After the ugly, global incidents of 2018, why was River Plate-Boca Juniors so tame this year?

Manager Marcelo Gallardo (right) and River Plate beat Boca Juniors in a relatively tame Copa Libertadores encounter compared to last year's ugliness. (Reuters)
Manager Marcelo Gallardo (right) and River Plate beat Boca Juniors in a relatively tame Copa Libertadores encounter compared to last year's ugliness. (Reuters)

This time around, the main incident involved not broken glass or pepper spray but paper.

There were no riots; no vandalism; no team bus pelted by opposing fans; no team bus with sickened players, just hours before kickoff. No game delayed again and then again and again and finally postponed. Just paper.

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In the second leg of the Copa Libertadores semifinal between River Plate and Boca Juniors on Tuesday, the Argentinean clubs locked into the world’s bloodthirstiest rivalry resumed their enmity almost a year after their showdown in the final had descended in chaos. When pepper spray wafted through the broken windows of the Boca bus, which had come under assault from River fans outside the stadium, sending several players to the hospital. Inquests followed and recriminations were made and Buenos Aires and Argentina and even South America as a whole felt embarrassed that a simple game of soccer couldn’t be safeguarded.

But this time, the second leg of the game didn’t need to be delayed by more than two weeks as a suitable venue was found. (Last year’s final wound up being in Madrid, where a tame game crowned River as the South American champions.) In fact, the only thing slowing down Tuesday’s game was the enormous amount of paper throw onto the field at Boca’s Bombonera – by the home fans, absent any away contingent – forcing a few poor souls with leaf-blowers to scurry around cleaning it all up and delaying River’s aggregate victory by 10 minutes or so.

River had come into the game with a 2-0 lead from the first leg at its Monumental, the scene of last year’s incidents, and had been largely superior then. The two teams posed behind a big sign – Football is a game; no to violence – waited around during a few rounds of yardwork, and finally got on with it. In an open affair, Boca had by far the better chances – namely when Eduardo Salvio’s goal was disallowed for a handball by a teammate earlier on in the sequence – but didn’t go ahead until the 80th minute, when Jan Carlos Hurtado bundled the ball over the goal line. But the home side’s late push for an equalizer fell short, sending River through to the final with a 2-1 aggregate victory.

If River beats Flamengo or Gremio in the final in Santiago, Chile on Nov. 23 – in the first one-game final held in a neutral stadium – it will make for a deserving champion of the continent. And 43-year-old manager Marcelo Gallardo will have claimed his third such trophy with the club. That puts him in rarified atmosphere in that competition and could further solidify the former DC United player as a rising star in the managerial ranks.

But it’s something that Gallardo said that really drew a sharp contrast with last year’s final. “The match of my life already happened last December in Madrid,” he’d said in his pregame press conference. “That’s the match of my life, my sports life, right? This is a very important match, a new challenge. But, that’s it.”

Scattered showers of paper were the only notable incident apart from Tuesday's Copa Libertadores game between River Plate and Boca Juniors. (Getty)
Scattered showers of paper were the only notable incident apart from Tuesday's Copa Libertadores game between River Plate and Boca Juniors. (Getty)

Last year’s matchup was billed the Final del mundo – the final of the world. Naturally, the two juggernauts of South American soccer constantly ran into each other during the biggest tournament of their continent, but they had never met in the final. Anticipation was expertly stoked to a fever pitch, not just in Argentina but throughout the larger soccer world. Argentina’s president – who was previously Boca’s president – unhelpfully announced that it would take the loser 20 years to get over it. The two games had gotten so big, the mood between arch-rivals – one of whom, Boca, is considered the working-class team while the other, River, is the middle-class club, even though the teams and their fans are largely indistinguishable these days – so combustible that a meltdown felt sort of inevitable, in retrospect. And so it transpired.

They were games that mattered almost too much.

And this time around? Meh. Nobody outside of Argentina seemed bothered any more so than in a regular game between these teams, who meet in the Argentine league twice a season.

So what, exactly, accounted for the glaring difference?

Certainly, in 2018 this whole thing concerned a final. There was a major trophy on the line. Yet considering that this was still a semifinal, hardly a regular meeting, and that it was a rematch of the instantly infamous Final de todo finales – Final of all finals – it’s strange that the difference in attention was an order of magnitudes. This is still Boca-River, or River-Boca if you will, playing for a place in the final.

It’s just that last year the world tuned in and get swept up in the obsession and this year it didn’t. These are the vagaries of the hype machine. And it feels sort of instructive for a sport with a short attention span and an addiction to conflict. The chances of more damage and violence and drama this time around were sort of slim, because there seemed to be a universal recognition among the parties involved that last year’s events had been bad for everybody. Because in the end, their great final was stripped away and played on the other side of the Atlantic, losing much of its punch and poison.

But for some paper, this iteration of River-Boca came off without incident. Perhaps the hype will return for some future grudge match. Because there’s always another one anyway.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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