Imagine a rivalry more ferocious than Real Madrid versus Barcelona, Manchester United versus Liverpool, perhaps even Celtic versus Rangers, and throw in the threat of violence that might hang over a meeting of West Ham and Millwall and you are probably nowhere close to what awaits in Buenos Aires on Saturday night. There will be no bigger club game played in football in 2018, perhaps this decade. It is certainly the biggest game of all time in Argentinian club football.
Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera will host the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final while a fortnight later River Plate’s El Monumental stages the climax. It will be the first ever Superclásico final in South America’s grandest club competition and for two nights the footballing world’s attention will be shifted away from the monied aristocrats of Europe.
There was some doubt whether this fixture of the century might be allowed to happen. Brazilian team Gremio, who River defeated in the semi-final, demanded the second leg be overturned after River scored two late goals in Porto Alegre. Coach Marcelo Gallardo was banned from contact with his players but had entered the dressing room at half-time with his team 1-0 down yet the decision went River’s way.
CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, were hardly going to stop this from taking place.
By contrast to the hi-tech enormodomes that Europe’s top clubs play in these days, both stadiums are down-at-heel, places of tatty faded grandeur and atmospheric to the point of dangerousness.
That hasn’t put off Vladimir Putin, who will be taking time out from the G-20 summit to attend the second leg and a record number of media passes have been applied for.
A ban on away fans put in place for both legs, itself usual practice in Argentine football since 2013, will reduce a little of that danger, but will do little to reduce the fervour in either stadium. The Bombonera is notorious for the bounce of its stands when fans are in full voice and barring a River walkover, that can be guaranteed on Saturday. Diego Maradona, the club’s most famous former player and spiritual leader of the barras bravas who man the fences, will be leading the choruses from his cushioned executive box.
Traditionally, River, Los Millonarios, are the club of Buenos Aires’ higher classes while Boca have always been the blue collar team. In truth, the passing of time over 105 years of shared rivalry has led both clubs to have followings that embrace every social strata.
With Argentinian football vulnerable to the frequent oscillations of the country’s economy and in no way insulated by the riches that European Champions League clubs luxuriate in, both have suffered fluctuating fortunes and financial collapses, with River relegated from the top division as recently as 2011.
River’s recovery from that embarrassment allowed the rival clubs, who have 69 domestic titles between them, to together become two of South America’s best teams. Boca are in their 11th final, having won six Copas previously, but have not won it since 2007. River won it as recently as 2015, their third title.
European football has been the destination for Argentinian players since the mid-20th century, but the wealth on offer across the Atlantic cannot buy anything quite as special as this fixture. On Saturday, Boca and River players will become part of a history that the huge number of greats who have played for either club, many of them both clubs, never got to experience.
The likes of Maradona and Juan Roman Riquelme to name two Boca legends, and Hernan Crespo, Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega and Radamel Falcao to mention modern River greats, can only sit and watch.
At 34, Carlos Tevez gets chance to win his second Copa Libertadores, 15 years after his first, in his third spell at the club he made his name and has never been able to leave behind. It is likely Tevez will be a substitute, as might former Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Gago, while Mauro Zarate, of Birmingham, West Ham, Watford and many others besides, looks to be a likely starter.
Veteran Dario Benedetto, who spent much of his career playing in Mexican football, is Boca’s leading striker, while Cristian Pavon is the 22-year-old forward who has calmed his nerves ahead of the big one by having his chest tattooed with a giant eagle.
For River, Juan Quintero, who shone for Colombia during the summer’s World Cup, is leading creative player while Exequiel Palacios is a midfielder that Real Madrid and Barcelona have been battling for and the former look to have won the battle for the 20-year-old.
But as history is made, the shop window can wait as the world looks on.