Miami or Medellín? Santiago or the Centenario? Lima or Los Angeles? Just over two weeks from the first-ever single Copa Libertadores final, and in a near-mirror image of 2018 the question was once more the same: where will the damned thing be played?
South American governing body CONMEBOL had long planned for the Estadio Nacional in Chile’s capital city to take on hosting duties for this step into the unknown, a conscious effort to imitate the format of Europe’s Champions League and take the Libertadores decider to neutral ground. But in these last few weeks, the Chilean people hit back with a timely reminder that what may hold on one side of the Atlantic Ocean may not work so neatly on the other.
Despite days of stubborn refusal to admit the inevitable, while protests against President Sebastián Piñera in particular and what is perceived as an exclusionary economic model in general have grown and were met with virulent repression from police forces, the Copa organisers have finally seen sense. The final has been taken from Santiago at the last minute, the final straw coming on Monday as barras of the capital’s biggest three clubs, mortal enemies on match-days, came together in an unprecedented show of force to threaten a mass protest that promised to bring chaos to CONMEBOL’s showpiece.
In a twist of fate that borders on the comic, Lima’s Monumental has been chosen as a last-minute replacement, exactly 18 days before River Plate and Flamengo were due to kick off. It is a remarkable turnaround for the Peruvian capital, which as late as May was deemed an unsuitable home for the lesser Copa Sudamericana final – Colón and Independiente del Valle dispute that title this afternoon in Asunción, another back-up venue. Even the Monumental itself, as picturesque a stage as one could hope for nestled in the foothills of the Andes but in far from ideal condition, would not have been CONMEBOL’s first choice in Lima, but it takes on the game due to a salsa festival held simultaneously on November 23 in the more suitable Estadio Nacional.
Neither Flamengo nor River favoured Peru, the Brazilians preferring Asunción and the Millonario hoping for a quick hop across Río de la Plata to Montevideo. If the adage made famous by Larry David in the Seinfeld writer’s autobiographical series Curb Your Enthusiasm holds true, that “a good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied,” perhaps CONMEBOL have picked the best possible solution to this extremely sticky situation.
As always, however, those who will be most dissatisfied are the fans. Thousands have already splashed out on expensive air tickets to Santiago, in many cases non-refundable, and now face the prospect of maxing out their credit cards a little further for the trip to Lima. The single final was already in essence entirely antisupporter, excluding scores of fanatics for the chance to see their heroes in action in the biggest game of the year in a continent where plane tickets dwarf the average monthly salary; this change, taking the final further away from Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, only rubs that fact in a little harder.
“Anger and impotence. Those are some of the feelings experienced by River fans. For the second consecutive year, ahead of another Libertadores final, CONMEBOL directors have ruined everything again,” Santiago Marani wrote in the popular River fanpage, La Página Millonaria. The River faithful have every reason to feel short-changed. Having seen perhaps the most important match in their club’s history against Boca Juniors last year moved to Madrid thanks to the mindless action of a handful of stone-throwing vandals, now even those who may have had the financial capacity to travel to Santiago face missing out again.
One can only hope that out of
this chaos and injustice something positive may arise: that
CONMEBOL sees sense and
abandons its attractive but wholly impractical quest to impose
European ideas such as the single
final on its members and returns
to the two legs which have been
the defining feature of Libertadores deciders since its inception. A
great deal is in play, however,
from the pride of directors to
massive commercial deals,
meaning that a step back and a
nod to good sense and fans’ right
is unlikely to occur any time soon.