallardo had also been in constant radio contact with his assistant Matias Biscay on the bench. Whether Gallardo’s appearance had an impact is impossible to say but with nine minutes remaining Rafael Borré pulled one back. Then, four minutes into injury time, a penalty given after a VAR review for a far from clear-cut handball allowed Pity Martínez to score an away-goals winner.
Grêmio, understandably, protested. The world waited anxiously. So did we. Three of the four of us who went to Buenos Aires for the final happened to be covering Arsenal v Liverpool the day the appeal was heard. We ended up sitting in a pub in Islington, staring at our phones, waiting for news. In 2017, the Uruguayan club Danubio had been awarded a 3-0 walkover victory in a league game against Sud América for a manager failing to obey a touchline ban, but that was a decision made by the Uruguayan football federation. Conmebol’s rules on the subject were not clear. Grêmio pointed out that Santos and Deportes Temuco had had matches awarded against them by Conmebol this season for fielding ineligible players – but a manager is not a player. (River, it may be noted in passing, had already got away with one technical breach, playing the former Manchester City player Bruno Zuculini in their last-16 tie against Racing despite him not having completed a suspension imposed in 2013 – while playing for Racing. They only avoided punishment because Racing failed to file their appeal within the mandated 24-hour window.)
We wanted River through. We would go to Buenos Aires for a superclásico; Grêmio v Boca held far less appeal. Conmebol is an organisation in which total mayhem often goes hand in hand with stringent bureaucracy but this seemed like the worst possible time for it suddenly to discover a moral backbone. It didn’t. What, after all, did justice weigh against the prospect of a first ever Boca v River final? That, after 58 years, this was to be the last ever two-legged final, only made it seem all the more fitting. Gleefully, we booked our flights.
On 2 November 1924, after Uruguay had drawn 0-0 with Argentina to seal the Campeonato Sudamericano and confirm their continental superiority, a group of Argentinian fans gathered outside the Hotel Colón in Montevideo, where the Argentinian national team was staying. At first the mood was relatively jovial. The players came out onto the balcony and were cheered by the crowd below.
But tension lurked not far below the surface. Earlier that year, Uruguay had won Olympic gold in Paris, alerting the world to the extraordinary quality of rioplatense football. Argentina were miffed, believing that they would have won if only they’d bothered to go to Europe – a self-confidence that ignored the fact Uruguay had finished ahead of them in six of the seven South American championships played to that point. So Argentina challenged the Olympic champions to a game over two legs to prove who really was better. Uruguay accepted, although it’s doubtful they took the games as seriously as Argentina did.
The first leg, in Montevideo, was drawn 1-1. The following week, Uruguay came to Buenos Aires for the second leg. A huge crowd turned out at the ground of Sportivo Barracas and as it encroached onto the pitch, the players were forced off after five minutes. Police and conscripts drove fans back into the stands but Uruguay refused to play on and the match was abandoned. “Rowdy elements” as the Buenos Aires Herald put it, overturned ticket kiosks and tried to tear down the stadium.
The game was rearranged but before it was played a 12-foot high wire fence was erected between the pitch and the stands – the first of its kind in South America, although such barriers would soon be seen as a necessity. The official attendance was 35,000, with around 5,000 locked out, but La Nación suggested more than 50,000 might have got in. The game was ferocious. Cesáreo Onzari put Argentina ahead direct from a corner – it had only been a month earlier that the law had been changed to permit such goals; Argentinians still call any goal scored direct from a corner a gol olimpico even though the only connection between this strike and the actiual Olympics was that they were pretending this was the real final. Pedro Cea equalised but, after their right-back Adolfo Celli suffered a double fracture of the leg, Argentina went ahead again through Domingo Tarasconi. Uruguay’s approach became increasingly aggressive, riling the crowd, who pelted them with stones, causing the game briefly to be halted.
It restarted but, four minutes from time, the match had to be abandoned after the non-award of a penalty to Argentina prompted another hail of missiles. Uruguay’s players returned fire, police intervened and their forward Héctor Scarone was arrested after kicking an officer, although he was subsequently released without charge.
