MADRID: Six thousand miles away and 15 days later than planned, the Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate will be concluded.
There have been refusals, complaints and threats to go to court, but the players of Boca and River, Argentina’s two greatest football rivals, landed in Madrid and all indications are the second leg will be played.
Both teams trained on Thursday, Boca at the Spanish national team’s base at Las Rozas and River at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas, with the players appearing in good spirits, laughing and joking, jumping on each other’s backs.
There was even a smattering of fans waiting outside, some holding flags or notebooks open for autographs, even if it was a world away from the rocking Bombonera, packed out for an open training session before the original fixture was due last month.
That game had to be postponed, three times, after River fans injured Boca players during an attack on their team’s bus. It could have been cancelled, or awarded to Boca, but CONMEBOL, the South American football federation, chose to relocate to Spain.
A final at the Santiago Bernabeu should be something to savour, particularly when it is the Copa Libertadores at stake on Sunday, the most prestigious prize in South American club football.
Instead, as players finished training and spoke to journalists, the sense of regret became clear. “It is a weird final,” said Carlos Tevez, once of Manchester United and Manchester City, and now a striker for Boca. “To play a match between Boca and River in Madrid, it’s weird.”
River goalkeeper Franco Armani said: “We would have liked to play the game at home, on our pitch, in front of our fans, who deserve it, but the decision is made. We have to make the best of it.”
CONMEBOL pointed to Madrid as a “neutral” host city, with the largest Argentinian community outside Argentina, and a long and successful tradition of football. It will host the Champions League final in June too.
For many, however, this was the most important match in Argentina’s history and its removal a national embarrassment. After all, the Copa Libertadores was named after those that secured independence from countries like Spain in the early nineteenth century.
“Unfortunately for me, this match has lost importance in my heart,” said Real Madrid’s Argentinian coach Santiago Solari on Wednesday.
Boca and River had initially refused. Boca believe River should have forfeited the trophy and have said they will take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Depending on the result this weekend, they still might.
River, meanwhile, have lost the home advantage enjoyed by Boca in the first leg, which finished 2-2, not to mention economic benefits, despite CONMEBOL pledging to compensate them for any revenue missed.
“It was the security system that failed, absolutely and totally,” River’s club president Rodolfo D’Onofrio told El Pais on Friday. “River are the victims.”
Most deprived, however, are perhaps the thousands of fans let down and then left at home in Argentina. Some have travelled, including Agustin Giacone, one Boca supporter who arrived in Madrid on Wednesday. “It’s going to be a great party,” he said. “Argentinians don’t want to spoil the name of Argentina anymore.”
Boca coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto believes restoration will take longer. “We need time,” he said on Friday. “We need matches of this quality played in Argentina or South America to show that we have matured.”
Tickets still available:
For each club, the 20,000 tickets allocated to fans in Spain and elsewhere sold out within hours but some of the 5,000 for residents in Argentina remain available. The cost, and short notice, is likely to have put them off.
Inside the stadium, a vacant block of seats will act as a buffer between the two sets of supporters. Outside, the Paseo de la Castellana, the road that runs from the city centre to the stadium, will be closed off from 9am local time, as police seek to keep them separate. Around 2,500 police officers are expected to attend.
If the match goes off peacefully, CONMEBOL will claim success, not least as broadcasters all over the world will have shown the fixture they paid for.
For Spain, there would be a boost to their 2030 World Cup bid, at the direct expense of the Uruguay-Argentina-Paraguay ticket, another lead contender. La Liga, intent on staging matches in the United States, will feel its cause has greater precedent.
For River and Boca, the winner will hoist the cup and then join their hosts, Real Madrid, at the World Club Cup in the United Arab Emirates later this month. River would also qualify for next year’s Copa Libertadores.
But any joy will be tinged with regret, for the final that could have been. “Today we should be talking about how River and Boca made Argentina proud,” Schelotto said. “Again, we have lost to violence.”