If Copa Libertadores is to be the next Champions League, this disgraceful weekend must become a thing of the past

This was supposed to be an exhibition of everything good about South American football, but instead became an example of everything bad

Miguel Delaney
Buenos Aires
Monday 26 November 2018 10:00
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Boca vs River Plate bus attack

On the Friday morning before the ultimately postponed Copa Libertadores final second leg, Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez was in the lobby of the glittering Alvear Icon hotel speaking to three European journalists about the special allure of a Superclasico climax that brought us to Buenos Aires... and making a promise.

“Looking to the future, I would say you will always be here in South America in November for the Libertadores final.”

Three days on, and even if it’s a little unfair on Dominguez, there’s an obvious but damning question: would you even be able to guarantee the final will actually take place?

The “shameful” circumstances of the last weekend were timely vindication of the recently-installed president’s decision to move the Libertadores final to a one-off match in a neutral venue like the Champions League, as will start next season, but atrociously poor timing for his grand vision to make the South American event an admired international competition to rival its European equivalent.

This should be one of the many fierce frustrations from the postponed Superclasico. In a football world where there are so many imbalances - and particularly economic imbalances - towards Europe, and South America is constantly and quickly stripped of the stars that really make the sport so appealing, this was a grand opportunity to show the best of the Libertadores, to remind everyone some of the reasons why this was once upon a time the globe’s premier club competition.

As much of a selling point for the South American competition as anything was its “rawness”, its “passion”.

Dominguez had even argued earlier on that the Libertadores is “real football” compared to the “Playstation football” of the Champions League, and expanded on this as well as these other issues in our interview.

“I see my kids playing PS and they have fun and they tease each other, but it is football on TV,” Dominguez said. “It is not the way we live football here. We go to the stadium and we live everything: the passion they bring to their stadiums and the way they support their teams, it is life.

“How do we not lose our DNA? We ask that every time we make decisions. I will not tolerate more violence. Passion has nothing to do with violence. People might not understand those things could live apart. Think that is part of our tradition. We can have passion, live crazy for our teams, but we will not allow violence.

“I always understand the outcome the work Uefa started a long time ago has brought big and good revenues. Going back 20 years ago, Conmebol gave their pact to develop football, to promote, to see new ways of competitions, and they forgot about talking and working for football. It is no wonder Uefa has made such a big progress and Conmebol did not.

The second leg of the Copa Libertadores final was called off hours before the scheduled kick-off

"Going back, we had more World Cups and more intercontinentals than teams from Europe. But something happened in this time, and that is that Uefa worked right, and we did not work, and those that did worked for themselves and not for football. It is not that we will shorten the gap, it is that we want to keep track and not let it get bigger.”

This weekend was not good for that.

The Libertadores - and Argentina - had the luck of a captive global audience because of the special glamour of this fixture… and blew it.

It really couldn’t have gone worse, as Dominguez effectively acknowledged in a hugely admirable and candid media appearance after the match was postponed for the second time.

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

This was supposed to be an exhibition of everything good about South American football, but instead became an exhibition of everything bad.

And, sure, similar attacks might have happened in the Champions League. Many have already pointed to the obvious example of Liverpool supporters attacking the Manchester City bus. But the big difference is the context, the control around it.

This went out of control.

For the "final to end all finals" to never actually start, and keep getting stopped, was an embarrassment. And that makes what happens next all the more important.

Conmebol is set to meet with the presidents of River Plate and Boca Juniors on Tuesday to discuss what what date and time the second leg will eventually take place on.

They still all want this to be an exhibition, the ultimate display of South American football.

Fans were left waiting for a game that never came

But maybe it should be something else. Maybe it should be an example, the ultimate display of a new attitude; that, as Dominguez said “we will not allow violence”. That there will be proper punishment, and not a lax response that essentially indulges the problem and keeps this cycle going; that makes fans see there will be no repercussions.

If they really want a serious competition, they need a serious punishment. Perhaps River should be thrown out.

It was eventually put to Dominguez what it will be like in Chile for next year’s final, if the same fixture is replayed.

“It will be wonderful,” Dominguez said. “Do not worry about security in Chile.”

That really needs to be a promise.

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