River v Boca: Madrid Libertadores is Pandora's box for the global game

By Dom Farrell 8 December 2018 77
River v Boca: Madrid Libertadores is Pandora's box for the global game


The irony was certainly not lost on Carlos Tevez as he fielded questions on the final of the Copa Libertadores – a tournament named in honour of those who fought for South America's liberation from Spanish colonial rule in the early 19th century – at a Madrid training base.

"I thought myself to be the dumbest guy in [terms of] history knowledge…but these guys just beat me," the veteran Boca Juniors forward joked ahead of Sunday's showdown with River Plate in the Spanish capital. "That’s all I have to say."

Many others will have plenty to say about the long-delayed second leg between the two Grandes for some time to come. From the moment a group of River fans attacked the Boca team bus on its way to El Monumental, the whole situation has been an unseemly mess.

The romantic idea that the sound, colour and unbridled passion of a city enraptured by the beautiful game would produce a spectacle to savour went up in flare smoke and tear gas; the hopes of a truce holding firm after the 2-2 first-leg draw at La Bombonera proving forlorn.

"It's sad because we the players don't deserve to have to leave to another country and play the final in another country, they kicked us out," Tevez remarked, and it is true this feels like an occasion soiled and an opportunity missed to see the best of South American football, regardless of what happens at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.

The unspecified "they" Tevez refers probably covers CONMEBOL, the continental federation who, along with FIFA, did not come out of the aftermath of the bus saga at all well.

As an expectant – and, it should be noted, non-violent – crowd inside the stadium waited along with a television audience of millions, the governing bodies pressed for the show to go on as Boca captain Pablo Perez was treated for injuries and had an eye-patch applied. Player welfare looked to have been placed below monetary concerns with shameful ease.

Following two postponements in as many days, with River showing solidarity as Boca protested it was impossible for the game to take place under conditions of sporting equality, CONMEBOL decided the solution was to take the game away from El Monumental.

Far from being a shamed fixture the world no longer wished to look at, potential suitors presented themselves. Paraguay's capital Asuncion seemed a logical quick fix, at least keeping the game in South America and allowing it to serve as a dry run for next season's switch to a one-off game at a neutral venue.

Doha and Miami were alternatives as glamorous as Genoa, the Italian port city from where Boca and River's immigrant founders set sail, was romantic. But, in a decision protested by both finalists, Madrid was selected as the alternative host – a European city steeped in footballing tradition like no other.

The bigger picture for CONMEBOL chief Alejandro Dominguez, who has been clear over his ambitions of the federation reaching its commercial potential since being elected in 2016, offered alluring possibilities. 

South America's most famous fixture can now be associated with one of the world's most famous football grounds, giving it a taste of the global profile the Champions League has nurtured over the past two decades.

This year's World Cup semi-final underlined Europe's status as the globe's dominant footballing continent. Passion verging on obsession and natural flair appear increasingly ill-equipped to bridge the gap.

Part of Argentina's appeal as a football culture is its authenticity, a trait evermore at odds with the big bucks of Europe's big five leagues. At a time when that authenticity is being lumped together as one with acts of violent hooliganism, it is hard not to see this Libertadores final as an opportunistic repositioning as much as it is a simple rescheduling.

The FIFA and UEFA stand-off over the future of the Club World Cup also lurks in the background and Gianni Infantino and others will watch on with interest as Buenos Aires' finest grace the Madrid turf. If this works, why not a Champions League final in New York? Surely LaLiga can come to America after all?

That is the grubby reality of the latest – it should have been the greatest – instalment of this wonderful fixture. Instead of a celebration of the people's game and its enduring emotional grip, an assortment of vested interests will get to see what happens when celebrated clubs are transplanted from their communities.

The fear is they like what they see and a liberation of global football to chill many fans will be accelerated.

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Dom Farrell

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