Argentina claimed the 2-1 result and a 3-2 aggregate win, insisting this showed they would have been Olympic champions, had they turned up. Others, though, found themselves far less enthused by the result than they were troubled by the violence. “The scenes of guerrilla combats between the Olympic champions and the public, Scarone fighting against police officers,” El Gráfico noted, “have no precedent in rioplatense matches. How can this happen? How did both sides and fans manage to create this? It’s clear that they were swollen by the thought that losing would be falling into dishonour. And with such an atmosphere, selfish passions can leave the sporting feeling aside. There’s no other way to explain the rough game of the Uruguayans, once they’d realised the power of the Argentinian side, but at the same time it’s been this behaviour that prompted a shameful attack with bottles on the Uruguayan keeper [Andrés] Mazali, who had not done anything.”
When Uruguay set sail for Montevideo the following morning, a crowd gathered to see them off. There followed what the Herald termed “an exchange of coal” between ship and shore.
It was in that charged atmosphere that Argentina began their Campeonato Sudamericano campaign in Uruguay 10 days later with a 0-0 draw against Paraguay in which the home crowd vocally backed the Paraguayans. The tournament itself passed off relatively peacefully until a drunken Uruguayan began abusing the crowd of Argentinian fans outside the Hotel Colón.
The players responded by throwing bottles at him from the balcony and, as the mood soured, another Uruguayan, Pedro Demby, took off his jacket and squared up to a nearby Argentinian. It’s believed that another Argentinian in the crowd, José Pedro Lázaro Rodríguez, drew a gun and shot Demby in the neck and throat. He died the following day, the first fatality confirmed to have been directly caused by Argentinian football violence.
Rodríguez, a Boca fan and a friend of Onzari, escaped in the confusion of the night. As Uruguayan police searched for him, it’s alleged he fled the country on the same boat as the Argentina players, which departed an hour early to evade any Uruguayan desire for retribution, whether judicial or unofficial. Two days later, Uruguayan police identified Rodríguez from a photograph that appeared in the Argentinian newspaper Crítica showing him eating with Argentinian players. Rodríguez was later arrested but he was never extradited.
I say first confirmed fatality directly caused by football violence because on the list of victims maintained by the campaigning organisation Salvemos al Fútbol there are two deaths that predate Demby’s. On 1 August 1922, a child was reported dead having fallen from a carriage while trying to watch a touring Basque side playing a team from the interior at Sporting Barracas – although that tragedy seems the result of a lack of basic health and safety than violence. Then, on 21 October 1922, a railway worker and former Tiro Federal player called Enrique Battcock was shot and killed in Rosario by a Newell’s Old Boys’ fan called Francisco Campá following a match between the two sides. It’s probable but not certain their dispute was related to football.
Whichever was first, though, doesn’t change the general picture. On 4 November 2018, a 20-year-old called Martín González became the 328th name on Salvemos al Fútbol’s list, the sixth that year, after suffering fatal head injuries during a clash between rival ultra-groups of Gimnasia y Esgrima de Jujuy and Deportivo Morón. Three days before the scheduled second leg of the Libertadores final, there had been running battles in the street between All Boys and police following their defeat in a Primera B game against Atlanta; what happened at el Monumental wasn’t even the worst trouble in Buenos Aires that week. Violence is endemic in Argentinian football and has been for a century.
There is no question that the barras bravas, the ultra groups, have worsened the situation. “They first started in the days before games were on television,” said Diego Murzi, the vice-president of Salvemos al Fútbol, in an interview with the Times. “In the 1950s and 60s, there was always a suspicion that away teams would be victimised by corrupt referees, that games would be fixed, so groups of fans formed to try and redress the balance, to fight for the club’s interests. These were the original barras bravas.”
The first to gain real prominence was the barra linked to Boca, thanks to the encouragement of their coach, Juan Carlos Lorenzo. “He invented the barra brava,” said Silvio Marzolini, a great left-back for the club in the sixties and subsequently twice their manager. “He set it up – they were on the plane with us. But they were fans with drums and stuff like that, not thugs like today.”
