Tom Robinson takes a look back at the Superclasico between River Plate and Boca Juniors. Three such games were played in close chronological proximity and as always, with the football came the tension and violence.
Great trilogies are few and far between but when bitter rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors were pitted against each other in the Copa Libertadores round of 16, just days after their scheduled league clash, hopes were predictably raised for a Superclasico triple header of cinematic proportions. As is often the case, it proved to be a disappointment and was ultimately overshadowed by violence. While the brutality on show may have not been out of place in The Godfather, that’s where any comparisons with Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpieces end.
The first of three games in 11 days, the league fixture acted as the perfect primer with both sides sitting joint top of the table with 24 points apiece after 10 games. The choice of referee – always a hot topic of debate in the build-up – was controversially given to Patricio Loustau after his previous poor performance in the Superclasico in the year River were relegated, a 2-0 loss that effectively acted as the catalyst that began their downward spiral to the B Nacional.
And, once again, it was Boca who emerged with a 2-0 victory. In a game that seemed destined for a goalless draw, a late double salvo from substitutes Cristian Pavon and Pablo Perez delivered the knockout blow to River. Indeed, the introduction of a third substitute, Fernando Gago, was just as important as the two goalscorers as Boca regained control of the midfield and began to move the ball quicker, enabling Boca to win the opening bout.
Nevertheless, it was 19-year-old Pavon who grabbed the headlines. The teenage forward, who had been injured by a Leonel Vangioni horror tackle during a pre-season ‘friendly’ against River, got his revenge as he arrived at the far post to rifle in Boca’s first and only his second for the club. In an amusing twist, Arruabarrena had been heard barking instructions for Pavon to switch flanks to the right before Kichán, as he is known, ignored his manager and popped up on the left for the decisive strike. The goal also earned him the keys of a BMW for a month after he had made a bet with his agent’s son before the match. First blood to Boca, but the war was far from won.
Going into the Libertadores knock out ties, Boca and River had experienced contrasting fortunes during the group stage. Boca ran out comfortable winners of an easy Group 5, recording six straight wins, scoring 19 and conceding just two. River, on the other hand, had only just scraped through despite being drawn in what looked to be a relatively simple group to navigate.
The reigning Sudamericana champions went into the final group game without their progress assured, having failed to register a single win from their first five games. Los Millonarios needed to beat Bolivian side San Jose by two clear goals and hope that the already-qualified Tigres would beat Juan Aurich away in Peru. A brace from Rodrigo Mora and one from Teo Gutierrez put River three up in under an hour; their job was done. Meanwhile, over in Chiclayo they were witnessing an absolute barnburner of a match. Everything seemed to be going River’s way as Tigres lead 2-1 but goals either side of half time from Panamanian striker Luis Tejada gave the Peruvians a 3-2 lead and River’s win would count for nothing. But the game swung again and Tigres raced into a 5-3 lead, every goal cheered in the Monumental as if were a River goal. German Pacheco pulled one back but Tigres hung on to win 5-4 on the night, taking River through with them in second place of Group 6.
A humiliating early exit had been avoided but their surprisingly poor performances meant River were the lowest seeded side in the next round and would thus face the top seeded team, Boca Juniors, and set up a repeat of last year’s Copa Sudamericana semi-final. After a decade without a continental confrontation, two had come along in quick succession.
Having learnt from the league game, Gallardo introduced Leonardo Ponzio into the starting line-up for the Libertadores Round of 16 first leg to form a ‘doble 5’ alongside Matias Kranevitter at the base of midfield. The plan worked excellently as the duo stifled Boca and allowed River to take control of the game. There wasn’t much between the side but River were edging it and eventually found a deserved winner, once again late in the game, to take a slender 1-0 advantage into the second leg.
However, the fractious, ill-tempered affair was punctuated by some cynical aggression on and off the ball; a precursor of what was to come in the second leg. River, who under Gallardo have played some of the most attractive football in South America over the last 12 months, resorted to some dark arts usually more associated with a stereotypical Boca side and could count themselves fortunate to have escaped without much punishment. The tone was set with a reckless Vangioni challenge in the first half before the floodgates opened in the second. Ramiro Funes Mori seemed to karate kick Pablo Perez – not full on Nigel de Jong but not far off – and could have easily seen red while Carlos Sanchez got away with clotheslining the back of Gago’s head when the referee’s back was turned.
To fuel the sense of injustice as well as the narrative, it was Gago and Sanchez who were heavily involved in the only goal of the game. Gago, who was not enjoying his best game, had clearly been ruffled and misplaced an easy pass in the centre of the field. The ball was shifted out to Pity Martinez on the left who was clumsily brought down in the box by Leandro Marin for, yep you guessed it, Carlos Sanchez to send Agustin Orion the wrong way from the penalty spot.
River did eventually see red when Teo Gutierrez, never averse to a headloss, petulantly kicked out at Guillermo Burdisso late on. Boca, it must be said, were far from innocent in all the shenanigans as Pablo Perez was caught spitting at Pity Martinez and was lucky not to be retrospectively banned. For all the hype, spectacle and mystique of the Superclasico, this was another timely reminder of the poor quality football, now commonplace, served up between the two grand old rivals.
Nevertheless, it did leave things wonderfully poised. A win apiece in the series and River with the finest of margins going into the all conclusive second leg in the cauldron-like Bombonera; the scene was well and truly set.
Once again the build-up focussed on the referee after the bizarre decision was made to hand the game to Dario Herrera, a 30-year-old referee who had never officiated a Libertadores game before, let alone a Superclasico of this magnitude.
The first half followed a similar pattern of the previous two encounters. Tight, tense and neither side willing to give anything away, especially with the stakes so high, and there was little action of note in the first 45 minutes which ended 0-0. However, that would be quickly overshadowed by the shameful incidents just before the second half.
As the River players were preparing to make their way out onto the field for the second half, a so called Boca ‘fan’ had managed to cut through the wire fence and perforate the inflatable tunnel – supposedly there to protect the players – and dropped what at the time seemed to be pepper-spray, but was later found to be a homemade mix of pepper and acid, resulting in four players going to hospital with first degree burns and keratitis. The man responsible had reportedly been previously banned from the clubs premises some 45 days previously.
Eventually, well over an hour later, the game was called off; the first Superclasico to be suspended since 1931. The incident made headlines around the world as inside Argentina recriminations flew around. Mixed messages from Security Secretary Sergio Berni, who laughably claimed the operation was a success and that there were no flares in the stadium, claimed that responsibility fell on Boca’s shoulders and that the government should intervene in AFA.
As expected, when CONMEBOL finally made their protracted decision, Boca were eliminated from the Libertadores but were fortunate to get away with a limited fine of 4 international home games behind closed doors, 4 international away games without any fans and a fine of US$200,000. The soft punishment, originally mooted as potentially seeing them banned for two years from continental competitions as an example to others, will unfortunately do little to curb the endemic violence that looms over the Argentinian game.
The incident is a sad indictment of the state of affairs in Argentina and yet again highlights the ineptitude and sheer reluctance of the AFA to address the underlying problems at the heart of the game. What measures they have taken, such as banning away fans in the domestic league, have proven to be utterly misguided. A stronger tonic must be taken, just don’t hold your breath for it any time soon.
And so, the trilogy was cut short at the most crucial of junctures. Boca now must focus on the league and try to let their football do the talking on the pitch, rather than off it. As for River, they advance to the quarter-finals where they will meet current Brazilian champions Cruzeiro, another pre-tournament favourite who have been far from convincing thus far, as they keep the dream alive of a continental double.
Written by Tom Robinson
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