When is a ban on football not a ban on football? Apparently, when CONMEBOL decides to flex its muscles.
Just a few weeks after losing its face-off with Horacio Rodríguez Larreta's Buenos Aires City government and the Supreme Court over restrictions on class attendance during this ongoing second wave of the pandemic, President Alberto Fernández's administration found itself locking horns with another formidable organisation in the shape of South America's football governing body.
We were thus treated to the incongruous sight of both Copa Liga Profesional semi-finals – Colón face off against Independiente while Boca Juniors' reward for overcoming River Plate on penalties is a clash with Racing Club – being cancelled last weekend, while many of the same clubs remained in action in the Copas Libertadores and Sudamericana.
The show must go on has been the overriding motto at CONMEBOL this year, with no health crisis or, indeed social crisis, as in Colombia, big enough to stop play, and so it proved this week as Argentina's clubs closed out their Libertadores group campaigns and gained perfect attendance for the last 16.
Four of the six participants – Racing, Velez Sarsfield, Argentinos Juniors and Defensa y Justicia – went into the final round already assured of their knockout places. Indeed, Argentinos, thanks to a brilliant campaign under Gabriel Milito to date, knew with a game to spare that they had sealed top place in their pool, a status that Racing later clinched thanks to a 3-0 rout of Rentistas. The only two stragglers, strangely enough, were the two Superclásico rivals, who could still have bombed out of the competition if results went against them.
In a fortnight of unlikely River heroes, Santa Fe joined Leo Díaz and Enzo Pérez as the latest source of Millonario fans' gratitude. Marcelo Gallardo's men were able to field a recognised goalkeeper as Franco Armani returned to action, but the Argentina shot-stopper was no match for Fluminense as the Brazilians ran out 3-1 winners at the Monumental on Tuesday. All eyes were thus on Ecuador, where two Colombian sides were closing out their own campaigns in Group D (in 2021, that odd fact barely even merits further mention).
Junior would have pipped River to the knockouts with victory, but they were instead held to an abject goalless draw by the same side who had struggled to make a dent in Enzo's makeshift rearguard. Amid the celebrations in Núñez, there was also a more sombre mood: Gustavo Insua, the club coach driver, passed away the following day having contracted Covid-19 at the same time as the bulk of the squad a fortnight ago.
That left just Boca to claim their last-16 place, which they managed, unlike their arch-rivals, in typically steady if unspectacular fashion. Miguel Ángel Russo's charges proved far too strong for The Strongest at the Bombonera on Wednesday and, while the chances did not exactly flow for the hosts, they made optimal use of what they had: Agustín Almendra and Sebastián Villa both converted the only two shots on target Boca enjoyed against the awkward, resolute La Paz team, while defender Gabriel Valverde compounded a forgettable night for the visitors by slicing past his own goalkeeper to mark the third and final goal of the evening 10 minutes into the second half. Boca thus qualified in second place behind the big Group C surprise package, Ecuador's Barcelona, who capped a campaign worthy of their Catalan namesakes with a rousing defeat of Santos to consign last year's finalists to the Copa Sudamericana.
Attention now returns to home affairs, namely those postponed semi-finals which have been hastily re-arranged across a single afternoon in San Juan on Monday. Racing and Boca will both be on a high after their victories, as will Independiente, who negotiated their Sudamericana group with relative comfort to move into the knockout stages too. Just spare a thought for Colón: the second best-performing team in Argentina this year were initially forbidden from training due to the new Covid protocols, before authorities finally saw sense and re-opened the paddock on Monday after a weekend off. They will nevertheless be lacking a touch of match sharpness compared to their rivals – but when you have the maestro Luis Rodríguez in your ranks you always have a chance of springing an upset.