But the culture changed. Raúl Gámez is probably the most famous reformed barra. Through the eighties he led a group connected to Vélez Sarsfield and there is a famous photograph of him at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City in 1986, punching an England fan during the World Cup quarter-final. He subsequently renounced violence and became a highly effective president of Vélez. For him, the problems with the barra began at the 1978 World Cup, hosted by Argentina and used by the ruling junta as an enormous exercise in propaganda. “They [the barra] started earning money to make some minor repairs in the stadiums, then they [the authorities] gave them money to help on match days, and also paid them to sing,” he explained. ‘The stadium atmosphere was like a theatre… and that changed. I was part of a barra, the barra of aguante. Aguantar meant to travel away with all your flags and defend them. And defend your fans in away matches. That was it. No business. Players didn’t give us so much as a pair of socks! And they didn’t like us, because we demanded sacrifice and commitment.”
There is nothing in the world, not even English cricket, so nostalgic as Argentinian football but even if Gámez is guilty of slightly romanticising his day of football violence as an age of purity – as Murzi observes, the “macho” aspect of the culture of aguantar, proving yourself stronger or tougher than other barra, is a huge underlying problem in Argentinian life, not just football – but he is surely right that something changed over the eighties.
Precise causes are never easy to isolate. It’s fair to assume that the transfer of the political violence of the seventies into other spheres, a less repressive state apparatus and a growing disillusionment with the reform process after the collapse of the junta in 1983, all played their part, as did a failure of leadership from the corrupt and anti-Semitic Julio Grondona, who was chairman of AFA from 1979 and a vice-president of Fifa from 1988 until his death in 2014.
It became common for club leaders to try to use the barra for their own ends, not always related to football. And once muscle had become aware of its own power, it was very difficult to control. “Managers gave them clothes,” Gámez said. “Board members used them to force managers to quit rather than be sacked. Footballers became the victims of other players who gave the barra clothes or money: there was a rupture between the players who supported the barra and those who didn’t. That produced what you see today: everything is a business and they fight against each other because of money. Now they are gangs. It’s more profitable for a thug who’s just left prison to join a barra brava than to join a band of robbers. Money is as good and the risks are considerably less. Police are involved. Board members are involved. They earn money from public parking spaces around the ground and nobody does anything to prevent this.”
By the late 90s most barras were connected to organised crime, dealing in drugs, smuggling and engaging in extortion, controlling parking and merchandise sales around the ground. Between 1986 and 1993, football-related arrests went up by a factor of 25. As the historian David Goldblatt put it, football had once “served to integrate urban barrios and the wider nation” but by the 90s “local, neighbourhood and tribal affiliations to clubs” were deepened, reflecting and exacerbating growing divisions within society as a whole, so the homogenous, broadly working-class crowd of the forties and fifties became fragmented “by class, consumption patterns and belief systems”. Or, to put it another way, the quasi-Thatcherite economic policies of Carlos Menem, who had become president in 1989 after cynically evoking a traditional vision of Argentina by adopting various gaucho accoutrements, opened up the country, ill-prepared after decades of protectionism, to the full blast of globalised neoliberalism with predictably catastrophic consequences, culminating in the default of 2001.
Argentina today is a country of profound divisions. The economy is a disaster. In January, inflation hit 47.6%. The unemployment rate is widely believed to be at least double the official figure of 10%. In 2018, the peso lost around half its value against the US dollar. The Social Debt Observatory of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina estimates the poverty rate at 33.6%.
When people have no money, no hope, no prospects, little faith in the institutions of state, it’s perhaps only natural they cling to football, one of the few spheres in which Argentina remains pre-eminent, and to the sense of belonging being a fan of a club provided.
It’s against that background that the specifics of the River-Boca rivalry are set. Both clubs originated by the docks in the early part of the 20th century. While Boca remained there, though, River moved, eventually winding up in the middle-class barrio of Núñez. They are the immigrants made good, Boca the ones who stayed behind. In theory the rivalry was middle-class River against working-class Boca, the former demanding a style rooted in elegance and technique, the latter more concerned with sweat and fight.
There were definitely periods when the stereotypes stylistically held true, although it’s debatable any observer without preconceptions would discern those traits in the present sides. In terms of fan base, though, the situation is far more complex. It’s never been straightforward but has been hugely complicated by the election as president of the free-market reformer Mauricio Macri, at least some of whose power base stems from his time as president of Boca Juniors. A very loose and unscientific survey of taxi drivers, shop assistants, waiters and people connected to other clubs suggested anti-Macri feeling was so strong that most neutrals wanted River to win – which would certainly not have been the case when I first visited Argentina, in 2007.
