By Andrew Warshaw
November 26 – It should have been a celebration of the most prestigious and important club match of the entire South American football calendar, eagerly anticipated by millions of armchair television viewers as well as fans those of the two teams involved.
Instead, the second leg of the Copa Libertadores between Argentine arch-rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors turned into one of the most shameful footballing episodes of recent years.
Amid claim and counter-claim, blame and accusation, Saturday’s fixture – the biggest club match in the 127-year history of Argentine football and the first time Argentina’s two biggest giants had clashed for South America’s equivalent of the Champions League – was postponed not once but twice with no indication of when it might now take place.
The decisive second leg had been due to be played on Saturday but was suspended for 24 hours after Boca players were injured when their bus was attacked by River fans outside their Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires.
First, there were reports the Boca players had been attacked with pepper spray by River fans in a copycat act of reprisal for what Boca fans did to the River players in 2015 when they last met in the Libertadores. Then it became clear they had been hit by flying glass in an ugly attack that left many of them physically and mentally scarred.
Only after several kickoff delays in front of a packed stadium of home fans (away fans were banned, just like the first leg) was the game rightly called off, only to be postponed again on Sunday, just hours before it was due to start, after Boca complained the match could not be played under fair conditions since many of their players were still recovering from the trauma of the previous day.
“Club Atletico Boca Juniors made a formal presentation to Conmebol on Sunday to request that the final of the Copa Libertadores be played in conditions of equality,” said a club statement.
“After the acts of violence suffered in the vicinity of the stadium, having noted the magnitude and seriousness of them and the consequences they have generated in the establishment, Boca considers that these conditions are not met and requests the suspension of the match.”
Agreeing to the request, Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez, told reporters: “We don’t want there to be any excuses that conditions were not equal for both teams. We want both teams to have time to recover.”
“A sad day for South American football,” he later tweeted.
You can say that again. With the tie tantalisingly poised after a 2-2 draw in the first leg between two of the bitterest rivals in world football, Conmebol officials are due to meet both clubs on Tuesday to discuss a date for rescheduling.
But if and when that happens – Boca initially demanded a walkover while unconfirmed reports said it would be played behind closed doors – the final will always be remembered for the mayhem that left players bleeding and almost all the windows on one side of the Boca bus shattered as well as for the incompetence of Conmebol, a confederation that may have a new-look executive these days but still lurches from crisis to crisis.
Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, meanwhile, described the hooligans involved as “the mafia of Argentine soccer” while Gianni Infantino, who was present at the game, denied claims that he wanted it to go ahead as planned on Saturday.
“I want to make it clear, because of false rumours being published, that I never at any time asked that the game should be played,” he said in a statement.
“Neither did I threaten anyone with disciplinary sanctions in case the match was not played. All and every decision concerning this game was for CONMEBOL, never for FIFA.
“I was very sad about what happened. Violence has no place in football and the security and safety of players, fans and officials should always be first priority. That is the reason I support totally the decisions taken by CONMEBOL, the two clubs and the local authorities.”
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