The land of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona has won the World Cup twice, and it felt a sense of overwhelming pride in hosting perhaps the most important club final ever.
But the second leg of the globally anticipated “Game of the Century” between Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate will now be played Sunday more than 6,000 miles away in Madrid.
“We’re going to play the Copa Libertadores 10,000 kilometres away,” complained River coach Marcelo Gallardo. “Someday we’re going to rethink what just happened, and we’re going to remember this as a total embarrassment.”
The switch has only highlighted the rotten state of local football, which has been plagued with corruption, chaos and unrelenting violence for years. The decision also shows how CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body, found it impossible to stage its biggest club match on its own continent.
“It’s a tough blow,” President Mauricio Macri said in an interview this week. A die-hard Boca fan who presided over the club for more than a decade, he said the attack “must lead us all to reflection.”
The rivalry between Boca and River ranks up there with the most intense in the world of sports. The match-up was more magnified than usual because the clubs were facing each other for the first time in the final of South America’s equivalent of the Champions League.
The Argentine Football Association (AFA) promoted the game as a personal achievement – a way to overcome the national team’s failure at the World Cup, where Argentina was eliminated in the last 16.
Obsessed with promoting Argentina’s image abroad, Macri had said visiting fans should be allowed at the twoleg final. It was a call at odds with a 2013 ban aimed at reducing violence. Macri had said it was “a good opportunity to show maturity, and that we’re changing, and [that football] can be played in peace.” He later backtracked on the proposal and left the decision up to the clubs.
The non-profit group “Let’s Save Football” says 328 people have been killed in soccer-related violence dating from 1924.
“We have recorded more aggressions against players, referees and soccer bosses than fights or aggressions between rivaling fans,” the NGO said in a recent report. “Violence doesn’t disappear but rather mutates ... it’s a cultural problem, not just a problem that has to do with police.”
“Many years ago in England, there was a similar problem. And a strong decision changed that,” said Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino, who is from Murphy, Santa Fe. “Today, it’s fantastic to come here and watch football at the stadium. It’s a sport to enjoy. It’s not a drama. In Argentina, we’re still far from that.
“We’re an amazing country and people but we still have a lot of problems ... it’s cultural. It’s going to be a very tough job to change that. I’m not sure it’s going to change.”