What makes one person River and another Boca may be hard these days to pin down, but the rivalry is real enough. I was there in 2012 when River fans delayed the start of the second half of a superclásico at el Monumental by floating an inflatable pig in Boca colours in front of away fans. (Why a pig? Boca are known as “los bosteros” because of the piles of manure – bosta – used in the brick industry that used to dominate the area where their ground now stands). Coverage in Britain tended to be played for laughs but the pig was a factor in the violence that followed as stewards were dragged to the top of the terrace and hurled down flights of stairs, supposedly because one was seen celebrating River’s equaliser.
The production line has slowed of late – another tale of short-sightedness, mismanagement and perhaps corruption – but for the best part of 25 years, Argentina has been stocking the best clubs in the world. Its managers – from Marcelo Bielsa to Diego Simeone, from Mauricio Pochettino to José Pékerman – have shaped the modern game and are much sought after. But very little of that talent plays or works in Argentina. This is the curse of South America, the natural result of globalisation: talent naturally flows where the money is and, at the moment, that means a small handful of clubs in western Europe. The raw materials of the new world, once again, are servicing the needs of the old.
That is a problem without an obvious solution – and Conmebol has a multitude of more immediate issues to deal with before it can even begin to contemplate the much wider concern of the exodus. Many of those problems result from the 17-year presidency of the Paraguayan Nicolás Leóz, whom you may remember from such classic wheezes as promising to vote for England’s bid to host the World Cup if he were knighted, given an invitation to the royal wedding and had the FA Cup named after him. Leóz resigned in April 2013, aged 85, citing ill health, although it was almost certainly because of corruption allegations levelled against him. An Interpol “red notice” was raised against him in June 2015.
The current incumbent, who took charge in January 2016, is another Paraguayan, Alejandro Domínguez. At 47, he is open and engaging, far more aware of the world and less nakedly self-serving than Leóz, even if there are concerns about the closeness of his relationship with Gianni Infantino and the way he often seems a tool in the Fifa president’s ongoing wrangling with Uefa and its president Aleksander Čeferin.
We met him at the Alvear Icon Hotel in Puerto Madero the day before the scheduled second leg and he spoke cheerily of his plans to bring a more European sensibility to the Latin American game and trying to ensure the obvious gulf in quality between the Champions League and the Libertadores does not grow any greater. “I always understand the work Uefa started a long time ago has brought big and good revenues,” Domínguez said, speaking fluent English inflected by his time studying at the University of Kansas. “Going back 20 years ago, Conmebol gave their pact to develop football, to promote, to see new ways of competitions, and they forgot about talking and working for football. It’s no wonder Uefa has made such a big progress and Conmebol has not. Going back, we have won more World Cups and more Intercontinentals than teams from Europe. But something happened in this time, and that is that Uefa worked right, and we did not work, and those that did worked for themselves and not for football. It is not that we will close the gap, it is that we want to keep track and not let it get bigger.”
Part of that has been moving the final to November and, from 2019, it will be played over a single game rather than the traditional two legs to try to make it more of a global spectacle. “If we go with the past format, finals always played in May or June,” Domínguez explained, “between Europe and South America, that is more than five or six hours time difference. Wednesday night in South America is too early in the morning in Europe. It was harder for people who liked football, or would like to watch South American football. Changing that to November gives us less time difference: three hours with UK, the rest of Europe four. Playing Saturday allows you guys to watch our games. People like good football, no matter where it is played.”
The shift to a single leg, as well as making the final more of a showpiece, also gives Conmebol greater control. “With home and away, it is like being away both times for us. Boca and River do what they have to do according to their policies and sometimes they are not the same as ours. They own their own stadiums… they cannot play with supporters of both teams in the same stadiums. For me, that is the past. That will never happen again. Changing the format to one final match, being organised by Conmebol, allows us to say you can come, it’s secure, wearing in whatever team’s jersey, you can be there with the guys in the other jersey. We have to be in control, to deliver a world-class product.”
Next year the final will be held at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago. (Or at least that’s the plan: when Conmebol set out its stipulation in January that there should be no major events at the stadium in the 60 days before the game, the Chilean authorities expressed a marked reluctance to shift an Iron Maiden concert that falls 38 days before the final.) Which is a lovely idea, but doesn’t that rather ignore the reality of what may happen if thousands of River and Boca fans trail across the continent and over the Andes for a game? “It will be wonderful,” Domínguez beamed. “Do not worry about security in Chile.”
