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  • Writer's pictureBernardo Vivas

More Than A Rivalry: How Class, Love, and Hatred Led To The Apex Of Club Football

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

"Ninguno es, fue no sera como este." This is how Mariano Clos, legendary Argentinian narrator, started the broadcast of the first leg of the 2018 Libertadores Final. It translates to something like "Nothing is, was, or will ever be like this." And he wasn't wrong.

We could spend days arguing about the quality of play, the financial problems, or the global relevance of South American football in the 21st century. We could analyze the marketability of the Libertadores, the corruption in CONMEBOL, and the growing financial chasm between Argentinian football and its rival neighbor Brazil, never mind the European Elite.

But on November 11, 2018, none of that mattered. That day the city of Buenos Aires held its proverbial breath, and the eyes of the continent were all fixed on one weird-looking football stadium: La Bombonera. Finally, after 58 years of wait, Boca Juniors and River Plate would decide the Libertadores.

I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, not Buenos Aires. I had no real connection to either team, and nor did the hundreds of football fans gathered around me, each wearing their favorite club's shirt, in a very crowded bohemian street near my house. But all of us were tense, excited, and almost gleeful. A feeling of, "We are about to experience something historic" was in the air. We all knew about Boca and River, the two biggest clubs on the continent. The teams Brazilian fans make songs about beating. We were about to watch the crowning moment of the competition we all loved.

Theoretically, any fan that has a rival team can relate to what was happening, here or anywhere in the world. Just picture Arsenal and Tottenham, Milan and Inter, or Flamengo and Fluminense deciding the fate of a continent. Every football fan can at least imagine what that must feel like.

But on that occasion, I don't think we could've. I'll take my best shot at explaining what happened in La Finalisima, and most importantly what it meant, but there is 0 chance this article will make it justice. River vs Boca simply isn't something one can explain. It's football in its most intoxicating, beautiful, and scary state. The biggest rivalry in the world. The biggest moment in the history of club football.

I'll try my best.

Once Brothers

Boca and River were both "born" (that's how an Argentinian taxi driver explained to me when I visited Buenos Aires in 2019. Not founded, born) in the same working-class neighborhood near the docks of Buenos Aires called La Boca. Boca Juniors in 1905 and River Plate in 1901. In the 1920s, River moved its headquarters first to a neighborhood called Palermo and afterward to one called Belgrano, both in the more noble and expensive parts of the city, while Boca remained loyal to their humble beginnings in La Boca.

That move essentially set the dynamic of the rivalry for the next century. River became the club of the Buenos Aires bourgeoisie. And as a gift, they got its imponent and prestigious stadium, El Monumental de Nuñez (inaugurated in 1938), a stadium that would later be the home of the Argentinian National Team. The club's newfound wealth also enabled the signing of extremely expensive players such as Carlos Peucelle and Bernabé Ferreyra, which gave them their nickname "Millionarios."

Soon after the inauguration of El Monumental, River constructed one of the most revered teams in the history of the sport, La Maquina. Led by forwards Augusto Pedernera, José Manuel Moreno, Juan Carlos Muñoz, and Ángel Labruna, it practiced some of the most brilliant football the world had seen, a precocious Argentinian version of totaalvoetbal. That mixture of off-field glamor and on-field brilliance defined River history and was the archetype the club would always pursue.

Boca was a whole different story. By staying at La Boca, the club was adopted by the working class of Buenos Aires. It became the "club of the people." Its stadium, La Bombonera (referring to a box of chocolate because of its shape), in contrast to the cathedral-like Monumental, was rugged, claustrophobic, and intimidating, built with the help of the local fans. Its greatest teams were scrappy, disciplined, and passionate (the 2000 to 2007 side led by Riquelme and Palermo being the epitome of this). Its idols (Maradona and Tevez exemplify this perfectly) were explosive, unpredictable, mercurial.

The two sons of La Boca took radically different paths, but the connection was never actually broken. Just like two rival siblings, the rivalry is what defines them. One was the club of the elite, the other of the people. One was known for its artistic and technically sound playstyle, the other was all heart and will. The fanbases adopted the insults they gave each other as nicknames. The clubs were antagonists, but the rivalry made them into what they became: the biggest clubs in South America.

