Last Wednesday night, long after the final whistle had been blown on a riveting Libertadores semi-final, a little corner of Palmeiras’ Allianz Parque stadium was still bouncing. Bathed in a sea of blue and yellow, it looked like a barrio of Buenos Aires had been transported to São Paulo.
The travelling fans’ excitement was understandable. Boca Juniors had just made it to the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League, where they will take on city rivals and eternal enemy River Plate.
Shortly after the game, a Brazilian colleague – despite the disappointment of seeing both his country’s remaining representatives dumped out on consecutive evenings by the two Argentine giants – turned to a friend and said, “This is going to be the biggest final in sporting history.”
Although that might sound like an exaggeration, he’s not far away from the truth. In club football, there has perhaps never been a game that means so much to so many.
Boca Juniors versus River Plate often tops lists of the most intense derbies in world football, and for good reason. The rivalry between these two – the Superclásico, as it is known in Argentina – runs deeper than just the beautiful game.
Having both emerged in the working-class port neighbourhood of La Boca, River Plate then decided to move to the affluent Nuñéz suburb in the north of the city in 1925, marking themselves out as the club of high society.
Just a few years later, after their wealth had brought a series of titles and expensive signings, River were christened Los Millionarios – The Millionaires – a nickname they have carried ever since. Boca, meanwhile, are known as ‘the people’s club’.
While that class division between the clubs and their respective fans is no longer as clear-cut as it once was, the enmity remains just as powerful.
This is the first time the two have met in the final of the Libertadores, the most desirable trophy for any fan or player in South America. Brazil-born Barcelona legend Deco once said he would swap both his Champions League medals to win the competition.
Indeed, it is only the third time that two clubs from the same city have met in the final of a continental football competition, after the two recent Champions League deciders between Real and Atletico Madrid.
But the two derbies, in terms of fervour and fierceness, do not even warrant comparison.
If the Buenos Aires pair’s previous meetings in the knock-out rounds of the Libertadores – the 2000 quarter-final, 2004 semi, and 2015 round-of-16 – are anything to go by, it will be spectacular both in the stands and on the pitch.
In the most recent of those three encounters, Boca’s home leg was abandoned at half-time when River Plate players were attacked with pepper spray in the tunnel. This time, hopefully, passions will not boil over in the same way – but an awe-inspiring atmosphere is guaranteed at both the Bombonera and Monumental.
And though there might not be any players on the level of Cristiano Ronaldo or Antoine Griezmann, there is certainly some talent worth keeping an eye on, with this year’s new television deal allowing both sides to build strong squads.
Boca have combative Colombian midfielder Wilmar Barrios, linked with a move to Tottenham, and tricky winger Cristian Pavón, who Lionel Messi has reportedly recommended to Barcelona. Then there is the magnificent Dario Benedetto, scorer of three goals in the semi-final against Palmeiras despite just having returned from a serious knee injury that kept him out of the World Cup.
River, meanwhile, boast the Real Madrid target Exequiel Palacios and Colombian playmaker Juan Quintero, who impressed so much for Colombia in Russia. In the dugout – or not, as it happens in this case, for he is serving a touchline ban – they have Marcelo Gallardo, amongst the favourites for the vacant Argentina job.
To add to the uniqueness of the spectacle, it is also the last time the Libertadores final will be played over two legs, a cultural institution on the continent that has been shafted by Conmebol in favour of a Champions League-style single-game, neutral-venue showpiece from 2019.
It is a decision that has caused widespread controversy. Travel is expensive in South America and for the majority, salaries remain low. The decision was made with money in mind, particularly selling television rights around the world, but it means that many working-class football lovers will no longer have the chance to see their team in the continent’s most prestigious game.
This, though, is the perfect send-off for the old format.
Argentina is enthralled. The local press will speak of little else in the coming weeks, and even Argentine president Mauricio Macri quipped before the semi-finals that, “I would prefer one of the Brazilian clubs to win so we don’t have this final, because it would mean three weeks without sleep.”
Macri’s comments, as a former president of Boca Juniors, were clearly tongue in cheek. This matters deeply to him and he has even intervened to make sure that away fans will be allowed in the stadiums, something that has been banned for big games in Argentina for some time because of the potential for fan violence.
“As this [tie] is an exceptional fact, that will never again be repeated, we have decided that we will allow visiting supporters”, said the president, who has seen his popularity plummet after the collapse of the Argentine currency this year.
The final, which was due to take place on two Wednesday nights, 7 and 28 November, has also been moved to two Saturday afternoons, 10 and 24 November, at the request of the police and Buenos Aires City Hall, to help with security planning for a G20 summit scheduled to start on 30 November.
While those moves may have irritated the presidents of the clubs – Boca complained that Saturdays should be off-limits out of respect for their Jewish fans, whilst River announced that their stadium was not prepared to receive away fans – it does mean that European audiences will be able to enjoy the action.
Rather than starting in the early hours of Thursday morning UK time, it will now be live at 8pm on a Saturday evening.
For any self-respecting football fan, there is no excuse for missing this once in a lifetime encounter.