River Plate beats Boca Juniors to win controversial Copa Libertadores, but plenty of questions still need to be asked

Yahoo Sports

At long last, the game that seemed like it might never happen has happened. South America crowned a club champion. In Madrid, Spain. Fully 14 days after the last time the game was attempted, and 15 days after it was first called off. Very nearly a month went by between the first leg and the second between Argentine juggernauts River Plate and Boca Juniors – or Boca and River, if you prefer.

But a 3-1 River victory in extra-time, following a 2-2 tie in the first leg, made the white-and-reds from Buenos Aires the Copa Libertadores champions.

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As a game, it was a disappointment. From the first whistle until the last, more than 120 minutes later, the two sides played a sloppy game and concerned themselves deeply with kicking their opponents.

They scattered a few chances across both halves. The deadlock was finally broken by Boca’s Dario Benedetto just before half-time. He raced through River’s half on the break on the splendid through-ball from Nahitan Nandez, darting through defenders before sticking his finish past Franco Armani.

Benedetto then mean-mugged Gonzalo Montiel after bumping into him as he ran off to celebrate.

In the 69th minute, Nacho Fernandez teed up Lucas Pratto, capping a lovely team move to equalize it for River.

In extra time, Boca’s Wilmar Barrios was sent off with a second yellow. And in the 107th minute, another nice River attack culminated in Juan Quintero’s rocket off the underside of the bar from outside the box, ending one of the most eventful months in the history of Argentine soccer.

In injury time of extra time, Gonzalo Martinez added insult to injury by racing off and rolling the ball into the empty net as Boca pressed desperately for an equalizer for River’s third.

They already called this the Superclasico before Boca and River played head-to-head for the South American championship. Between them, the two teams had been to 15 Copa Libertadores finals, but they had never met in the title game. The hype for the meeting between two biggest clubs in South America, antagonists in a bloody rivalry that runs marrow-deep, quickly hit a rolling boil, ready to explode. It was labeled the final del mundo – the final of the world – and the final del todo finales – the final of all finals. Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, who also served as Boca’s chairman for a dozen years, declared that the loser would take two decades to get over it. This was to be the biggest game in South America’s history.

Violence is, unfortunately, quotidian in Argentine soccer. It’s why Boca and River fans aren’t allowed to attend the other’s home games. Yet local authorities and the CONMEBOL governing body for South America saw an opportunity to buff up the game’s reputation there. With the world tuned in, for once, to the big final with the mouth-watering matchup, progress could be demonstrated.

The first leg came off without incident at Boca’s Bonbonera. But on the way to River’s Monumental stadium, Boca’s team bus took a turn through a street heaving with River fans. Some kind of communication breakdown meant that the road wasn’t cleared or secured. Boca’s bus was pelted with objects, shattering windows. Shards got into the eyes of two players, including Boca captain Pablo Perez. Tear gas probably set off by the police wafted into the bus, sickening more players like star striker Carlos Tevez.

The game was called off eventually, after Boca resisted pressure to play from CONMEBOL, and even FIFA president Gianni Infantino who had flown in for the game. And it was canceled the next day, when it was clear safety could not be assured in Argentina – doing incalculable damage to the nation’s chances of ever hosting another major international tournament, after rumors surfaced it planned to bid for the 2030 World Cup. Some minister or other resigned.

Then, the modern game did what it does and auctioned one of the world’s most historic matches off to the highest bidder.

Medellin in Colombia and Belo Horizonte in Brazil were eager but ignored by CONMEBOL, per a report from the New York Times.

There was talk of Miami, where a once-unimaginable FC Barcelona-Real Madrid exhibition game was recently held in a naked money grab. Qatar, of course, made a run at the game, in another attempt to exert soft power through soccer – as it’s so successfully done already, leading up to the 2022 World Cup there.

This was, after all, CONMEBOL. The organization that has managed to put two extra Copa Americas on the schedule in 2016 and 2019, placing the former in the United States where it would garner maximum return. And the organization that probably came out of the various FBI and DOJ investigations and indictments into soccer looking the worst, closely followed by North- and Central America’s CONCACAF.

River Plate’s Juan Quintero, center, celebrates his team’s second goal in overtime against Boca Juniors during the Copa Libertadores final at the Santiago Bernabeu Madrid, Spain on Sunday. (Associated Press)
River Plate’s Juan Quintero, center, celebrates his team’s second goal in overtime against Boca Juniors during the Copa Libertadores final at the Santiago Bernabeu Madrid, Spain on Sunday. (Associated Press)

In the end, the game was awarded to Madrid, which, with its large Argentine population and regular flights to Buenos Aires, could create a windfall for the organizers. But it was ironic, as the Associated Press’s Rob Harris pointed out, that a tournament named for South America’s liberators from Spanish rule ultimately had to resort to playing in … Spain.

But then this entire thing had turned cynical a long time ago. River’s Bruno Zuculini played in the quarterfinal of this tournament in spite of a suspension. The club’s manager Marcelo Gallardo showed up in locker room of the semifinal with Gremio even though he had a touchline ban preventing contact with his team during the game. Even after the bus incident, River wasn’t punished for the behavior of its fans – as Boca was, in the same matchup at an earlier stage in the tournament a few years ago, when it was expelled.

River should have been kicked out of this tournament on three occasions. By precedent. And by any organization that wanted to do right by this game, this rivalry, this tournament.

But this final was too much to resist.

So, in the end, the weighty trophy was flown halfway across the world.

A prominent member of Boca’s barra brava hardcore supporter groups – often responsible for the violence – was deported as soon as he touched down in Spain. No risks would be taken of further embarrassment.

Tickets didn’t seem to sell quite as well as expected, although the Bernabeu looked and sounded full and loud.

Sundry soccer stars showed to watch, like FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba, and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin and Antoine Griezmann, men who never played for either club. It was an event now. The arch-rivals embraced warmly before the game. There were even a few pecks on cheeks, as is customary in Argentina. And then they set about taking each other apart.

Because this movable feast was, in the end, still more than a soccer game.

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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