Copa Libertadores: River Plate, Boca Juniors and the final to end all finals

It says much for what Saturday’s match at the Monumental will be like that, two days beforehand, a mere training session across Buenos Aires at La Bombonera produced an experience that would exceed almost anything else in football.

The sights and sounds at Boca Juniors’ famous stadium on Thursday really were something to behold. There, over 60,000 fans packed in – with thousands more outside almost dangerously cramming to join them – to create an atmosphere more visceral than almost any sporting occasion you can think of. Some fans were literally risking their life for better views, trying to perch themselves on top of railings with nothing behind them but an 80-foot drop.

Except, this wasn’t really a training session, and not just because Carlos Tevez and the rest of the Boca players were only having a kick-about in front of cameras. It was a military send-off, the people driving on their soldiers for a campaign they can’t travel alongside them for. Such is the potential for violence that away supporters have been prohibited from both legs of the Copa Libertadores final.


Fans take centre stage at Boca-River Superclasico





1/24 Boca fans cheer ahead of the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final

2/24 Members of the Ituzaingo official River Plate supporters club fall over their leader Mauro Lezama

3/24 A Boca Juniors fan kisses a crucifix

4/24 Sofia Deketele, who was covered with paint and eggs because she just became a doctor, holds a sign with the River Plate flag that reads “Doctor Deketele”

5/24 A young Boca fan sits on a t-shirt his father hung on the safety fencing

6/24 River Plate fans cheer as they wait for their team bus to leave for the first leg match

7/24 Boca Juniors arrive at the La Bombonera stadium ahead of the first leg

8/24 River Plate fan Vicente Zucala at his home in Escobar

9/24 Boca fans climb the fence before the first leg match

10/24 River Plate fan Emanuel Torri walks in the rain showing his tattoo that reads “River Plate”

11/24 A Ford Falcon car decorated with the River Plate colours

12/24 Residents play soccer in the La Boca neighbourhood

13/24 River Plate fans take selfies outside the Monumental stadium

14/24 An image of Diego Maradona on a timber sheet inside a Coventillo

15/24 Silvia, 58, the owner of Matias Parrilla, who cooks for Boca fans next to La Bombonera stadium

16/24 Twin brothers watch the first leg

17/24 Victor, 80, poses inside the pharmacy he used to own in the La Boca neighbourhood

18/24 La Bombonera stadium

19/24 Boca fans eat on a street ahead of the first leg

20/24 A cat sits underneath a poster of the Boca Juniors team from 1998/99

21/24 Miguel Aguirre sits outside his home covered with the colours of River Plate

22/24 Residents drink amongst Boca memorabilia inside Ribera Sur bar

23/24 Virulaso, 60, a former football hooligan and Boca fan

24/24 Boca fans from the same family play in the street

1/24 Boca fans cheer ahead of the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final

2/24 Members of the Ituzaingo official River Plate supporters club fall over their leader Mauro Lezama

3/24 A Boca Juniors fan kisses a crucifix

4/24 Sofia Deketele, who was covered with paint and eggs because she just became a doctor, holds a sign with the River Plate flag that reads “Doctor Deketele”

5/24 A young Boca fan sits on a t-shirt his father hung on the safety fencing

6/24 River Plate fans cheer as they wait for their team bus to leave for the first leg match

7/24 Boca Juniors arrive at the La Bombonera stadium ahead of the first leg

8/24 River Plate fan Vicente Zucala at his home in Escobar

9/24 Boca fans climb the fence before the first leg match

10/24 River Plate fan Emanuel Torri walks in the rain showing his tattoo that reads “River Plate”

11/24 A Ford Falcon car decorated with the River Plate colours

12/24 Residents play soccer in the La Boca neighbourhood

13/24 River Plate fans take selfies outside the Monumental stadium

14/24 An image of Diego Maradona on a timber sheet inside a Coventillo

15/24 Silvia, 58, the owner of Matias Parrilla, who cooks for Boca fans next to La Bombonera stadium

16/24 Twin brothers watch the first leg

17/24 Victor, 80, poses inside the pharmacy he used to own in the La Boca neighbourhood

18/24 La Bombonera stadium

19/24 Boca fans eat on a street ahead of the first leg

20/24 A cat sits underneath a poster of the Boca Juniors team from 1998/99

21/24 Miguel Aguirre sits outside his home covered with the colours of River Plate

22/24 Residents drink amongst Boca memorabilia inside Ribera Sur bar

23/24 Virulaso, 60, a former football hooligan and Boca fan

24/24 Boca fans from the same family play in the street

River Plate’s build-up to their home game was more serene, but only superficially, because there is almost a nervously forced calm around the entire city.

