Copa Libertadores final: The controversies of Flamengo vs River Plate

Once again, the Copa Libertadores has served up a potentially classic final. After last year’s all-Argentine Boca Juniors vs. River Plate Superclasico showpiece, South America’s answer to the Champions League has brought together the best two teams on the continent for the 2019 edition.

Holders River, led by brilliant young manager Marcelo Gallardo, will take on Flamengo, Brazil’s biggest club, who have undergone a mini revolution since Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus took the reins in July.

Yet, just like in 2018, this super final does not come without a generous dose of off-pitch controversy and intrigue. Here, we take a look at some of the main issues surrounding the game, which will take place on Saturday in Lima, Peru, kicking off at 20:00 GMT.

One-Off Final

Last year, violence before the second leg of the final at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental led Conmebol, South American football’s governing body, to take the contentious decision to move the game to Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

The incident was a stain on South American football. The Boca team bus was pelted with missiles by River fans, with midfielder Pablo Pérez sustaining an eye injury and the whole Boca squad suffering the effects of the tear gas police used to disperse the violent crowd. Consensus was that rescheduling the game in Argentina would be too risky.

Yet the eventual choice of the Spanish capital as the venue was widely criticised. Many asked how the final of a tournament named after those who liberated South America from European rule could be taken from them and handed so submissively to the Old Continent.

This year, the furore surrounding the organisation of the showpiece event has perhaps been even more heated, though it is now for a different reason. In 2019, for the first time in history, the Libertadores final will be played as a one-off game in a neutral venue, like is the case with the Champions League.

Traditionally, finals in South America have always been played on a two-legged, home and away basis. That custom reflected society and geography.

South America is huge – to give you some idea, the whole of Europe, without Russia, could fit comfortably into Brazil, which takes up a little under half of the continent’s landmass. Travel is therefore arduous and expensive, making the mass migration of fans for a single game extremely difficult.

If in Europe the Champions League final already has a distancing effect for game-going fans, then on a relatively poor and often very unequal continent, the one-off match excludes an even larger number of people from the possibility of travelling to see their team play.

The move was designed to make the final a more attractive viewing proposition to casual fans, especially in Europe and the USA, and increase television revenues. But it has evoked understandable ire amongst supporters and pundits.

When the decision was made in 2018, Victor Canedo wrote on Globo Esporte: “The one-off final takes the fans away from their roots… half the stadium is occupied by people who did not participate in the campaign. A small group of privileged people and ‘intruders.”

In a recent article for El Pais, Breiller Pires described the move as “the ultimate defeat for the maltreated fans of the terraces.”

Santiago; Lima

To add to the issues of the hardy (or wealthy) few who will travel to the game – some of them on bus journeys that will take a week or more – the location of the final was changed at the last minute.

Initially scheduled to take place in Santiago, the ongoing political protests in Chile that have led to the deaths of more than 20 people forced the Conmebol to switch the venue to the Estadio Monumental in Lima, Peru.

For a spell, the Chilean government’s official line was that the fixture would go ahead as normal, with the Sports Minister Cecilia Perez coming out in late October to say that it would be “a good chance to unite” the country.

Yet it soon became clear that the position was untenable and on November 5, Conmebol, in a meeting with River, Flamengo and the Brazilian and Argentine FAs, decided that Lima would be a satisfactory and sufficiently neutral compromise.

The next day, there was an inevitable spike in searches for return plane tickets from Rio De Janeiro to Lima, leaving on November 22nd and returning on the 24th. The cheapest flights that could be found online were R$5,856 (£1,081), or around 6 times the minimum monthly Brazilian wage, for a 14-hour journey with two stops en route.

The Match

In spite of all the issues, this promises to be a truly fascinating game. Since the arrival of 65-year-old ex-Benfica manager Jorge Jesus in June, Flamengo have been transformed into the most exciting team on the continent.

With Gabriel Barbosa, who has netted 37 times in all competitions this year, leading the line and being ably backed up by the lightning quick Bruno Henrique, Uruguayan playmaker Giogian De Arrascaeta and Brazilian pass masters Everton Ribeiro and Gerson, Jesus’s men have scored 22 times in their last ten games, including a 5-0 hammering of Gremio in the semi-final second leg.

To add to that attacking threat, they have the international experience of full-backs Rafinha and Filipe Luis, Diego Alves in goal and the commanding central defensive presence of Pablo Mari, the Spaniard signed from Manchester City in July.

Their incredible form makes the Brazilians slight favourites going into the game, but they will underestimate River at their peril.

Marcelo Gallardo has now been in charge of Los Millionarios for over five years, an almost unthinkable feat of endurance in the unstable environs of the Argentine league. As well as that the 2018 Libertadores title, he has won a Copa Sudamericana, another Libertadores in 2015 and two Argentine Cups.

Gallardo is a fine tactician – Pep Guardiola recently called him “incredible” and said he could not understand his omission from the FIFA Best coaching shortlist –, and he proved in this year’s Libertadores semi-final why he has been so strongly linked to taking Pep’s old job at Barcelona.

In a repeat of last year’s final, River took on Boca and in the first leg dismantled their old enemy by exploiting their weaknesses down the flanks.

Flamengo have recently shown that there is a defensive frailty to them if teams can get the ball in behind their high defensive line. With the Colombian Rafael Santos Borre providing pace and tireless running up front and Nicloas De La Cruz bringing the spark of invention, Gallardo will be well aware of how to target the chinks in Flamengo’s considerable armour.

As well as the tactical acumen, River have the psychological advantage of having been here and done it before. Flamengo have not reached a Libertadores final for 35 years and are under huge pressure from their 40 million fans, who have reached a state of neurotic frenzy in recent weeks.

How the Flamengo players deal with the tension will likely decide whether River become the first side to retain the Libertadores since Boca in 2001 or Jorge Jesus and company carry the trophy back to Rio.

If they were to win, Jesus would become the first European coach to win a Libertadores. It would also mean both South American continental titles will have been won by Europeans this year.

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