International Derby

Despite both clubs having success in the competition (both had two titles), the Libertadores didn't have the pleasure of hosting any Superclasicos in the 20th century. While the domestic titles were important, the Libertadores was the ultimate glory for Argentinian teams. It was there that discussions were settled and bragging rights were gained. So when Boca eliminated River from the competition in 2000, in a dominating fashion, it marked the beginning of their dynasty. Beating River in the semis in 2004 with a last-minute Carlos Tevez goal - that he celebrated by imitating a chicken in front of the River crowd, essentially calling them cowards - was the apex of it. Losing the final to Once Caldas didn't matter at all.

Then, in 2011, after Boca spent the decade dominating the continent, winning four and getting to five finals, River hit rock bottom. Los Millionarios suffered the ultimate humiliation of being the first of the two to get relegated. It looked like the question of "Who is the biggest club in Argentina" had been answered. Boca had 6 Libertadores while River only had 2, and was now out of the Argentinian football elite.

But River bounced right back, and in 2014, led by Ramon Diaz (who coached their 1996 Libertadores-winning side), won the national title. But Diaz resigned. River hired club legend and fellow 1996 Libertadores champion Marcelo Gallardo. That was probably the best decision in the history of the club, as in the subsequent years Gallardo constructed a flexible and efficient team, one that could play in the traditional River style of possession and flair, but also knew how to defend and compete.

In the following years, River won the 2014 Sulamericana (equivalent to the Europa League), eliminating Boca in the semis in an encounter that showed what River would be in that era: defensive and rugged in the first leg at La Bombonera, securing the 0-0 draw; aggressive and efficient in El Monumental, winning 1-0.

In 2015, they won the Libertadores, again eliminating Boca, but in an encounter that showed the ugly side of the rivalry: after winning 1-0 at home in the first leg, the River players were attacked at the end of the first half in La Bombonera. Boca fans fired pepper spray at them, and Boca was eliminated because of it.

The Path

They didn't meet again in the next two years, and neither made it to the finals, but the 2018 edition looked promising. Boca, led by Guillermo Barros Schelotto, had a very solid and competitive team, fielding a plethora of attacking talents, amongst them Sebastian Villa, Cristian Pavón, Dario Benedetto, Ramón Ábila and Tevez, and very physical and smart midfielders like Uruguayan International Nahitan Nández and Colombian International Wilmar Barrios.

Meanwhile, River had become a machine, its conductor Gallardo. The team was indistinguishable from its coach, equal parts competitive and brilliant, fielding fantastic talents like Pity Martinez, Juanfer Quintero, Exequiel Palacios, Nacho Fernandez, and Gonzalo Montiel, all playing in harmony, as free cogs in a flexible machine.

Boca's campaign was almost a caricature of the team. They focused more on the League during the group stage, gaining only 9 points and ranking last among the qualified teams. However, once the knockouts started, Boca found their groove. They dispatched Libertad in the round of 16, winning 6-2 on aggregate, and were very efficient at home against Cruzeiro, winning 2-0 (albeit the match was tainted by the very arguable sent-off of center back Dedé, Cruzeiro's second-best player) and held on to win 3-1 on aggregate in the second leg. Against Palmeiras in the semis Boca was their best version, playing rugged and suffocating defense, and counting on two inspired performances from Benedetto to win 4-2 on aggregate.

River's path was extremely challenging. In the round of 16, they faced a very energetic Racing team, who tried to attack them aggressively in the first leg, almost scoring at the end in a header saved by Armani (future Argentinian International GK). In the second leg River dominated, winning by 3-0 and scoring this scintillating, classic Gallardian goal:

The quarters against Independiente (the team with the most Libertadores titles ever) followed the same script: a back-and-forth match that culminated in Armani saving Los Millaionarios in the last second, and a brilliant 3-1 win at home in the second leg.

In the semis, facing defending Libertadores Champion Gremio, River lost the first leg at home in an uninspired performance, and went down 2-0 on aggregate after a first-half goal in Porto Alegre. At the minute 66, Brazilian International Cebolinha had a 1v1 against Armani, but the GK saved Los Millionarios again. They looked dead in the water and spent the next 15 minutes grasping for straws, resorting to aimless crosses into the box. But then magic happened. With 8 minutes left, Borré scored a header off a Pity cross, and 2 minutes later a hand-ball penalty was awarded. Pity blasted it into the top corner, and a few minutes later the River players were lying on the ground crying tears of joy.

Boca vs River is more than football. So La Final Del Mundo, as the sports newspaper Olé called it (which means something like "The World Final") would be more than a match. It would be class struggle, family feud, the ultimate battle in a war that, hopefully, will never end. And it was finally happening.