Domínguez also removed the stipulation that said that if two teams from the same country reached the semi-final, they had to play each other at that stage to try to make it as likely as possible that the final would involve two countries. In that sense, the superclásico final and the attention it attracted was his doing. “This is the outcome of a work of changes that we started two years ago,” he said. “I do not believe in coincidences. I believe in the work that you do and the outcome of your work. Would I say I was expecting this? Yes, because you always make this kind of math – but I did not see this one coming so soon.”
But there is a paradox here. If the South American game becomes more European, is there not a risk is losing the authenticity – the colour and the passion, and the undercurrent of violence – that makes it attractive to European audiences. “I see my kids playing PlayStation and they have fun and they tease each other, but it is football on TV,” Domínguez said. “It is not the way we live football here. We go to the stadium and we live everything: the passion they bring to their stadiums and the way they support their teams, it is life.
“How do we not lose our DNA? We think about that that every time we make decisions. I will not tolerate more violence. Passion has nothing to do with violence. People might not understand those things could live apart. Think that is part of our tradition. We can have passion, live crazy for our teams, but we will not allow violence.”
Which is at least a recognition of the issue, if not a solution.
On the Sunday morning, it remained unclear whether the rearranged game would be played – or, if it was, whether fans would be allowed in. We went a little earlier, looking to arrive by 1pm before the gates would be opened. The mood on the Subte and in the streets was noticeably muted. In the gutters glinted occasional crystals of car windows shattered in the violence the night before. The police presence was much heavier, the area around the corner of Avenida Monroe already cleared. There was something a little surreal about the occasion: arrayed beneath a row of jacarandas in full lilac blossom stood a line of riot police in full armour.
This time, having bumped into a couple of local journalists who showed us the correct way in, we didn’t get caught up in any crush. It was all very smooth. We sat on a grassy bank opposite the media entrance and ate sandwiches we’d bought on the way. At about 1.30 they opened the gates and we watched the first fans make their way through the lines of security.
There seemed a complete absence of anything noteworthy going on, so we made our way up to the press box. River made an announcement that the game was on. Perhaps it was all going to pass off peacefully and the second leg, like the first which was delayed by torrential rain, would simply be played 24 hours later than planned. But then, at 2pm, Domínguez appeared on the press-box television. Everybody scrambled inside, packing into the small office where there was a television with sound. The game was off.
Domínguez was clearly furious. “The mentality at the moment is this is a disgrace that we’re talking about a situation like this, because of a few misfits, for what is a game of football,” he said. “This is not football. It’s not what any of us want. Football is the opposite. It is athletes, players, professionals, that live, work, give good examples on and off the pitch, that have families, responsibilities, and live the football that makes us all so passionate. Now, we have to analyse this from the perspective of what is sporting and fair. There is a team that has been injured, and we are here for the good of the spectacle, so that when the starting XI of both clubs enter the field, they go without any excuse, that match is played on a level playing field, equal conditions… The organisation is going to be self-critical, but everyone has to be self-critical. It’s not a situation where we can look elsewhere for faults. The intolerance, the violence, we cannot leave these aside and take the responsibility for. We have to be self-critical. I believe football is happiness, is passion, is family. That’s what we have to prioritise… This is not the Argentina we love, we know, it’s not the majority. This is not Argentinian society, these are misfits. We have to use this time to give a good sign to the world we can do things well.”
But what did that mean? With the G20 summit due to begin in Buenos Aires four days later, demanding the full attention of local security, there was clearly no way the game could be played there. But equally there was a time limit. Conmebol had two-and-a-half weeks to produce its challenger for the Club World Cup in the UAE.
As we wrote our pieces, the television companies began taking down their studios, cameras and rigging. The paraphernalia for the opening ceremony, the glitter guns and the presentation plinth were dismantled. Finally, at a little before 5pm, the scheduled kick-off time, two workmen carried a replica of the Libertadores trophy towards the tunnel, pausing for a selfie on the way. And with that, the greatest game that Argentina would never host was done.
Boca, citing the precedent of 2015, wanted the game awarded to them and for all that Conmebol wanted the game to go ahead, wanted their spectacle, wanted to avoid the humiliation of saying they couldn’t host their own final, there must have been a temptation to impose a stringent punishment: show River fans, show fans of all clubs, that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable, that there are consequences.
