Perhaps it was inevitable that a game that took so long to get started showed a marked resistance to finishing. But 15 days after it should have been played, River Plate won the Copa Libertadores by beating Boca Juniors in Madrid. 

By Jonathan Wilson
December 09, 2018

Perhaps it was inevitable that a game that took so long to get started showed a marked resistance to finishing. But 15 days after it should have been played, after a desperately tense period of extra time, River Plate, in the end, won the Copa Libertadores, lifting the title for the fourth time, beating Boca Juniors 3-1 (5-3 on aggregate) in the final in Madrid.

Boca had gone ahead just before halftime as Dario Benedetto finished off a rapid counterattack, but Lucas Pratto, a former Boca striker, converted after a neat passing move midway through the second half following a period of extended River pressure. River was already on top when the Colombian Wilmar Barrios, having missed a penalty in the shootout against England at the World Cup, capped a disappointing year by being dismissed, collecting a second yellow card for a studs-up on lunge on Exequiel Palacios. The winner came from another Colombian, with Juan Quintero scoring the game’s third excellent goal, sliding in from the edge of the box.

Even then it wasn’t over. Leonardo Jara hit a post for Boca in the final minute leading to a corner that, thanks to jostling in the box, had to be taken three times. When it was finally taken, River cleared and, with the Boca keeper Esteban Andrada up, Pity Martinez ran through to complete the victory in an empty net.

But perhaps the biggest news was that the game went ahead at all, which says a lot for the mess into which the Copa Libertadores had descended. Yet apportioning blame is not easy: this farrago had a lot of fathers.

Most obviously there were the River Plate fans who pelted the Boca Juniors bus with projectiles before the second leg should have been played 15 days ago. But then there were the failures of security–the fault of the police, the Ministry of Justice or both depending who you listen to–that allowed the bus to turn onto Avenida Monroe before it had been cleared of fans.

Once that had happened, and Boca players were left nursing wounds caused by broken glass and struggling with the effects of inhaling tear gas, the game realistically had to be postponed several days to give them a chance to recover. For CONMEBOL’s medical team to pronounce players fit to try to get the game to go ahead a couple of hours later than the original scheduled kickoff was an outrage. It was never by then a question of whether they could play; as soon as they had suffered a trauma like that they should never have been asked to play.

Equally, Boca’s insistence that it should be awarded the game was never realistic. The comparison with 2015 when River was awarded a Libertadores game against Boca after its players were gassed in the tunnel was never appropriate: on that occasion the offence took place inside the stadium. River cannot wash their hands of responsibility entirely, but equally the point that a club cannot be expected to control everybody who happens to wear its shirt is a fair one. The conduct of River, the club, around the postponed game was laudable, accepting immediately, at least as represented by its coach Marcelo Gallardo, that it was Boca’s call whether the game should go ahead or not.

Since then, though, neither club has helped CONMEBOL get the game on, both raising various protests (even if it should be acknowledged that River never “refused” to play the game as was widely reported; the verb used was “recazar”, translation of which is slippery–it can mean “refuse” but in this context had more of a sense meant more “wish to register their unhappiness about” without suggesting the club wouldn’t turn up).

If the delay was inevitable, the venue was not. That the biggest game, in terms of global interest, in Copa Libertadores history has to be played in Madrid, the seat of the very colonial government from which the libertadores freed South America, should be a source of huge embarrassment that reflects badly on Argentina as an organizational power and so could have an impact on its hopes of co hosting the 2030 World Cup.

Madrid did, at least, seemed capable of providing the requisite security. The Castellana, the vast thoroughfare that runs past the Bernabeu, was closed, with Boca fans at one end and River at the other. Boca will continue to rage, and with some reason, but in terms of the actual football–quaint thought that concern may seem–River was a deserved champion.

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