We Just Wanted to Write About Football

The two biggest soccer teams in Argentina, Boca Juniors and River Plate, had made the final of the Copa Libertadores, the club championship for all of South America. Boca and River are bitter rivals, and both are based in Buenos Aires; tensions had shrilled up into the stratosphere and stayed there.

The second leg of the Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate will be played outside of Argentina on 8 or 9 December at a venue yet to be confirmed.

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now….it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without a glint of light, only great invisible crashing.” 

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

IT WILL BE LEGENDARY.

Buenos Aires trembles. More than ever, since the first leg on 11/11 the city has been plentifully bestrewn with shirts, flags, scarfs, and additional paraphernalia, all red-and-white or navy-and-yellow, or otherwise nonexistent. We can feel it in the ambience. Contrary to the torrential rain that forced the twenty-four hour deferment of the La Bombonera face-off (2-2), pleasant atmospheric conditions prevail in the Argentinian capital, an ideal environment to leisurely stroll around Puerto Madero, Palermo or Recoleta on an ordinary Saturday afternoon.

Except this is not an ordinary Saturday afternoon. It is the day where noise pollution meters reached a record level of decibels. The day that has converted every tramway, bus, and traffic light pole into an extension of either Boca Juniors or River Plate quartiers. The day that if you walk into any tavern from, say, Tigre to Berazategui, you could be greeted with extreme candor, total indifference, heartfelt tears, or brutal anger, depending on the result displayed in the numerous LED-screens that absorb the attention of each and every patron.

Gibraltar, El Gol de San Telmo, El Banderín. At this point, every bar in the capital, already revered spaces on its own right, have been turned into sanctuaries, their outdoor publicity will flaunt the only statement that all Bonaerenses, without exception, will agree with today: Superclásico – The Greatest Derby on the Planet.

IF WE CONSIDER THE GREATER METROPOLITAN AREA, Buenos Aires is home to twelve football clubs that compete in the Argentinian soccer top tier: River Plate, Boca Juniors, Tigre, Vélez Sarsfield, San Lorenzo de Almagro, Racing Club, Lanús, Banfield, Defensa y Justicia, Independiente, Huracán, and Argentinos Juniors. This high concentration of teams and stadiums has bred fierce and intense rivalries, which cluster mainly around regionality, a noteworthy one being the Clásico de Avellaneda, that confronts two of the most successful teams in the country’s history: Racing Club and Independiente.

Yet, there is no room for regionalities today. Approximately eight miles separate Boca Juniors’ and River Plate’s home turfs, its neighbourhoods of origin being as antagonistic as the teams that represent them: the upward social mobility portrayed by modern Nuñez to the blue-collar docks of La Boca (1). Since their initial clash in 1913, more than a century ago, Boca and River have played 247 times, with 88 wins for Boca Juniors, 81 for River Plate, and 78 draws. The popularity of the Superclásico is such that it is claimed that combined, the Boca-River fan base comprises more than seventy percent of the followers of Argentine football. Today, for Buenos Aires citizens, apathy is not an option.

But there is nothing apathetic these days about Buenos Aires. October watched the urb host the Youth Olympic Games, allowing Argentinians to get a glimpse of the future members of the sports elite. And while now it is getting prepared to welcome the world’s political leaders in the impending G-20, for now all eyes remain fixated on the pitch. Just a day before, a record attendance of fifty thousand people showed up at La Bombonera to see the Xeneizes (2) last practice, forcing the club management to turn away fans to prevent overcrowding problems.

That is the impact of the Superclásico. Football can equally create the illusion of togetherness and the us vs them fallacy, and doesn’t hesitate to augment these concepts exponentially in Argentina. The two aficionados locked in an embrace celebrating an Albiceleste triumph could beat each other up if their teams are squaring off. Even one of the favourite pubs of Buenos Aires soccer fans says it in its name: Locos X El Futbol.

There will be no us vs them in the stands today. A law enacted in 2013 prohibits away fans from attending soccer games in Argentina, following the assassination of a Lanús supporter in a match in the municipality of La Plata.