But the situations are not exactly the same. What happened in 2015 took place inside the stadium; what happened at the Libertadores final incident took place outside. That is more than a technicality. A club must take responsibility for what happens in its own stadium. It has a duty to provide a safe environment in which the game can be played and if it cannot do that, it must be sanctioned. Perhaps there is an argument that what happened at el Monumental was so close to the stadium that the same logic should apply, but these are awkward grey areas.
There is danger in saying simply that River fans did it and therefore River should be punished in that it assumes a one-to-one relationship between a club and anyone who wears its colours – and that quickly becomes an uncomfortable position. There were 70,000 River fans inside the stadium when the incident occurred on Saturday. Are they responsible for the actions of couple of dozen outside? Are the directors? The players?
What of the failure of policing, which many in Argentina seem to feel was related to a breakdown in the relationship between the police and the Ministry of Justice? Is that River’s fault? Quite apart from the unfairness of an institution for the actions of a group of people who have chosen to wear their colours (and may not even be members), would a sanction on those grounds withstand legal challenge?
Even more tricky is the nature of fandom in Argentina. It may be that having games abandoned, having a club face punishment, suits the political motives of, say, somebody seeking to become president of a club who mobilises the barra to achieve their ends. One of the possible explanations (and there are many) for what happened in November is that the attack was carried out because a barra leader had been arrested three days earlier. Punishing a club in such circumstances would play into the hands of those seeking to provoke embarrassment.
It became clear that the second leg would be held on the weekend of December 8 and 9, in time for the Club World Cup. The only question was where. Various cities jostled for hosting rights, a useful list of the power-players of the modern game. Asunción was briefly suggested, and would at least have kept the final in South America, but soon fell away, leaving Doha, Abu Dhabi, Miami, Paris and Madrid. Abu Dhabi would have made some sense in that the game was effectively doubling as a qualifier for the Club World Cup, but given Qatar Airways sponsorship of Boca Juniors, there were problems with both Doha and Paris (given Qatar’s involvement with Paris Saint-Germain). In the end, a conversation between the Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez and Domínguez proved decisive. And so the final of the competition named after those who had liberated South America from Madrid was played in Madrid.
The Bernabéu, at least, was full. There was an atmosphere, and there were fans of both sides present. And the game itself was as chaotic and thrilling as anybody could have wished. A ruthless counter-attack led to Darío Benedetto putting Boca ahead just before half-time, but Lucas Pratto levelled after a neatly worked move.
Of course the game went to extra-time: there was never going to be a swift resolution. Wílmar Barrios was sent off for a second yellow early in extra-time and River took advantage: the substitute Juan Quintero fired them in front after 109 minutes following more tidy play around the edge of the box and then, as Boca committed everybody forward, including the goalkeeper Esteban Andrada in the final minutes, Pity Martínez ran clear to wrap up the win, striding 70 yards with a vacant net in front of him, knowing all the time the glory was his.
For River it was a fourth Libertadores, making them the fourth most successful side in the competition’s history (still two victories behind Boca) but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the long-term ramifications of the 2018 Libertadores will reverberate far beyond the eight miles that separate the two Buenos Aires giants. A precedent has been set, the Fifa regulation stipulating games had to be played within the geographical boundaries of a confederation overturned. What now prevents the Champions League taking its final to Beijing, Doha or New York?
Perhaps that’s a good thing, a necessary step. After all, when Europe sucks up the world’s best talent, why shouldn’t the showpiece game be given back to the world? A large part of the Champions League’s revenues comes from its global popularity. But always you end up returning to what football is and why it has value. What is a club? Perhaps in the modern age the biggest clubs are merely brands, a name and a badge and an ever-changing shirt that people arbitrarily decide to follow. And if that is the case, play a final anywhere: to a global television audience the stage barely matters.
But you hope there is still some sense of deeper identity, of history and community, that Real Madrid or Liverpool or Roma or Bayern Munich still somehow represent their city or their region, a shared set of values. If they do not, then what are they but quasi-franchises, expendable and replaceable if it becomes more expedient to end the concentration of footballing power in western Europe?
Everything, in the end, seems to come down to that tension between local identity and globalisation.