Superclásico. Simply put, the biggest rivalry in all of world football. Two iconic clubs, with a shared, devastating hatred, fuelled by the right to rule Argentina’s capital city. Since the rivalry’s inception, an age-old class divide and the pursuit of being the nation’s most successful sporting institution has torn not just Buenos Aires, but the entire country, completely in two.
It is estimated that 70% of Argentina’s football-obsessed populous avidly support either Boca Juniors or River Plate, so when it was confirmed that the two old enemies would clash, over two legs, on the ultimate stage - the final of the Copa Libertadores - the footballing world shuddered, cowering behind its collective sofa. As the New York Times aptly put it, it was to be “the final to end all finals”.
The drama that was to unfold however, was beyond the wildest dreams (or nightmares, perhaps) of anybody involved. It was an encounter that turned Buenos Aires into something resembling a warzone - so much so, that even though the hype that had engulfed this fixture was already palpable, FIFA decided to take the hysteria to a degree that simply, had never been seen before. Violence, in this fixture, is staple. This match was no different. After an exhilarating 2-2 draw at La Bonbonera in the first leg, Boca’s team bus was viciously attacked as it approached La Monumental for the grand finale a week later. Glass was shattered, players were hospitalised. Tear gas was the weapon of choice for Los Millionarios’ faithful, leaving those on board vomiting, violently, just hours before kick-off. Fearing that this attack was just the beginning, football’s elite governing body chose not just to move the second leg to a new country - but an entirely different continent.
The decider was held at the Santiago Bernebeu, Madrid. The decision sparked outrage in Argentina. River Plate originally refused to travel there. But eventually, they did, and were glad of it too. They were victorious, winning 5-3 on aggregate. The final, perfectly described by The Guardian, was “an extraordinary story, soaked in symbolism, sport and society, drama and emotion too, raw and exhilarating to the last”. Sixty days after it had begun in Boca Juniors’ iconic stadium, it had come to an apocalyptic end, more than 6,200 miles away.
As the sun set in Buenos Aires however, the problems were just beginning. The city’s streets had been flooded with thousands of highly volatile football fans - half in a state of sheer ecstasy, half with blood boiling beneath their unbridled rage. Two thousand police officers were deployed into every crevice of the city, in an attempt to control the anarchy that was about to ensue. But when news broke that two Boca Juniors fans had murdered a River supporter, fatally stabbing him in the Misiones province - all hell broke loose. Rioting emerged as armoured police clashed with both sets of supporters, who in turn, were just as focused on attacking each other. Rocks and glass bottles were launched by both sets of fans. The police then responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, driving the fans back into their respective groups. Violence continued long into the night, but it was only under the stark light of morning that the damage caused to the capital city became apparent.
Debris and shards of yesterday’s missiles littered every street. Three police officers were badly injured. Police cars, shop windows and TV cameras were smashed. More than 50 River Plate fans had been arrested for public disorder. The land around The Obelisk, one of Buenos Aires’ major monuments, was an exhibition of the remnants of last night’s trauma. The 2018 Copa Libertadores, for more than one reason, is something that Argentina will never forget.
Boca Juniors’ manager, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, presumably overwhelmed with embarrassment (and a good amount of fear), left his post with immediate effect - a decision supported by the club. "Though the pain and sadness have not yet gone, we understand that the best thing for Boca is a change, to start the year with a new coach.”, a statement read. For River Plate however, the fresh taste of victory had turned sour in the mouths of their supporters. For many, they had seen their team win the biggest match of their lives (arguably the biggest in the club’s history), through the medium of a television screen, instead of with their own eyes. The decision to host the final of the Copa Libertadores - a competition named in honour of those who liberated South America from Spanish rule - in the Spanish capital, didn’t spoil the occasion, but it certainly marred it.
Yes, you can argue that it was their own fault. It was those very fans that viciously attacked Boca’s team bus a month earlier, after all. But this is Superclásico, for God’s sake. The unbridled hatred that the two sides share for each other is a part of what makes this derby the most feared in the world. If you put it on this platform, what do you expect? Not even an El Clásico Champions League final could match the momentous nature of this special, once-in-a-lifetime clash. Only 4,000 fans from each side were able to make the trip to Madrid with a ticket to the match in their possession. "For me it's embarrassing," one Millionarios fan said. "I wanted to watch the match with my parents and my brother in River's stadium, but we couldn't. Sharing this with them was the biggest dream of my football fan life”.
Not just Argentina, but South America, had been cheated. Denied the chance to showcase to the world what it meant to be a football fan in Buenos Aires, the continent felt as though they had lost home advantage. When you look back upon the final, it is probably only just that River were the eventual champions, because can you imagine the sheer outrage if Boca Juniors had lifted the trophy without their opponents having played a match inside their own stadium? The riots that we saw run through into the night would have shifted into downright anarchy.
So, the aftermath of “the final to end all finals” is one that is almost as bizarre as the fashion the matches were played in themselves. The winning set of fans, who you’d imagine would live content for the rest of their lives with bragging rights aplenty, actually feel somewhat unfulfilled. “An exceptional decision in exceptional circumstances” according to Alejandro Dominguez, the Paraguayan head of Conmebol, lays appropriate blame to the cause of such a disappointing conclusion - poor decision making.
The first, of course, being opting to let the Boca Juniors team bus drive down a street renown for a high presence of violent River Plate fans on that match day, of all match days. The second was to move the final to a land that reeked of European procedure and nullifying influence. The Bernabeu, on the surface, seemed a venue more apt than most. A footballing cathedral that was to play host to a bloodied royal wedding, between a bride and groom that would have torn the faces off of each other should they be given the opportunity. But in fact, the ceremony diminished the role of those who make this fixture all that we know and love it for - the fans. Inside an 86,000+ seater stadium, less than 10% of the attendance was made up of those who came to the ground on the biggest day of their lives. The rest, in typical FIFA fashion, was made up of tie-wearing executives and sponsors who’s champagne-drizzled murmurs drowned out the cries and calls of two sets of loyal supporters inside a stadium that was never their own.
And that really sucks.