There will be no us vs them in the stands today. A law enacted in 2013 prohibits away fans from attending soccer games in Argentina, following the assassination of a Lanús supporter in a match in the municipality of La Plata. The ban was partially lifted earlier on 2018, but the big five – Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, San Lorenzo, and Racing – opted to keep honouring it. The risk of attending a match – and primarily a classic – as a visitor team supporter in Argentina is such that CNN Travel listed it as the most extreme experience involving the beautiful game. Even if the country’s President Mauricio Macri, also a former President of Boca Juniors, aimed to condone the measure for the final, the club directors ultimately refused. The stakes were at its peak.

A MILLION PIECES OF PAPER FALL FROM THE STANDS. More than 65,000 fans, all from River Plate, chant in unison what has turned into a squad anthem: River, Mi buen amigo, Esta campaña volveremo’ a estar contigo. Te alentaremos de corazón, Esta es tu hinchada que te quiere ver campeón. For the kids that will walk onto the field, it is the dream of a lifetime, as it is for Renzo, a six-year-old whose videos, where he was shown selling his toys in order to raise funds to be able to attend the game, went viral and prompted River Plate Málaga to grant him two free tickets, transportation from his hometown of Paraná (500 kilometers from Buenos Aires), and an official jersey signed by one of River’s legends, Enzo Francescoli.

Francescoli is one of those players that have marked an era, an indelible collection of moments in the 58-year history of Copa Libertadores. His stewardship of the 1996 River Plate team concluded with the champions trophy for a squad that counted on its members players that would become part of the legacy of modern Argentinian football: Ariel Ortega, Hernán Crespo, and Matías Almeyda. Among them was the current River head coach Marcelo Gallardo.

Pedigree is not exclusive for the Millonarios (3). Similarly, the Boca Juniors crew not only features well-seasoned idols such as Carlos Tevez and Fernando Gago, but it is managed by one of the stars of the team’s Golden Generation: Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Led by Carlos Bianchi, that Golden Generation went on to win the Copa Libertadores in 2000, 2001, and 2003, commanded by the likes of Guillermo’s twin brother: Gustavo Barros Schelotto, Juan Roman Riquelme, Martín Palermo, Hugo Ibarra, Nicolás Burdisso, and Sebastián Battaglia.

It is hard to find a moment that surpasses the expectation that is being generated now, which makes this pinnacle of thrill and excitement impossible to compare.

This rich and colourful history from both sides is partly why this match is so important. The pages of the Copa Libertadores book have been scripted, largely, by Boca Juniors and River Plate, in a way that their chapters are inexorably embedded in the midst of everything else – dramas, controversies, upsets, surprises, miracles: the 1960 crowning of Peñarol in the inaugural edition, the 1964 four-hour match between Peñarol and Pelé’s and Coutinho’s Santos, the against-all-odds feats of Once Caldas and Liga Universitaria de Quito that made us all weep, the infamous brawl between América and Sao Caetano, Walter Samuel’s last-minute goal at Estadio Azteca, Pablo Escobar’s shadow surrounding the Atanasio Girardot Stadium in support of Atlético Nacional, Corinthians’ 2012 prowess. Since 1960 the tournament has seen magic and frustration, goals, saves, elegant lobs, wizard-like dribbles, and agonizing penalty misses from names such as Mastrangelo, Zico, Kempes, Higuita, Cafú, Ronaldinho, and Neymar, it has been Latin America’s springboard to global football prominence. And yet, it is hard to find a moment that surpasses the expectation that is being generated now, which makes this pinnacle of thrill and excitement impossible to compare.

SOME SAY THE MATCH WON’T TAKE PLACE, OTHERS SAY ANY MINUTE NOW. The official announcement states it has been postponed to 19:15. But the players have not stepped onto the ground, and there is no sign that they will anytime soon. By now, not even the starting lineups are known.