Buenos Aires

The Argentinian Foundation of Cardiology issued a warning in the week leading up to the match, urging people with issues dealing with stress and/or heart issues to take their medicine and avoid stress during the match. It also upped the amount of cardiologists stationed at Buenos Aires hospitals that weekend.

The fact that, on November 10th, the match was canceled minutes before its tip-off didn't help matters. Pressure was mounting, and the tension in the city was palpable. As Spanish columnist for El País Enric González wrote in his article called "O Fruto Proibido" (The Forbidden Fruit):

"Buenos Aires will be paralyzed. Sensible people will avoid the outskirts of the battlefield because opposing supporters are not allowed, but sometimes you already know. The country will hold its breath. The police will be mobilized to contain an invasion. Such excesses, of course, are not socially hygienic."

Next afternoon, in the 40 minutes before the opening whistle, you couldn't see anybody in the streets of Buenos Aires; inside La Bombonera, Boca's fans sang their favorite songs at the top of their lungs, as if they were a heavy metal concert. Not only that, they were aggressive, lunging themselves at the fence separating the stands from the pitch, and it only got worse once the River squad stepped onto the pitch. It was always a tense matchup, with massive fights in its history, but the atmosphere in that hallowed ground was unlike anything I had ever seen.

Photo taken by Le Parisien

However, if that affected the match at all, it was surely for good. Most teams in the continent had an ingrained fear of that stadium, the crowd, and that blue and yellow shirt. But not River. After all, it was only their younger brother, and no matter how much they hated each other, no matter how much Los Xeneizes (nickname of the Boca fans) tried to intimidate them, there was a sense of familiarity, an air of calmness to that squad.

The two teams were a perfect embodiment of their history. River was formidable tactically, mixing the virtues of positional structures to maximize build-up and pressing, with the fluidity of rehearsed relationism in the final third. Boca was disciplined, extremely intense, and deadly. The dynamic of the game was clear even before the start, and although Gallardo (who was suspended for the Final after sneaking into the River locker room in the second leg against Gremio, disrespecting the suspension he received the game before) decided to use 3 CBs and a front two, the first leg went quite as expected.

The game started at warp speed, with both teams flying up and down the pitch, playing at Klopp-like intensity, on what seemed to be a constant counterattack for the first 10 minutes. But from the start, River was more dangerous. Pity Martinez hit a nice free kick that Rossi saved, then took a corner that set up a Marinez Quarta header that was just a bit wide. A few minutes later, Pity recovered a ball in the final third and delivered it nicely to Borré, who couldn't control it. Boca was able to cause discomfort on the counters, especially with the speed of Pavon and Villa, but while Nandez and Barrios were able to match Palcios and Enzo Perez's intensity, the River midfield was just too talented.

After the game settled down a bit, the originally expected dynamic took over: River had the ball, circled Boca's area, who defended very resolutely. Los Millionarios were able to progress the ball, especially from the right, with their three talented youngsters Palacios, Montiel, and Martinez Quarta easily cutting through Boca's first line of defense. But the only real chance either team created came in a cross from Casco that found Borré, who struck a powerful header defended by Rossi.

Everything changed in the 26th minute when Pavon went down with a muscle injury in his left thigh. In came Benedetto, the man who had pushed Boca by Palmeiras with 3 goals in the semis. Boca changed their structure from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, with Nandez sliding to the right and Benedetto acting as a shadow striker. Boca were able to keep the ball more, and Benedetto's ability to link up play and occupy the middle of the pitch gave a needed dose of dynamism to their attack.

It was that, with Benedetto's connection with Nandez and Villa, that, at minute 33, allowed Olaza to overlap and find Ábila who, after a save by Armani in his first attempt, struck the second chance off of the save powerfully and scored.

La Bombonera was about to collapse. The stadium is old, and its concrete structure literally shakes and vibrates with the crowd. It was pulsating harder than any cardiologist could imagine. And then, just two minutes later, it suffered a heart attack. Instantaneously, as soon as the game restarted, Pity Martinez found Lucas Pratto, who scored. River showed once again it didn't care at all how loud the crowd was. They were locked in.

The final 10 minutes of the half resembled the first 10. Insane level of intensity, with both teams attacking and counter-attacking, exemplified by a sequence when Palacios, Pity, Borre, and Pratto sliced through the middle of the Boca defense. Pratto opened the play to Montiel, who crossed, and Pity hit it powerfully, forcing a Rossi save. Boca immediately countered, but when Villa cut inside he decided to dive, after which River countered again, and the play ended in a Borré offside. Right before the half, when River was again taking control of the actions, Benedetto suffered a foul and, after a cross by Villa, scored with a soft header that took Armani out of the play.

