The Copa Libertadores finale won’t just be fought over football, the River v Boca clash could determine the political and social future of Argentina

If football mirrors society, Argentina is a divided country with an unsurmountable ‘crevice’ as it’s locally known – opposing postures between Peronists and Non-Peronists sustained throughout history, which have become irreconcilable in recent times. 

Legend has it that Perón himself was a Boca fan, but for the past 20 years or so, Boca has become the club most closely associated with the right. Not least because the president of the country, Mauricio Macri, took his first political steps campaigning, and then presiding over, Boca Juniors. The club is currently headed by Daniel Angelici, a close ally, and influential lawyer in the justice system at large.

Meanwhile, River Plate was, in the same period, governed by a businessman who proposed a new managerial style and left amid corruption scandals (Aguilar), followed by ex-‘Kaiser’ and World Cup-winning legend Daniel Passarella, who publicly attempted to make a stand against the all powerful AFA leadership of the day. This resulted in relegation, before current president Rodolfo Donofrio (a man of social convictions and a Peronist to boot) took over with an agenda of social equality and sport as a tool for education.

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Amid the multi-faceted scandals and tribulations suffered by Argentinian football in recent years, it is the loggerhead attitude of these two men – Angelici and Donofrio – that underpins much of the tension and conflict in the local game: moves such as the privatisation of clubs (vehemently opposed by Donofrio and energetically promoted by Angelici) at the heart of the turmoil.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why pundits, social commentators, anthropologists, psychologists and heart specialists, among the many experts who made pronouncements about this ‘historic final’, made much of the notion that this is a fixture which is being played politically almost more than in a sporting capacity.

The Copa Libertadores is one of the most prestigious international competitions in the world, South America’s answer to the Champions League some say, and the dispute for the title between two clubs from the same city is without precedent: let alone between two giants with a rivalry that runs as deep as Boca v River.

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The hype that pre-empted the first leg was unspeakably exaggerated: the massive security operation but one of the many national conversations including canceling other fixtures. There was the debate about whether or not to allow away fans. Due to problems with football-related violence, away supporters have been banned in domestic football since 2013. But this being a CONMEBOL competition, the clubs had the power to decide. 

In the end, they decided not to, so each club plays in their own stadium in front of a purely home crowd. There was an issue over the matches being played on a Saturday which excluded Jewish fans who observe the Sabbath.

We had the unprecedented demand for tickets from all corners of the globe. From the presidential palace to the corner newspaper-sellers, everyone was involved in the discussions. Everyone had a viewpoint, and perhaps it is fitting that the first leg was, in the end, determined by Mother Nature who showed who is boss for one rainy Saturday, flooding the pitch to the point of cancellation. The fixture was moved to the following day (with many, many further disruptions) and football finally won.

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Often these clashes are defensive, cautious, and nowhere near as exciting as the global hype predicts. Since it was listed in the Observer Monthly as one of the top ten sporting-events-to-see-before-you-die decades ago, the frenetic chanting, the fireworks, the excess testosterone has been glamourised the world over. 

But as I heard someone say recently about these ‘super derbies ‘ – by way of an explanation – the athletes themselves produce an excess of a certain acid in their muscles due to the stress and pressure, which is a detriment to their performances on the pitch.

Its all very well to try and talk them out of the anxiety, and managers do, but when the whole world is pumping column inches ten-to-the-dozen, the ticket touting is out of control, and the heart foundations are appealing to the population to take it easy because cardiac arrests increase, players cannot be totally immune.

However, the first leg proved that in spite of – and not because of – the general insanity surrounding it, the game can still be king. “It was a capricious match”, wrote Andres Burgo for el Pais, stressing how football can be the most just and the most unjust at the same time.

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River was ordered, had a collective purpose, and even though the manager, Angel Gallardo, was suspended, the assistant manager kept a cool head and lead his men calmly. Boca was messy, chaotic, and found the back of the net twice, unexpectedly. “We have a team that can’t play; the only thing they do is score goals” one high-profile fan told me, which is fine, because that’s all you really need to do in this game. At full-time, each team had scored two goals, laying the ground for this final leg to be played this coming Saturday to truly be ‘a final’.

The hype hasn’t wound down at all and the stress levels of those involved remains dangerously high. The issue of violence never goes away, with serious incidents reported this week in other fixtures around the city. Even Argentina playing international friendlies hasn’t managed to shift the focus, and the veteran Carlos Tevez, who has returned to Boca to end his playing days, organised an asado (a barbecue) in his home in the suburbs for all the squad to generate a sense of unity in the face of adversity.

Many say whoever wins will define the political future of the nation, while others fear that if Boca fans’ dream comes true (Tevez plays, scores and secures the Libertadores) social unrest will follow.

The divided society and its crevice will endure regardless of the result, but one thing’s for sure; if we have 90 minutes as end-to-end and exciting as two-weeks ago, the chaos will have been worth it.

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