It all began like this: as the Boca Juniors bus was arriving to Estadio Monumental, a group of River Plate hooligans standing in the outside curb attacked it with stones and wood sticks, shattering the windows and inflicting damage on the players, both from glass cuts and from the effect of the tear gas used by the police in the immediations of the area in order to suppress the chaos. Boca captain Pablo Pérez and young promise Gonzalo Lamardo had to be transported to the nearly-located Sanatorio Otamendi to be examined from the injuries they suffered. The pain and distress in the Xeneizes dressing room was not only physical, but also psychological.

When Carlos Tevez and Fernando Gago came out to speak to the media in the middle of looming uncertainty, Tevez’s comments intensified the outrage that had been building up in players and spectators alike. “We are being forced to play, in this conditions, where we have three teammates that are physically unwell,” declared the striker, who went on to pronounce what were, in the opinion of many, that afternoon’s wisest words: “This is a problem that reflects the society that we live in. We have to assume the responsibility that comes with making a mistake. We have exposed ourselves to the world and now want to hide it. We are being told to play a match where the conditions to play are not met.”

Among those who were pushing for the match to take place were FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino and CONMEBOL’s leader Alejandro Domínguez. In an unfathomable press release, the CONMEBOL doctors asserted: “from a medical point point of view, there does not exist a cause for the suspension of the match.”

Both Boca Juniors and River Plate responded unequivocally. Daniel Angelici, Boca’s current president, lobbied for the match to be suspended. It is hard to imagine if his motion would have proceeded had he not counted with the solidarity from River Plate manager Marcelo Gallardo, who stated categorically: “I will only accept to play against Boca in conditions of equality.” In an evening of combat and strife, Gallardo’s solidarity stood as a much-needed beacon of integrity and sportsmanship.

The reactions from the football world were decisive. The Paraguayan José Luis Chilavert, emblematic goalkeeper and a Copa Libertadores champion with Vélez Sarsfield, went straight to the jugular. “Worldly shame at CONMEBOL. Infantino and Domínguez prioritise money over Boca’s players health. That’s how football gets killed.” One of Argentina’s best strikers of all time, Gabriel Batistuta, was more measured, declaring “Another lost opportunity to the world that is watching us. Shameful. Regrettable.”

CONMEBOL and FIFA’s poor management of the situation left them exposed, rendered as mercenaries whose interests were on the opposite side of the players’ spectrum. The wound would only deepen when, after much expectation, Alejandro Domínguez announced the inevitable: The final will not be played tonight.

REVENGE IS IN THE THOUGHTS OF MANY. Backtrack to May 14th, 2015, River Plate visiting La Bombonera for the return leg of the Round of 16. The images of Boca fans deploying pepper spray on the court, and of attacked players Leonardo Ponzio, Leonel Vangioni, Ramiro Funes Mori and Matías Kranevitter desperately pouring water over their eyes to wash away the substance and posteriorly being rushed to the hospital are too disturbing to remember, too powerful to forget. That night, the remaining River players were escorted by riot police officers and protected by their shields to be able to exit the court. The evacuation lasted until well past midnight.

It is no surprise, then, that all the incidents seem like a flashback. Additional footage showed River Plate barras bravas attempting to storm into the players’ dressing rooms, just as their counterparty had ventured to and failed three-and-a-half years ago.

Following the cancellation, speculators rumour that the final will be disputed in Abu Dhabi, until this Thursday it was announced that the game will be probably played in the iconic Real Madrid stadium, Santiago Bernabeu. Other bidders for the Superclásico include Miami, Paraguay, Italy, and Qatar. A lucrative deal opportunity for FIFA and CONMEBOL, a safe haven for the players, who have refused to return to the Monumental. “I won’t play where I can die,” asserted Boca Juniors captain Pablo Pérez, whose eye suffered a severe injury and lamented that the attack persisted even as they were boarding the ambulance. Destiny might be so ironic that only through a tragedy of this magnitude the interests of players and administrators could be aligned.

It is no surprise, then, that all the incidents seem like a flashback. Additional footage showed River Plate barras bravas attempting to storm into the players’ dressing rooms, just as their counterparty had ventured to and failed three-and-a-half years ago.

