It simply does not get bigger than this. Liverpool vs Manchester United? Real Madrid-Barcelona? Bayern-Dortmund? Milan-Inter? Each of Europe’s most important grudge matches pales in comparison with the fraternal war River Plate and Boca Juniors are preparing to unleash on the Argentine capital Buenos Aires over the next fortnight, starting on Saturday.
The famous Superclasico is being played for the highest stakes in its history. River and Boca will meet in the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition, a two-legged decider that has paralysed an entire country even before a single ball has been kicked.
It is hard to find a direct comparison over the Atlantic Ocean in Europe for what this derby means to Argentina. Barca’s Clasico rivalry with Madrid comes close in terms of featuring Spain’s two most dominant clubs, but the distance that separates the two cities means it is primarily a sporting dispute, rather than one played out day to day across streets and plazas.
One could make a similar argument for United’s regular clashes against their hated adversaries down the M62 in Merseyside, while within Manchester neighbours City’s mediocre history prior to the arrival of Abu Dhabi cash takes some of the bite out of that particular rivalry. Milan and Inter have both had little to crow about in recent years, while even particularly heated derbies such as Chelsea-West Ham, Madrid-Atletico and Benfica-Sporting in Portugal fall short of the tension each Superclasico brings to the streets of Buenos Aires.
Perhaps only an Old Firm clash between auld enemies Celtic and Rangers, tinged with decades of sectarian violence, in the final of the Champions League, or a meeting that brought together the intense rivalry of Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia, could hope to replicate what will be on offer in this Libertadores final. But since neither of those fixtures is likely to occur any time soon, it is time to sit back and enjoy the best of what South America can offer as River and Boca prepare for their two dates with destiny.
The two sides were once neighbours, struggling for dominion over the colourful, impoverished port neighbourhood of La Boca at the turn of the 20th century, when immigrants from Spain and Italy streamed into Argentina in search of a better life and settled around the docks in their thousands.
While River left La Boca in 1923 for the patrician surroundings of Recoleta, then to the far north of the city in leafy, affluent Nunez, the Xeneize stayed put. But the seeds of that early rivalry continued to flourish, now with the extra ingredient of socio-economic conflict. River were dubbed the Millionaires in deference to their enviable spending power and expensive recruitment of stars, while their rivals continued to represent those stuck on the other side of the tracks: immigrants, dock workers, itinerants and those just trying to scrape a living in adverse circumstances.
As the years went by the pair also established themselves as Argentina’s premier clubs on the pitch, establishing a dual dominance that left them as by far the biggest sporting institutions in the entire nation. Boca may not quite be the ‘mitad mas uno’ (half of the country plus one), but according to studies, they have the sympathy of no less than 40 per cent of all Argentina’s football fans; River, with 26%, bring the total proportion of Superclasico supporters up to exactly two thirds of the entire nation.
“It is the most beautiful game in the world,” Juan Roman Riquelme once said. He is just one of the superstars to have graced this fixture. Diego Maradona, Ariel Ortega, Gabriel Batistuta, Daniel Passarella, Omar Sivori, Antonio Rattin and countless others have also made their mark on the 246 official derbies played over the last century and more: as every Boca fan knows, their side has the advantage in the history books with 88 wins to River’s 81.
Millions of people will be hanging on every twist and turn of the Libertadores final, with plenty of potential for scandal. The last Copa game to feature the two teams failed even to reach 90 minutes: in 2015, the last-16 tie was abandoned and several River players hospitalised due to an attack with home-made pepper spray perpetrated from the Bombonera stands by a Boca fan known as the ‘Baker’.
Even prior to this series the headlines have been dominated by clashes between the two sets of supporters. One unfortunate fan in Misiones saw his house burned down to the ground when an argument with a friend over the upcoming final got rather out of hand. Suffice to say, only home fans will be welcome in each of the two legs: Despite the entreaties of Argentina President – and former Boca chief – Mauricio Macri, one of the few things both clubs can agree is that they are not willing to take on the risk of inviting visitors to this festival of football.
Luckily even those unable to soak up the atmosphere in the Bombonera and Monumental on November 10 and 24 will be able to take in all the action on television, with the game set to be broadcast both in the United States and, in a novel step, the United Kingdom. Goal will also stream the match live in the UK. While the noise and colour of the stands undoubtedly draws the eye, there is plenty to look out for on the pitch itself.
River will appeal to the talents of Exequiel Palacios, the dynamic 20-year-old midfielder who has become an option for Real Madrid; and Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez, expected to succeed Miguel Almiron in 2019 as Atlanta United’s next South American star. Behind them is Franco Armani, whose mediocre World Cup campaign was no fair reflection on a goalkeeper who has been in simply stunning form throughout the current season.
The Xeneize, meanwhile, will be counting on a strong match from Argentina international and former Arsenal target Cristian Pavon, as well as the industry of highly rated Uruguayan Nahitan Nandez – a feisty midfielder who famously appeared tackling Russia’s Alexei Miranchuk with his forehead during the World Cup. Dario Benedetto, too, who reappeared with three memorable goals in the Copa semi-final against Palmeiras after missing almost a year through injury, is a threat for the Xeneize, while on the bench veteran pair Carlos Tevez and Fernando Gago will be eager to show they have still got it.
The Libertadores and South American football might not have the riches and, as a result, the footballing talent boasted by their European equivalents, and the product is certainly not as polished – although this writer would rather see an adventurous little dog scamper onto the pitch than another lip-synced Dua Lipa performance in the opening ceremony. But there is passion and excitement in spades, and a sense of the unpredictable that makes it one of the world’s most intriguing football spectacles.
With River and Boca in the final that feeling that anything could happen is stronger than ever, making this a simply unmissable event for fans of the beautiful game.
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