The Copa Conquistadors: Madrid move an insult to 58 years of Libertadores history

CONMEBOL’s decision to stage the second leg of the final between River Plate and Boca Juniors at the Bernabeu is a shameful money-making exercise

“You will see me fly through the city of fury, where nobody knows of me and I am (part of everyone).

“With the sunlight my wings melt. All I find in the darkness is that which joins me with the city of fury

“You will see me fall, like a wild arrow. You will see me fall among fleeting flight

“Buenos Aires looks so vulnerable. This destiny of fury is what persists in their faces.”

The late, great Gustavo Cerati summed up perhaps better than any other single person the rage and passion of his hometown in Soda Stereo’s seminal rock classic, ‘En la Ciudad de la Furia (In the City of Fury)’.

And while Cerati may have penned that track 30 years ago, the events of the past week surrounding River Plate and Boca Juniors’ farcical Copa Libertadores Superclasico final have proved that the sentiments that so moved the genius musician continue to define Argentina’s chaotic capital.

CONMEBOL, for one, have apparently tired of the ‘City of Fury’. There were two attempts to stage the final’s second leg at River’s Monumental, marred by a despicable act of stone-throwing against the Boca coach that left two players injured. There will apparently not be a third.

South America’s biggest club competition, a tournament with almost 60 years of history – good, bad and ugly – is heading away from its home continent for the first time. Spanish capital Madrid will now host the second leg of the final, meaning the latest edition of a tournament named after the patriots that liberated South America from imperial Spain in the 19th century may go down in history forever dubbed as the ‘Conquistadors’ Copa’.

The story of how it all came to this is long and convoluted. Any easy conclusion is likely to miss the mark. There is nothing inherently “sick” about Argentine society, as observers both inside and outside the country have opined in infinite soul-searching columns over the past week.

The cancer of the barra brava hooligans – violent elements more often than not on the payroll of clubs and even politicians – also looms menacingly in the backdrop of this sad tale, but has only a passing connection to the specific events of November 24 and need not be repeated here.

Football has its troubles in Argentina, as it does in dozens of countries plagued by regular outbreaks of fan violence and over-arching, visceral hatred between supporter groups. What made the Monumental different, however, was an act of aptly monumental incompetence by those entrusted with Boca’s safety.

No less than two security forces – the Buenos Aires city police force and Prefectura (Coast Guard) – ran a mammoth operation involving more than 2,000 armed officers to keep the peace. Why, then, was Boca’s coach led straight down a tight one-way street to be greeted by a horde of impassioned enemy supporters?

Why were the protective screens and fences usually set up to protect the away vehicle conspicuously absent when the stones and beer bottles started flying?

Perhaps most tellingly, the only person arrested and charged in connection with that failed final was a woman filmed strapping flares around a young child’s chest.

The Buenos Aires government boasted beforehand of facial detection cameras that would pick up any troublemakers: how, then, has not one of the crowd responsible for ruining the big event been found over a week since the game was called off?

The resignation of local security minister Martin Ocampo the following Monday suggested responsibility largely lay with the catastrophic police operation. However, by that point CONMEBOL, FIFA and others at the top of the football pyramid had already glimpsed the chance to turn crisis into opportunity.

Out of the ashes of Libertadores shame arose a multi-million dollar auction for South America’s most coveted, internationally famous football fixture. Miami and Doha were both in the running, as were South American sites such as Paraguay, before Madrid’s Bernabeu behemoth was chosen.

Just 5,000 fans from each club in Argentina will have the privilege of attending – if, that is, they can afford air fare, accommodation and tickets that combined could cost the equivalent of two or three months’ average salary in the Rioplatense nation – while Real club members will be afforded special priority to gawp at their counterparts from across the Atlantic.

“We have to make this a festival of South American football,” FIFA chief Gianni Infantino said from the G20 in Buenos Aires – an event, it bears mentioning, that passed off without violent incidents, unlike the previous edition in the supposedly ‘civilised’ climes of Hamburg, Germany.

“It will be played in Madrid, which is a little South American.”

One can understand the temptation to make this most local and visceral of rivalries a global showcase. A River-Boca match has an undeniable mystique and frequently pops up on click-baiting sporting bucket lists as a must see. What could be better, then, than watching such a game far from the wilds of Buenos Aires, allowing punters to experience all the passion without any of the danger?

This is footballing safari tourism, a chance to peer through the reinforced windows of one’s Jeep and watch the lion go for the wildebeest’s throat, safe in the knowledge that the occupants of the vehicle are unlikely to be the big cat’s next meal.

Football, however, does not work that way. Club football is not like its international equivalent, which can pack up every four years and head to the World Cup accompanied by thousands of fans cheering for a single cause.

Club football is tribal, parochial, mean-spirited, all-encompassing. It is the battle between neighbourhoods, cities, even colours. And while that spirit has been all but extinguished in Europe amid the tide of corporate, globalised sterility that has covered the game in a sheet of grey commercialised tedium, it is still cherished in South America and among millions of River and Boca fans.

Take the Buenos Aires pair out of their home and they become just two more teams playing rather mediocre football perhaps punctuated by the odd on-pitch scuffle and red card.

Players come and players go in Argentina, usually the latter due to the economic supremacy of the biggest clubs on the other side of the Atlantic, but the clubs and fans keep fighting and supporting each other, generation after generation.

River and Boca both understand that, which is why one of the few areas of agreement these adversaries can find is their total rejection of a final in a foreign land.

Between them, the two clubs have hosted and organised more than 200 official derbies; some with both sets of fans present, others with only home support allowed, and a minority with the doors closed to all.

Overall, though, thousands of clasicos have taken place in Argentina, some even more hostile and chaotic than River and Boca, without the need to relocate to a neutral nation.

While the events of November 24 were disgraceful, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there are more than a few people who are not upset to see this game leave its rightful home.

Sunday’s final, if it does in fact go ahead – it is never wise to plan too far ahead in these cases, especially when each side has filed its own appeal against relocation – will leave a healthy deposit in the bank accounts of CONMEBOL, sponsor Santander and a plethora of other commercial interests. It may even open the ‘Copa Conquistadors’ up to a new audience, reassured by the familiar surroundings of the Bernabeu.

But it is not South America, it is not truly River-Boca and it is an insult to 58 years of Libertadores history.

If necessary, play this game behind closed doors at the Monumental, at the ends of the earth down in Tierra del Fuego, or in third-tier Atlanta’s three-sided Villa Crespo home ground with the entire Argentine military waiting outside on the neighbouring train tracks to ward off trouble – but do not take it out of Argentina.

We have become accustomed to football authorities sacrificing everything they can to the gods of marketability over the years but who would have thought that in one fell swoop – and aided by those responsible for that botched second leg – they are taking the Super out of the Superclasico, leaving Buenos Aires with nothing but an even greater feeling of fury than usual.

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