This time, Los Millionarios clearly felt the blow. For the first 10 minutes of the second half, they did nothing, barely crossing the halfway line. So, at minute 57, Matías Biscay (Gallardo's right-hand man) decided to change the structure of the team and brought in Nacho Fernandez, a CM, in place of the CB Martinez Quarta. The move had an immediate effect, giving the team more avenues to progress the ball, and 5 minutes later, off a foul suffered by Nacho, the Boca CB Izquierdoz scored an own goal to level the Final.

From that point until the 88th minute, basically nothing happened. River continued to have the ball while Boca defended well. Neither team created a chance. The only blip was Tevez checking in for Villa, but not even he did anything of note at first. It was a shock even for the crowd, who after 2 hours of nonstop singing had quieted down a bit, when with 2 minutes left in the game, after playing a quick one-two with Álbila, Tevez found Benedetto face-to-face with Armani, just outside the 6-yard box. For the 4th time in that magical run, Armani staved off elimination with a historic save.

The Libertadores didn't have the away goal rule for the final, which meant the 2nd leg would be a winner-takes-all match. One week later, the football world would get to witness the most consequential Club match in its history. Arguably the biggest rivalry in the world (El Classico and The Old Firm have to be mentioned) would have its ultimate chapter, 90 minutes to decide the footballing future of a nation, played in the spiritual home of Argentinian football. Or so we thought.

Love Is A Catastrophe

In Brazil there is a famous expression called "roots football." It refers to a football of the past, before it became a multi-billion dollar industry, before the game became really professional and global, before the big European clubs turned into transnational superteams, before going to the stadium was just another cultural event, like going to the theater. It's a nostalgic idea of what football was before money and tactics ruined it.

Well, if there is one country on earth that embodies that ideal, it's Argentina. In a world where Premier Leagues stadiums have a ban on watching the games standing up, watching how the hinchas (a word for "loyal fan") of Boca, River, Independiente, or Racing behave in a stadium is mesmerizing even for my Brazilian self. There is a real sense of urgency and pride, closer to going to war than to the cinema, and that relationship extends to the players, who oftentimes are referred to as "gladiators." Everything is raw. "It smells like delusion, risk, and adrenaline."

But all of this passion comes with a price. And that price was paid on the day of the 2nd leg. The Boca team bus was getting to El Monumental when it went through a gathering of River fans. They recognized the vehicle and, in an act that would taint the history of Argentinian football forever, decided to throw stones at it. Tevez, Perez, and Villa were hit by shards of glass and the team wanted to reschedule the match.

But by that point, 60,000 people had crammed into El Monumental, eagerly awaiting their chance to intimidate their rivals and support their heroes. CONMEBOL and FIFA, obviously, wanted the match to happen. But there was clearly no way it could've. Boca's captain (Perez) was ruled out with a cut to the eye and the whole team was understandably irate. The match was postponed for the next day, and then eventually canceled.

There is a frenetic and intoxicating nature to Argentinian football. It evokes this weird emotional state that makes suffering and joy, happiness and horror feel almost the same: both hurt and seem like they will never go away. We usually call that love. But love, as anybody who has fallen in it knows, is brutal, disturbing, dangerous. Makes you lose control, makes you do things that never crossed your mind. It's beautiful, but also terrifying. This version of love is what turned a match between two relatively poor clubs (by European standards) into the most consequential moment in the history of club football, and that now was threatening to destroy it.

Not even Boca wanted River to be disqualified for what happened. While, by the letter of the law, they probably should've, CONMEBOL would never have the courage (courage can also make one do very stupid things) to cancel the crown jewel of its flagship competition either. However, due to obvious safety concerns, CONMEBOL didn't want it to happen in Buenos Aires, which, far from being ideal, wasn't a disaster either. The continent had a plethora of suitable candidates to choose from, and one obvious choice in Maracanã.

But they did the one thing they should've never done. They insulted the competition named after the people who liberated South America from the tyranny of Europe. They spat on the face of a continent that had spent the last 200 years trying to recover from three centuries of exploitation and humiliation.

CONMEBOL sent La Finalíssima to Madrid…

This is Part 1 of 2 of my feeble attempt to tell the story of the most consequential match in the history of club football. Stay tuned for Part 2.

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