Boca Juniors vs River Plate: Controversy, Anticipation and a Preview of the Copa Libertadores Finale
Although it feels like a lifetime ago, only a week has passed since Argentine side Boca Juniors poured cold water over Brazilian hopes by beating Palmeiras 4-2 on aggregate en route to their record 11th Copa Libertadores final appearance.
Boca's triumph in the semi-final meant a mouth-watering, all-Albiceleste clash had been set up for the grand finale. A day earlier, River Plate had edged out reigning champions – and another Brazilian club Gremio - on away goals (aggregate 2-2).
We take a look at the run-up to the finale – controversies, rivalry, key players and the clubs' history in the competition (the South American equivalent of the Champions League, for the uninitiated).
COMET-y of errors
Debatable decisions, suspensions and underlying tensions leading up to cynosure clashes are not uncommon in football. However, it is safe to say that the South American football body – CONMEBOL – have outdone their peers in terms of poor execution and courting controversy.
The federation adopted the use of an online platform called COMET – recognized by FIFA since 2003 - in 2014, which could be used to register players and keep track of them as also all organizations and facilities in the continent.
As the go-to administrative platform, Santos referred to COMET ahead of their Libertadores fixture against Independiente and one of their players - Carlos Sanchez – was stated eligible to play. He featured for the Brazilians against the visiting Argentines and the clash ended in a goalless draw.
What followed is absolute chaos.
Independiente appealed within 24 hours to CONMEBOL and were given a 3-0 walkover from the first leg as Sanchez was, on the federation's record, still under suspension. A governing body that does not update its own software - which it supposedly endorses: there is probably no precedent to this.
On the other hand, River fielded an ineligible player in Bruno Zuculini (who played 7 games in the competition by then) until Racing Club raised an objection citing the status of his suspension.
However, River had earlier written to CONMEBOL to check on player eligibility and got the all-clear in writing. As a consequence – in addition to the fact that Racing's appeal did not come within the 24-hour window - River escaped the punishment meted out to Santos despite being guilty of the same offence.
A deflated Santos could not overcome the deficit in their second leg and were thrown out of the competition.
Cruzeiro exit, outrage and pandemonium in Brazil
The quarter- and semi-finals were not without further controversy. Dede, a centre-back who plays for Brazilian club Cruzeiro was sent off in both legs of their quarter-final clash against Boca. While the second red – in Brazil - was justifiable, the first was not so much.
Dede and Boca keeper Esteban Andrada were both contesting for the ball before their heads clashed and the result was a bloody jaw to the latter. Despite the use of VAR, the Brazilian was sent off in what was a harsh call.
Although this red card was rescinded after review by CONMEBOL, the damage had been done; in the minutes following his exit, Boca scored a goal, carrying a crucial lead into the second leg.
River's scalp of Gremio came on away goals – that one away goal was scored by a player with his arm and there was no use of VAR to clarify matters only made things worse. If you thought things could not go down from here, you were wrong.
River's coach Marcelo Gallardo violated a touchline ban and not only entered his team's dressing room during half-time but also maintained radio contact. Even if the dressing room entry was passed off for an impulsive decision, the radio contact could not have been.
Gremio's appeal to CONMEBOL to disqualify River and give the Brazilians a walkover fell on deaf ears.
The cumulative effect - of the COMET fiasco and the controversial ouster of both Cruzeiro and Gremio - has been outrage and anger in Brazil, as they claimed the federation was biased in favour of Argentine clubs.
Rivalry and previous success
Move over El Clasico, the mother of all derbies and clasicos is here. The Superclasico, aptly named, is a clash between the two most successful clubs in Argentina – Club Atletico Boca Juniors and Club Atletico River Plate.
There is no other way to put it, as Buenos Aires gears up to play host to a Copa Libertadores final featuring the city’s largest, bitter and most famous rivals.
As the wise say, if you have to see it to believe it, then I have been lucky.
National and international media have arrived on the scene in a bid to get their slice of history, and begun camping in the lead-up to what is being touted (and exploited) as a one-off, historic occasion. There is no doubting the importance of this, mind, and the excitement in the city is palpable to the extent you could almost reach out and touch it.
Celebrations of the semi-final wins on apartment terraces, crackers being burst at midnight following Boca's qualification to set up the Superclasico grand finale, hospitality tickets selling for thousands of dollars, everyone from cab drivers to cashiers at supermarkets (and even tourists) swearing allegiance to one of the two Argentine behemoths – getting carried away in anticipation of the clash is almost inevitable.
River have won the Libertadores thrice while Boca are the competition’s most successful club with six trophies to their name. However, the most recent winner among the two clubs is River (2015) whereas Boca haven’t won it since 2012.
On the previous occasion when these two sides met in the competition – the infamous second leg of the pre-quarter-finals in May 2015 – the match at La Bombonera had to be called off. The reason? Some River Plate players were attacked with pepper spray in the tunnel.
It resulted in Boca being kicked out of the tournament, fined and sanctioned to play behind closed doors for 4 international games. River were awarded a favourable result and went on to win the title.
Gallardo’s club also have the upper hand when it comes to their prior head-to-head clashes this year, with Boca losing all 3 games including the Supercopa final. However, it would be ridiculous to predict the outcome of this clash based on form or prior results as it is a rivalry and occasion like no other.
Key players and looming suspensions ahead of the second leg
Dario Benedetto has been Guillermo Schelotto’s go-to guy for goals that have turned the table in Boca’s favour. The forward scored a brace at home vs Palmeiras and another one in the away leg to seal his side’s qualification. Cristian Pavon, Sebastian Villa, Nahitan Nandez, Wilmar Barrios and Ramon Abila are other Boca players to watch out for.
Enzo Perez, Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez, Ignacio Scocco (injury doubt), Rafael Borre would prove key to River, besides captain Franco Armani and his ability to stop Boca from scoring.
Boca’s first-choice goalkeeper Esteban Andrada is definitely out of the first leg as he continues to recover from the jaw surgery. Agustín Rossi, his deputy, has done a fairly good job so far and will look to play a key role in keeping out River on Saturday.
Both clubs have a number of crucial players who are just one yellow card away from a second leg suspension. Boca’s Lucas Olaza, Nandez, Pablo Perez and Pavon are on the watchlist while Jonatan Maidana, Javier Pinola, Enzo Perez, Pity Martinez, Lucas Pratto and Borre are the River players whose being cautioned would mean sitting out at El Monumental.
All these players with a sword hanging over their heads have been vital to their respective club’s success in the competition and will do well to stay clear of falling foul of the referee.
When and where
The last edition of a Libertadores two-legged final will kick off with the first leg at La Bombonera on Saturday, 10th November (5 PM Argentina time, 3 PM ET, 9 PM BST, Sunday 1:30 AM IST).
The return leg at El Monumental is scheduled for 24th November, also a Saturday, at the same time.