River Plate vs Boca Juniors: The ugly battle of Buenos Aires

South American football's reputation ruined by unruly fans

It was the most anxiously awaited final in South American football history. It was the game the local press was referring to as “The Final of All Time” and the “Final to End All Finals”.

River and Boca fans, Argentines and South Americans had hoped this would be a celebration of all that is good about the continent’s football: the passion; the intense atmosphere; the endless production line of young talent; a hotly contested fixture between the world’s fiercest rivals.

Instead, it turned into a farce. That passion spilled over into fan violence, the rivalry exploding into hate and forcing the match to be postponed until further notice. It demonstrated the ugliest face of the game here, a face which should not be glamorised, and which is seen all too often.

After the weekend of indecision and uncertainty, a meeting of South American football’s organising body, CONMEBOL, will now take place on Tuesday to decide a new date and time to play the second leg. The first, a pulsating affair at Boca’s Bombonera home two weeks before, finished 2-2.

For this return leg, the tumult started on Saturday afternoon. Just over an hour before the originally scheduled kick-off of 5pm, a group of River fans pelted the Boca bus with bottles, stones and lumps of concrete, breaking windows and injuring players. The Boca captain Pablo Pérez suffered a cut to his eye and had bits of glass lodged in his leg.

The players not hurt by the flying shards of glass were forced to run from their vehicle to escape the tear gas used by police to disperse the crowd. They got into the changing rooms gasping for air, retching and rubbing at their weeping eyes.

The policing for the incident must be looked at. Inexplicably, the bus was taken down a route where fans are known to gather on matchdays and the escort provided proved woefully insufficient.

Football was no longer football, it was something much uglier; a battle, a war. Almost immediately, Boca president Daniel Angelici told the authorities that his men were in no condition to take the field.

Nonetheless, CONMEBOL, along with FIFA president Gianni Infantino, present at the Monumental, insisted the game would go on, announcing first that it would be delayed by an hour, then by another hour and 15 minutes.

Boca vs River

With the event scheduled to be broadcast in more than 60 countries, commercial concerns were clearly taking precedence over player safety.

There were also the matters of the G20 summit taking place in Buenos Aires from Thursday and the need to have the South American champions decided in time for the World Club Cup that starts three weeks from now.

Those two things will also weigh heavily on the decision about when the second leg is eventually played. It cannot be next weekend, because of the G20, but must be before the South American representative’s first game in the Club World Cup on 18 December. CONMEBOL have also said they want it to take place in River’s ground, for reasons of “sporting justice”.

Back in the Monumental, waiting for the game he thought would be going ahead, Boca legend Carlos Tevez told reporters that, “[The authorities] are obliging us to play… we have three team-mates injured, it can’t go on like this.”

Alejandro Dominguez, CONMEBOL's president, eventually did the right thing, saying that the game would be postponed until 5 p.m. the following day. That it took so long to come to a decision that was so obviously correct is emblematic of the incompetence of South American football governance.

River Plate v Boca Juniors - Copa CONMEBOL Libertadores 2018

As the 62,000 people in attendance left the stadium, over four hours after many of them had arrived, there was even more trouble. Clashes with the police caused more tear gas to be deployed and television images showed River Plate president Rodolfo D’Onofrio running terrified from a charging crowd.

The River hierarchy, incidentally, are amongst the few who emerge from this episode with credit. Rather than pushing for the game to go ahead whilst Boca’s players were at a substantial physical disadvantage, D’Onofrio and manager Marcelo Gallardo insisted that it must be suspended in solidarity with the opposition.

The next morning came, and the game was once more scheduled to take place.

The Boca players and president, Daniel Angelici, however, insisted that they were still in no fit state to take part. The effects of teargas can last up to 36 hours and some had taken corticoids – a substance banned under anti-doping regulations – to help alleviate the effects.

Angelici had even asked that the tournament be awarded to Boca without the game being played. After a similar incident in the 2015 Libertadores semi-final, in which Boca fans threw tear gas on River players in the tunnel, the game was abandoned, and River were handed their place the final by decree of the federation.

No decision came though, nothing was communicated to the fans and only more hours of rumour and uncertainty followed. The River faithful, for the second time in two days, left their houses en route to their team’s vast concrete bowl of a home.

Boca vs River

At 3 p.m., when some of those supporters had already taken their places on the terraces, Alejandro Dominguez finally appeared on television, giving an exclusive interview to CONMEBOL's chosen channel, saying that it would not go ahead.

“We don’t want sporting inequality”, he said, referring to the physical state of the Boca players, “[We want] a good sporting spectacle, so there are no excuses.”

Unfortunately, it is now too late for that. Many who had hoped for the event of a lifetime are now left desolated, many millions more disappointed they could not see the game on TV.

It was perhaps best summed up in a tweet ex-River and Boca player and Argentina legend Gabriel Batistuta, “Another lost opportunity in front of the world that observed us,” he wrote, “shameful, lamentable.”

How South American football, and in particular CONMEBOL, proceeds from here is anyone’s guess. We can only hope that this serves as a catalyst for change.