For all the noise the Boca fans made on Thursday, no one from either side actually wants to talk about the game itself, that stands at a perfectly tense 2-2 from the first leg with no away goals rule.

“I don’t want to even predict what will happen because I don’t want to jinx it or bring bad luck,” Diego, a River fan who works in a Beruti shop tells The Independent. That’s what you hear all over, from everyone emotionally invested – which is just about everyone, since the rest of the city are seen as anti-Boca because of their connection to unpopular president Maurizio Macri and general Bayern Munich-like ubiquity.

Buenos Aires has this week been a city gripped by tension, and fear, because it right now feels like an occasion where the potential cost of defeat – and humiliation – far outweighs the relief of victory. It is little wonder this has then been described as “the most unwelcome ever Superclasico” and the “final to end all finals”. In that, it is fitting that this actually is the last ever two-legged Libertadores final before it becomes a one-off Champions League-style showpiece in its own right, making this the ultimate showdown, and bringing the ultimate victory and ultimate defeat. In so many senses.

Boca winning what would be a record seventh Libertadores – to match almost-forgotten city rival Independiente – or River winning their fourth pale next to just winning this unique fixture. Nothing else matters. The stakes are already too great.

One particularly animated taxi driver – who said his family took his Boca shirts away from him so he wouldn’t wear one this week and thereby risk being attacked – explained he’d rather his club win on Saturday than his country beat Brazil in a World Cup final. This is what it means

David Trezeguet, who is half-Argentine and actually came back to the city at the end of his career specifically to experience playing for boyhood team River Plate in the Superclasico, actually compares the build-up to the game to preparing for a World Cup final.

“It’s true, because it’s just so emotional and with so much expectation,” he tells The Independent, “but you’re trying to divorce yourself from all that.”

“That”, however, is just a normal Superclasico. This is the eternal Superclasico, the one that will stand above everything else in history. It is Liverpool-Manchester United or Barcelona-Real Madrid in a Champions League final, with even the emotion from that intensified by the proximity and – as really can’t be avoided – the threat of violence.

Nicolas Burdisso, an international centre-half who played for Boca when they beat River Plate on penalties in the 2004 Libertadores semi-final, felt that prior match was bad enough so can barely imagine this.

“We were all so nervous. The passion, and the sense of history, weighs on you. We lived it in the way everyone is living it today… but this is a final! A final is big enough, but against River?,” he says.

Yet, for all that an unbearable tension like this tends to suffocate so many matches – particularly the majority of past Champions League finals – that hasn’t really been the case in the Libertadores and certainly wasn’t the case in the first leg at La Bombonera.

There, after a remarkably open game that twice saw River come from behind – the first when Lucas Pratto equalised Ramon Abila’s opener after a minute, the second when a Carlos Izquierdoz own goal followed Dario Benedetto’s strike – Franco Armani pulled off an astonishing save from Benedetto to prevent Boca claiming the lead late on. Tevez, who had come on as a sub and squared the ball for Benedetto, immediately roared “keep your heads up, motherf*****s! We’re not dead yet!”

Neither is the tie. Far from it, and there is expected to be a lot of life.

Some of that is down to the nature of the South American football and represents one rare positive from the economic imbalance of the game towards Europe. The level is nowhere near as high, nor as polished, but that brings this glorious rawness.

“The Libertadores is real football,” Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez somewhat self-servingly but not unfairly argued before the second leg, “the Champions League is Playstation football.”

Whoever loses is going to feel the full pain of reality, but that is so in the balance. It is almost perfectly poised. River are seen as the superior team, who will dominate play, but are now hamstrung by the injury to Rafael Borre to go with Ignacio Scocco. Boca aren’t as good, and are a much more disconnected, but do just have a remarkable capacity for goals – especially through Benedetto.

They also have the superior recent record at River’s home stadium in matches between the two. It is because of one of those defeats that the Monumental support will not be making one of their usual mosaics, as it is now seen as bad luck.

This is the kind of thinking that governs the occasion, where every minor detail is seen as part of the most major Superclasico of all time.

There won’t be all that much thinking on Saturday. There will only be visceral emotion and an experience like no other – as well as a result with impact like no other too.

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