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The Eternal Final

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Boca Juniors 1-3 River Plate
The mayhem of Argentina could not be copied. All the stereotypes of European elite football were reinforced: the match organization, the fan zones, the security operation, the influx of football tourists, the sanitised stadium and the antiseptic atmosphere that accompanies major finals.

By Samindra Kunti

MADRID – The sobriquet had said it all: the final to end all finals. How then could it end, the longest showpiece 180 minutes in the contemporary history of the club game? Could the final ever match the hype and the passion that surrounded it? Could it produce the unfettered drama it promised? Argentina, South America and a global TV audience demanded the ultimate spectacle.

Outside Boca Juniors’ team hotel, the fancy Eurostars Suites Mirasierra in a northern residential area of the Spanish capital, everyone – the gathered Boca Juniors fans, who numbered a few dozen – seemed bewildered, almost apologetic.

Had they all been fooled, tricked into believing that South America’s flagship final should be in Madrid? After 28 days – the first leg had been played on Remembrance Day at the famed La Bombonera – the Copa Libertadores final had almost become a chimera. Human emotions had played out: joy, ecstasy, togetherness, hope, violence, defeat, exasperation and resignation. They had all gathered in living rooms to watch the game, and the game that never was. They were exhausted and yet, here, they were, delighted at the chance to witness the final.

Mauro Franchini and Marpano Pardo had flown in low-budget from Berlin. The two friends had immediately made their way to the Boca Juniors base. They strolled towards the entrance of the hotel, a high-rise of glass and more glass where Diego Maradona had once slept. Rodrigo Emilio, a ginger twenty-something, smiled and busied other Boca fans with incessant banter. A fortnight ago, he moved to Madrid to pursue a masters in architecture. “Boca want to party,” said Emilio. “It is going to be a victory for the ages. It is shameful of the directors that the game is played outside of South America.”

“It is very random,” said Pardo of the decision to play in Madrid. “It’s unfair,” muttered Franchini, more to himself than anyone else. The fans serenaded the players  – ‘Siempre te vamos a recordar en la Boca abandonaste, lo ganaste en Paraguay’ – as they turned towards the glass facade of the hotel and reckoned that their heroes, who had returned from their last practice before the showdown with their arch rivals, were either eating or sleeping.

The ultimate hipster derby
Downtown, River Plate fans assembled at the Puerta del Sol, the city’s zero mark. Here the demography changed: they had come from Buenos Aires and Mendoza. At dusk they lifted their trademark umbrellas above a dancing sea of ‘hinchadas.’ The red and white umbrellas, the soothing colours of the evening sky, the fountain and the giant Christmas tree seemed out of a fairytale. And, yet, among the tourists, locals and nonplussed Atlético Madrid fans, who had enjoyed a 3-0 win against Deportivo Alavés at the Wanda Metropolitano, it felt sterile.

Was it faux fandom in the sight of the ultimate hipster derby played in a corporate environment? The mayhem of Argentina could not be copied. All the stereotypes of European elite football were reinforced: the match organization, the fan zones, the security operation, the influx of football tourists, the sanitised stadium and the antiseptic atmosphere that accompanies major finals.

A fortnight ago, every single hackneyed convention about Argentinian football had also been reaffirmed: the colour, frenzy and passion didn’t weigh up against the disorganisation, the disorder and the general madness that eventually reached a peak and spilled over. The second leg became a stirring fable of Buenos Aires sibling brothers, who despise each other but can only blossom in the context of their mutual contempt.

“The transfer of the final of the Libertadores to Madrid is a delirium,” wrote Diego Latorre, who formed an attacking partnership with Gabriel Batistuta at Boca Juniors from 1987 to 1992, in an op-ed in El País. “The words have run out. We left the state of stupor we had. We live it as a scam. Like something that slowly slipped out of our hands. If one thinks about this present and looks at the future in the short-medium term, the panorama is worrisome. There is no course. We keep kicking the ball forward. We are witnessing the defeat of institutions that did not take action due to lack of courage, because they are tied to a perverse system.”

In essence, he argued that watching football in Argentina was no longer enjoyable. The powers-that-be had a different view, expanding on their future vision for the Copa Libertadores. On the eve of the second leg, Alejandro Dominguez, the president of CONMEBOL and a close ally of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, had suggested this Copa Libertadores final was to be the dawn of a new era for the competition. He admitted that the gap with Europe was huge, if not unbridgeable, but argued that South America had other assets and could become a valuable counterweight.

Indeed, by shifting the final to Madrid, Dominguez had engineered a future in which flagship finals – and perhaps Super Leagues –  will tour the world, opening Pandora’s box. Modern elite clubs have already been uprooted from their immediate environment with mercenaries on the pitch doing the bidding of sheikhs and wealthy businessmen. In the process, fans get more alienated. They are steadily being replaced by a fan-waving brigade, who enjoy the match day experience.