But Daniel Angelici wants justice. Following the incidents of 2015, the match was declared suspended, and Boca Juniors was disqualified from the tournament. River Plate was given a 3-0 winning score. He has taken the case to court, and aims to secure the same result for his team. “We are basing our case on the jurisprudence of the 2015 decision. If the court rules against us, we will appeal. If we need to scale the case to the TAS (Tribunal Arbitral du Sport) in Lausanne, we will. Boca Juniors will not agree to play any match until every instance has been exhausted.”

PRESIDENT MAURICIO MACRI wants to keep the final in Argentina. A cancellation would not look well on his public image. His approval ratings are in its lowest point ever, and this scandal might prove too strong a storm to weather as he intents to portray a positive image of the country in the wake of the G-20. The animosity against the visit of widely-repudiated characters as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, combined with the menace of protests and riots has compelled the government to declare Friday a public holiday, divert flights, and urge the residents of the Argentinian capital to leave the city for the days that the summit takes place. At least the flight diversion initiative received some help. One day after the suspension of the Copa Libertadores final, Aerolíneas Argentinas declared a strike, halting 371 flights and leaving 40,000 travellers stranded.

In the aftermath of the Monumental catastrophe (pun intended), Macri and Security Minister Patricia Bullrich called for Congress to have a special session with the purpose of passing a bill that would toughen the penalties on soccer hooliganism. They seemed visibly upset that the twenty-three people arrested as a result of the melee had already been released.

Perhaps Macri and Bullrich could start by investigating how Héctor Godoy, a chief among River Plate’s barrabravas, came to have in his possession 300 tickets for the final and 150,000 dollars worth of resale tickets when he was supposedly banned from attending stadiums. And in a deeper introspection, they could also reflect on why Argentinian citizens are turning to football as an outlet for their rage. The country is in the midst of an economic recession, as the International Monetary Fund just announced a bailout package worth $57 billion dollars, the local currency has plummeted by more than 50 percent and inflation rates have reached record numbers of 45 percent. In a society where basic pillars seem to be broken, football will always be what Saturday came to project: more than it seems.

IT WILL BE UNFORGETTABLE.

Although not for the reasons we had hoped.

We thought we would witness history. We would have liked our words to resemble 11/11, to depict Wanchope Abila’s powerful shot past Armani, admire Pratto’s superb definition or Benedetto’s precise header, jump with Rossi’s miraculous stretches, or to regret Izquierdoz’s unfortunate own goal. But not today. Today there will not be any heroes on the field. No last-minute gasps, tears, or relief sighs when the ball stops rolling. The Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti begins to empty, and our thoughts will reminiscence football man of letters Eduardo Galeano, who in his epic Soccer in Sun and Shadow once wrote: “Whether a shared celebration or shipwreck that takes us all down, soccer counts in Latin America, sometimes more than anything else, even if the ideologues who love humanity but can’t stand people don’t realise it.” Today will pass into the annals of history as the day we just wanted to write about football, and ended up commenting on the game of the century that never happened.


*Editor’s Note: During the day on November 29th, it was announced that the match would take place at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu on December 9th. This information was yet unknown at the time of publication.

[1] Originally both clubs were founded in the area of La Boca, River Plate in 1901 and Boca Juniors in 1905, giving birth to this intense rivalry.

[2] Boca Juniors’ nickname “Xeneize” is derived from “Genoese”, alluding to the Italian immigrant community that comprised a large portion of Boca Juniors’ fan base at the time of its founding.

[3] River Plate’s nickname of Los Millonarios has its origin in its migration from blue-collar La Boca to the middle-upper affluence area of Núñez in 1925.

Born in Mexico, re-born in Canada, and a global citizen and part-time digital nomad, Javier Ortega-Araiza is a serial entrepreneur who has founded companies in the tourism, education, and financial technology space, always with the intent of building bridges and increasing the social impact engagement of the business community. He is also an engaged community leader serving on the Board of Directors of several not-for-profits in the GTA and abroad and a Visiting Professor in Social Entrepreneurship in Universities in Canada, the United States and Colombia. Javier Ortega-Araiza is a lifelong traveler, writer and documentarist who contributes on business & innovation, politics, travel, sports, and stories of people being people.