Copa Libertadores: Welcome to Argentina, the country that loves football too much

This 'final to end all finals' was a chance to show the country’s face to the world only for no one to show up on the pitch at all

Miguel Delaney
Buenos Aires
Monday 26 November 2018 11:56
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Boca vs River Plate bus attack

When the teams for the 2018 Copa Libertadores final were finally confirmed - amid huge controversy, of course - unpopular Argentine president Mauricio Macri said that this super Superclasico was an opportunity to show the country’s face to the world… only for no one to show up on the pitch at all.

That was ultimately because Argentine football has many faces: excitable, aggressive, angry, anxious - and, most pointedly, perpetually hysterical.

These are all extremes, as this really is a country that has a more intense relationship with football than any other. It is not a healthy relationship. This may the country that cares about football far too much, and that goes way beyond love to something much more obsessive and obviously damaging.

Argentina this weekend had the opportunity to put on a great exhibition for the world - to show the best of their game - but emotion got the better of it all, as every worst stereotype and expectation was instead played out in full global glare.

There are many profound sociological reasons for this negative relationship, from the lack of identity upon which an immigrant state was founded to the extremes of economics have endured, but the effects are multifarious.

One was obviously that attack on the Boca Juniors bus, but it says a lot that “disgrace” - as Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez described it - was actually entirely mild relative to a football culture that has seen 93 deaths in the last decade alone, even if its consequences were anything but mild. It has created humiliation for the country, and the newspapers in Argentina have been filled with so many headlines about “national shame”.

Even that now feels an inevitable consequence of so many incidents over the past few days, and a city that wasn’t looking forward to the game but actually dreading its potential result. Nerves, tension and fear governed.

One River-supporting shopkeeper told The Independent he didn’t “want to even predict” what would happen in the second leg because he didn’t “want to jinx it or bring bad luck”.

One Boca-supporting taxi driver meanwhile said he’d willingly “sell his soul to the devil” to win that match. The energy with which he was imparting this indicated he was entirely sincere.

This is also the flip side to the much-shared and much-admired footage of over 60,000 Boca fans cramming into the Bombonera on Thursday for what was supposed to be their last training session ahead of the second leg.

It was hard not to be entirely enamoured by that, such passion, but that passion was already spilling over on the day. Literally. Fans were dangerously cramming into the stand, blocking stairwells and forcing others forward, while one supporter directly in front of The Independent cut his leg failing to scale a 15-foot high glass wall to try and get into an even busier area.

The second-leg descended into farce

Argentine football just feels like it is in a perpetual state of unsustainable frenzy.

That creates the spectacle so many of us came to the Libertadores final for, but it also creates a lot of huge problems even beyond the violence, and thereby further feeding that violence.

Just look at the state of the international football team right now, and the weight of tension that surrounds almost every single match. That was never more blatant than for the World Cup group game against Nigeria. Even if you had no connection to the country, and even in a tournament as electric as Russia 2018, you could still sense the utterly suffocating and stifling nerves of that game. The Argentine team did shamble through that match, got the result.

And that’s a huge part of the problem.

Argentina has a football culture that cares so much that the result really has become the be-all and end-all; where nothing else matters. It is a place where even constantly just about getting that result causes a regression and an inherent inability to confront problems that might prevent results. The national team are again the proof of that.

Supporters of River leave the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires after authorities postponed the match

This disgrace of a Libertadores final was the logical end point of that, as none of it could be sustained. It was partly why worry, and thereby violence, governed the build-up. It all spilled over.

The entire football culture is meanwhile a logical end point of the way support seems to be going on social media in the UK, where tribalism rules, where saying anything mildly critical of a team makes you the enemy. Argentina is the extreme illustration of all that, if not a result of it.

The country's situation is the result of so many interwoven sociological issues, although its difficult not to simplistically think that people's extreme identification with their club is the result of extreme economic disparity. It's what they cling to, what gives a sense of self in a society with so many breaking points.

It is also why - in the words of one top Argentine club official - coaches are sacked so often, with average tenures of barely six months. And that doesn’t just apply to senior teams. It applies to youth teams too.

Security forces stand guard as River's supporters leave Estadio Monumental

No one can ever plan anything, because those plans are thrown out with the latest result. This is the mindset that governs everything, because histrionic reaction pervades all thinking. This is the mindset that has meant the country has so fallen behind Germany and Spain and other big football nations, because it has no idea how to actually maximise what might be the greatest talent factory in the world.

That talent can’t be nurtured if negativity pervades everything, if nobody ever has the freedom to make mistakes.

Everything in Argentine football is so stifled, so strangled.

It was a mindset best summed up by Marcelo Bielsa, who said he gave up on his country’s club football when he realised that the way you play wasn’t as important to a lot of people as being able to insult the opposition.

So we saw on Saturday.

So much for the follow-up to Macri’s comment, that he hoped Argentina could show the country can “demonstrate maturity and that we’re changing, that we can play in peace”.

The Libertadores organisers are left with many more questions than answers

They showed anything but that.

And we were still hearing anything but that amidst all of the shame.

In the hours after the Libertadores final second leg had been postponed for a second time, on a metro train back down from the Monumental stadium on the Sunday, River fans began to sing some of the songs that make their matches such occasions. All of the chants to the tune of 60s rock hit came out, until there was a new one. Its subject? The attack on the Boca bus and how their rivals had “sh** themselves”.

Never mind the other effects, the other problems. It was a result, of sorts.

Face had been saved, and that face more than shown.

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