By John Foley
SOCCER fans could hardly have missed the shambles that unfolded around the scheduled second leg of the Copa Libertadores final in Buenos Aires at the weekend.
The final of South America’s Champions League pitted the city’s two biggest rivals – Boca Juniors and River Plate – against each other in a game dubbed “the final to end all finals”.
With the score 2-2 from the first leg at Boca’s home stadium La Bombonera, Saturday’s return leg was set to take place across town at the home of River Plate, El Monumental.
But just a couple of hours before the game, the Boca team bus was attacked by River fans on its way to the stadium. Police fired tear gas to calm the crowd but smoke also entered the team bus through broken windows injuring some of the players.
Amid the chaos, the game was first delayed a couple of times and then rescheduled for Sunday.
On Sunday, amid arguments, accusations and counter-accusations, and with fans already in the stadium ahead of the planned 5pm kick-off, it was postponed once again pending a meeting of CONMEBOL, the South American football association, today.
It was a disastrous and yet fittingly Argentinian end to a terrible weekend. There is something about the psyche of the people from that part of the world that always expects the worst, or at the very least is prepared for that eventuality.
It has to be something to do with coming from a country that has disappointed its people on so many occasions over the course of its relatively short history.
Look back 100 years ago and Argentina was one of the 10 richest countries in the world, with a powerful agricultural-based economy set to push them to greater heights.
But over the course of the decades since, repeated financial mismanagement, corruption, poor leadership and a lack of vision saw the country drift into despair. A military dictatorship didn’t help matters either.
By 2001 the country declared bankruptcy. As is their wont, the IMF and the World Bank swept in with draconian measures, far sterner than anything Ireland had to endure a few years later, and 17 years on they still haven’t come out the other side.
We saw it with our own eyes when we spent some time travelling in South America in 2004 and 2005. Around that time, there were what we have come to call ‘green shoots’ appearing in the economy but time and time again in conversations with Argentinians, they would shrug their shoulders with a terrible fatalism and reply with something along the lines of “sure, but it’s only a matter of time before the politicians mess it up again”.
It’s always been that way, they would argue, in life, in sport. Hope followed by disappointment. And sport means so much to them. Not least because it allowed them to lose themselves in the moment. Histories of Argentina will point to the emergence of their international football team in the early part of the 1900s as a hugely important chapter in the story of their nationhood: this shining beacon, a team representing the people which went out into the international arena and wore their colours with pride.
That hope is also why Maradona is and will always remain a God in the country. He was, of course, the superstar who in 1986 guided them to their second World Cup victory, the one not clouded by the rule of the colonels in the late 1970s, the one where they got to raise two fingers to their old enemy England thanks to his two memorable goals – one ridiculous, one sublime – in that quarter-final in Mexico.
For a brief moment in time, Maradona and his team disproved the point that in Argentina everything eventually goes to pot.
One of the abiding memories of our time in Argentina was that whenever they had a minute or two to fill between programmes on television , they would just play reruns of Maradona’s most famous goals.
I remember seeing it in bars and in hostels, men and women, just stopping in their tracks to lean against a door frame and watch with a look of simple pleasure on their faces as Maradona once again strolled through the English defence to score past Shilton, or conjure two more against Belgium in the semi-final.
It’s why Lionel Messi will never be a God in his homeland. He’s a special player, but still human because without a World Cup he’s always a symbol that, eventually, things fall apart.
We were lucky enough to make it to River v Boca while in Buenos Aires. It was just a regular league ‘Superclásico’, not “the final to end all finals”, but the atmosphere was intense.
Unlike in the Copa finals where no away fans were permitted, there was a small group of about 5000 Boca fans at El Monumental that day in November 2004. The stadium was packed two hours before kick-off and the atmosphere reached fever pitch during the curtain-raiser, a ‘minor’ match between the club’s U17 sides. It must have been some experience for players so young to have to play a game as 80,000-plus wild football supporters chanted non-stop throughout.
Strangely, when the proper game began there was far less singing, just a pregnant tension that was relieved only when River scored their goals in a 2-0 win.
Of course, South American football no longer holds the same cache as it once did. The globalisation of the game and the instant attraction of European wealth means the vast majority of the best players rarely spend more than a season playing in their domestic leagues before high-tailing it to Portugal, Spain, England and beyond.
But you can be certain that for fans of River and Boca, Saturday’s final was the pinnacle of their week, their month, their year.
There was anger that the game could not take place. But equally, you can be sure that within a couple of hours around Buenos Aires, that familiar fatalism was kicking in and shoulders were being shrugged.
“Of course they messed it up. After all, this is Argentina!”
*This column appeared in the 27 November edition of The Nationalist