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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Copa Libertadores final: Boca Juniors v River Plate 'Hiperclásico' has Buenos Aires on edge

The city's two biggest teams will contest the South American championship for the first time with a trip to the UAE and the Fifa Club World Cup also on offer. But this derby has a habit of turning toxic

Boca Juniors' fans will be at the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final, against city rivals River Plate, at Boca's La Bombonera Stadium in Buenos Aires. EPA
Boca Juniors' fans will be at the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final, against city rivals River Plate, at Boca's La Bombonera Stadium in Buenos Aires. EPA

In Buenos Aires, it is now labelled the "Hiperclásico", a fixture suddenly in need of a new superlative, but no additional hype. The two most storied clubs of a city with a unique sense of its football birthright will on Saturday contest the greatest prize available to them, hoping to take a decisive step towards next month’s Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

There has never before been a Boca Juniors-River Plate final in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League, and there are certainly uniformed law-and-order officials who would prefer that last month's semi-finals, both pairing a Brazilian club with an Argentine giant, had produced something less suffocating.

Both semis had suspense and drama, Boca through thanks to the two goals they scored in the last seven minutes of their home leg of a 4-2 aggregate win against Palmeiras, River joining them via away goals, and a 94th minute penalty, for a 2-2 aggregate at Gremio.

The cloud of controversy over that semi is still clearing. River Plate’s manager, Marcelo Gallardo, has been suspended by Conmebol, the governing body of South American football, from even attending Saturday’s first leg of the final at Boca’s Bombonera stadium because he infringed the terms of a touchline and dressing-room ban at Gremio.

Gallardo will not be the only River loyalist kept at arm’s length. Away supporters have been barred from both legs, an initiative of the clubs themselves.

That indicates how toxic this derby can turn. Three years ago, when River met Boca in the last-16, the second leg was abandoned shortly after half time, River’s players having been sprayed with pepper-gas as they came through the tunnel under the grandstand of the Bombonera. Boca, whose fans were found to have planned the attack, were thrown out of a tournament River went on to win.

The saga of their 110-year rivalry has other, sadder chapters. A crush killed 71 spectators in a derby at River’s El Monumental in 1968. There are ancient episodes that still provoke rancour: Boca won the 1976 domestic championship thanks to a goal against River scored from a direct free kick while the River goalkeeper was still organising his defensive wall.

There are the enduring myths around how each club defines itself against the other: River, the so-called "Millonarios", flashier; Boca supposedly earthier, grittier by DNA.

Boca have won the Libertadores six times; River are seeking their fourth triumph. Their last one, in 2015, completed a vibrant comeback, from a mortifying relegation to the second tier of Argentine football just seven years ago, the club burdened by crippling debts. They clambered back to win a 36th league title in 2014, though Boca are catching up on that count: Last season’s successful defence of the championship took the blue-and-yellows to a 33rd Argentina crown.

Boca, the club where Diego Maradona launched his superstardom in the early 1980s, will have one of the greats with them on Saturday, although the likelihood is that Carlos Tevez, formerly of Manchester City, United and Juventus, will be named only among the substitutes.

Tevez, 34, returned for his third spell at the Boca he grew up at in January, and has found his bond with fans is a little weakened for his decision to chase the riches of football in China, where he spent an unhappy but lucrative year.

Boca Juniors' fans cheer on their team during the Copa Libertadores semi-final against Brazil's Palmeiras, at La Bombonera Stadium, in Buenos Aires. EPA
Boca Juniors' fans cheer on their team during the Copa Libertadores semi-final against Brazil's Palmeiras, at La Bombonera Stadium, in Buenos Aires. EPA

The form of Dario Benedetto, hero of the semi-final against Palmeiras, and fellow striker Ramon Abila, puts them well ahead of the veteran Tevez in the plans of manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

Schelotto, 45, played for Boca over a period when they stocked their trophy cabinet with four Libertadores titles, between 2000 and 2007 and he recognises the global impact this final will carry.

"Boca and River, have brought Argentinian football, which has taken a lot of punishment recently, on to a stage it hasn’t had before,” Scheletto said. “The world will be watching, and talking about this final. That’s important.”

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Read more:

Copa Libertadores: Five of the greatest Boca Juniors and River Plate players

Boca Juniors and River Plate to contest Copa Libertadores final with winner UAE-bound for Fifa Club World Cup

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