FIFA rules stipulate that all official fixtures of this nature must be staged in the area covered by the ruling governing body: the UEFA Champions League final can’t be played in New York and the Copa Libertadores final can’t be held in Madrid. “Extraordinary circumstances lead to extraordinary  decisions,” declared Infantino and so Madrid was awarded the hosting rights, with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez lurking in the corner. Had CONMEBOL simply auctioned off the game to the highest bidder?

Unmatched passion
A regional alternative was discarded. In 1987, Santiago, which will host next year’s 90-minute final, hosted the Copa Libertadores final on neutral ground when Uruguay’s Peñarol defeated Colombia’s America de Cali 1-0. Doha proved to be politically too sensitive and Miami logistically too difficult, said an official with knowledge of the situation.

The Boca-River derby became a godsend for CONMEBOL. All the chaos, fierceness, rivalry and violence strangely enough affirmed what the world already knew: this game was the ultimate rivalry, its authenticity based on unmatched passion. The poor services at the stadiums, the brutality of the police and the fan violence were all part of an unhinged and unchecked system of passion. Perversely, that ecosystem furthered the global allure and the marketability for executives.

“Europe stole the game,” analysed Argentinian football journalist Martin Mazur. “Boca-River has to power to be sold. Even when they are playing in the national league, it has every time become an event for foreign media. It won the prestige as one of the most explosive and entertaining derbies in the world.”

Ultimately, what did victory over the arch enemy represent in Madrid? Here in the Spanish capital there was no blue-and-yellow tide sweeping through the city, no red-and-white pandemonium. Instead it was a gentle, if heavily secured, exercise in commodification. The 1.5 kilometre stretch between Nuevos Ministerios, a government complex, and Plaza de Cuzco, on the famous Paseo de la Castellana, served as a fan mile with the sets of supporters congregating in designated zones.

In the afternoon sunshine, Juan Pepa from Buenos Aires browsed his cellphone as ‘I gotta feeling’ blasted through the speakers in the background in the fan zone. He spent $1000 on a flight. He argued that it was all CONMEBOL’s fault, a sentiment echoed by his fellow River Plate ‘hincha’ Juan Pietro from Lujan, who had forked out $1600 to fly.

“It hurts a lot to have the game in Madrid,” said Pietro. “CONMEBOL didn’t defend our cup. The Champions League final shouldn’t be played in New York either. We gained our independence from Spain and now it has become the Copa Conquistadores. We have been robbed. This was a political move. President Macri and the Boca Juniors president [Daniel Angelici] have a lot of influence. They didn’t want the second leg to be played in the Monumental stadium.”

Alejandro Hanuel, another River Plate fan, also subscribed to Pietro’s conspiracy theory. “You know, in Argentina there is work and poverty, but above all football,” said Pietro, pointing his fingers skyward. “The problem is the connection between the barras bravas and the club directors. The governor of Buenos Aires [Horacio Rodriguez Larreta] calls them up when there is a protest. It is all political and it will never end.”

Everyone had lost something
The final did end. It had almost never started, but in Madrid Boca Juniors and River Plate stretched time to the limit. It ended the way it had begun, on Remembrance Day, with an asphyxiating fear of losing. Everyone seemed complicit: the clubs, the fans, CONMEBOL, FIFA and the football gods. In the exhaustion, legs tired, nerves frayed and chants died out, but the tension endured. Even after 90 gut-wrenching minutes, there was no winner. The eternal final was to have another excruciating 30 minutes.

Perversely, the extra-time exacerbated calamity and the unrelenting thrill of the beautiful game. Even in tenebrous times of blanket capitalism and nefarious forces, who seek to relegate the game to ‘sportainment,’ football remained charmingly thespian. The game, with its distinct ebb and flow, refused to be scripted. The rousing epic sustained the tension.

The referee sent off Terran Barrios for a wayward tackle; Colombian midfield magician Juan Quintero scored with a fine strike from the edge of the box and as Boca sensed their doom goalkeeper Esteban Andrada, in a bout of insanity, befitting the unhinged last minutes of the final, galloped forward. There were shades of German sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer. Boca had one last flourish –  substitute Leonardo kissed the woodwork with his attempt – before Nicolas Martínez turned executioner, running half the length of the field to score with the last kick off the game.

As the golden ticker tape rained down on River Plate, football’s purity and authenticity had briefly been restored. In an eternal final that may not have deserved a winner everyone had lost something – perhaps their soul or perhaps their love for the game, but, at last, South America had its champion.

 

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