A Monumental Mess: The Final To End All Finals May Never End

by | Nov 25, 2018

It’s a seductive image, in its own way. From the perspective of a dour European, numbed by the creeping corporotisation of the game in this particular part of the world, the smoke bombs, the flares, the fans arriving at a stadium two or three hours before kick-off, the visceral sights and sounds, the sense of something happening which feels almost familiar yet so, so remote, is sometimes considered more passionate and more “real” than the homogenous fayre that we are served at home every week.

This sense of danger, however, is real and not confected, and yesterday’s events at the Monumental in Buenos Aires primarily served as a reminder that, for all the passion that we wish to engender within the game, such shows of strength can have the effect of weakening the structure of order which allows matches in front of huge crowds with emnity in the air to take place in the first place. Once a large crowd is riled up to the extent that it was yesterday it can be difficult to contain, and the creation of such an atmosphere can come to resemble a tinderbox, requiring only the slightest of sparks to conflagrate completely.

This year’s Copa Libertadores final between River Plate and Boca Juniors is a unique occasion by the very fact of its existence. It’s the first time that the two giants have ever met at this stage of this competition. The intensity of the rivalry meant that away supporters were already banned from attending the matches concerned. A match already known as the Superclasico became, in the days building up to the first leg at the Boca’s Bombonera, “the final to end all finals”, a hype train that felt capable of spinning out of control at any moment. The first leg, however, played out as peacefully as might have been hoped for (despite – and it might even be argued because – of a severe storm putting it back by twenty-four hours), ending in a two-all draw which, with there being no away goals rule in the final of this competition, resolved very little ahead of the second leg. The pyrotechnics took place on the pitch.

This whole event has come to be a source of considerable excitement across the whole of Argentina. Boca claim that 40% of all Argentinians support their team. River Plate claim the support of 33%. On top of the importance of this match in this country, there has long been a sense of grievance in South America at the global attention hoarded by European clubs, when their continuing success in the FIFA World Club Cup indicates the possibility of parity. Smug Europeans may call it a “chip on the shoulder”. To South Americans, it feels more like being ignored. These matches are a relatively rare case of the eyes of the world being focused upon the Copa Libertadores rather than the Champions League, La Liga or the Premier League.

Plans to replay the match today were shelved, and with a tentative plan to replay the match today having been abandoned earlier this afternoon, this opportunity hasn’t so much been spurned as sprayed with tear gas and then doused in petrol and set alight. From top to bottom, the entire day can only now be truly regarded as a shambles, and on more than one level. The reaction of CONMEBOL officials to the events of the day seemed to boil down to an insistence on the two teams playing the match come what may – the very worst of officialdom distilled. The kick off time was pushed back and back and back before defeat was finally conceded and the match was abandoned for the day. It feels as though a few days’ break to calm everything down would be a good idea, but the behaviour of officials desperate to get the match over and done with and the fact that Argentina hosts a G20 conference next week and could do with this being over as quickly as possible means that this wouldn’t otherwise seem likely, either.

Of course, this whole event is underpinned by the sort of schism that runs deep through so many societies. Traditionally, River Plate were considered the establishment club, the club of the monied and well to do, whereas Boca Juniors were the club of the working classes, the blue collar club from the favelas. Things are more complicated than that nowadays, of course, but it’s worth considering that such friction has sources that run beyond football, a game that can so easily become a manifestation of the id of a culture at any given time. It’s also a rivalry that has been tainted by tragedy. In June 1968, seventy-one fans were crushed to death after a match between the two clubs at El Monumental. The subsequent inquiry found no-one culpable for those deaths. Such stories, of violence, anger and aggrievement, of passion and fire, have been the heartbeat of Argentinian football for decades.

Thoughts now turn to how the match can be played, where it should be played, and whether it should even be played at all. Playing the match behind closed doors might be considered safer for those involved in the match itself, but with the supporters of both clubs coming from the same city this doesn’t guarantee the safety of anyone else in Buenos Aires on the day that it is played. Boca had issued a complaint that they wanted the match replayed under “equal conditions”, and the president of CONMEBOL, Alejandro Dominguez, confirmed this afternoon that this couldn’t be arranged. The match could be moved out of Buenos Aires, perhaps out of Argentina altogether, and River Plate wouldn’t have much cause to argue the decision. For all structural failures that led to the attack on the team coach, it was their their supporters who attacked the Boca team coach in the first place.

A meeting will now be held in Asuncion on Tuesday in order to try to decide what to do about this unholy mess, and Dominguez’s comment that the decision would concern “where and when” the match might be played has opened some eyes to the possibility it being moved altogether. But CONMEBOL have hardly covered themselves in glory over the last twenty-four hours or so either. During the melee of confusion that followed the original abandonment, their medical team had insisted that none of the Boca Juniors team were too adversely affected to play the match with a 7.30 kick-off time, which led to the farcical situation of a teamsheet being issued including the Boca player Pablo Perez, who had got glass in his eye during the attack, being listed to play despite having been told at the hospital that he shouldn’t. Common sense finally prevailed and the match was completely abandoned for the day.

Even this afternoon, however, the decision to cancel the match today was taken late, with supporters already having started to enter the stadium by the time it was announced. By all accounts, the atmosphere at the Monumental today was substantially less animated than it was yesterday – and understandably so – but leaving the decision this late feels like yet another case of CONMEBOL trying to force the match through too quickly, although it should be added that the FIFA World Club Cup starts in a little under three weeks and South America needs a representative at that, a tournament which, we shouldn’t forget, means considerably more there than it does in Europe.

Dominguez’s comment that the match should be played under “equal conditions” was prompted by an official statement released by Boca on Saturday night. This hinted at a possible uneasiness over the game going ahead, only just stopping short of an outright call for River Plate to be disqualified from the competition altogether, a decision which would, of course, award the tournament to Boca by default. Such an eventuality might seem unlikely – we are, after all, talking about the abandonment of the final of South America’s equivalent to the Champions League final, here – but it can hardly be considered to be completely off the table, and the possibility of the match at least being moved from the Monumental altogether seems at least as likely as not.

Where they all go from here is, at present, anybody’s guess. The match could be abandoned. It could be awarded to Boca and they could spin a coin to see who goes to the World Club Cup. CONMEBOL might just reschedule it for a few days time, perhaps behind closed doors, or they might reschedule to a different stadium or city altogether. They might just ignore it all and reschedule the game for the Monumental later in the week. The latter of these would certainly be in line with their actions and decisions over the last thirty-six hours. All eyes now turn to Asuncion. The eyes of the world are still watching, but not for the reasons that South America’s football governing body would have wanted.