Buenos Aires: The final that never had been is at risk of becoming the final that never was.
The meeting of River Plate and Boca Juniors, Argentina’s two biggest teams, in the final of the Copa Libertadores — South America’s biggest club football competition — was postponed on Sunday for the second day in a row by tournament organisers. It remains unclear when, where and even if it will take place.
A statement from Conmebol, the South American football confederation, which oversees the Copa Libertadores, said the decision was reached “with the goal of preserving sporting equality”.
The second leg of the home-and-home final — billed as the Final to End All Finals, given the prominence of the clubs and the competition — was originally scheduled to kick off at 5pm local time on Saturday. That start was delayed and the game was eventually postponed a day after River Plate fans attacked the bus carrying Boca’s team to their rivals’ Estadio Monumental.
Several players were hit by glass after a barrage of sticks, stones and bottles struck the bus. Two were taken to the hospital with eye injuries, and several more were left retching and gasping for air after the police fired pepper spray to try to clear the crowd and the gas drifted inside the bus.
Eventually, despite pressure to play from Conmebol, the presidents of the teams reached an agreement to delay the match 24 hours, and kick-off at 5pm Sunday instead.
Overnight, though, Boca Juniors had a change of heart. A group of their players informed the team’s management that they did not feel they were in the right state of mind to play, and on Sunday morning the club petitioned Conmebol to delay the game again. A statement said that Boca Juniors felt the circumstances did not allow for both teams to have an equal chance.
Initially, it seemed that plea had been ignored. At 1.30pm, River Plate opened the gates at the Monumental to the thousands of fans waiting to enter the stadium. A few minutes later, they confirmed that the game would go ahead as scheduled.
But only a half-hour later, Alejandro Dominguez, the Conmebol president, announced that it would not. The deciding factor, he said, was the fact that several of Boca’s players would not have been fit to play had the game gone ahead because of the injuries they had suffered in Saturday’s bus attack.
“We have to analyse this from the perspective of what is sporting and fair,” Dominguez told Fox Sports. “There is a team that has been injured and we are here for the good of the spectacle, so that when the starting XI of both clubs enter the field, they go without any excuse, and the match is played on a level playing field.
“In these circumstances, Conmebol has decided there is no sporting equality. In these conditions we want to guarantee a sense of fair play. We believe we have to give conditions so that both clubs have time to recuperate, and because of that we have postponed the game.”
Although Dominguez acknowledged that his organisation had to be “self-critical” for the way it had handled the two postponements, he laid the blame for a situation he described as a “disgrace” on “a few misfits” rather than “Argentine society”.
Conmebol announced that its officials would meet with River Plate President Rodolfo D’Onofrio and his Boca Juniors counterpart, Daniel Angelici, at 10am Tuesday at the confederation’s headquarters in Asuncion, Paraguay, to discuss where and when the game will be held.
Dominguez was adamant the game would be played, rather than simply forfeited by one side and awarded to the other, though the timetable for the match is tight: the G-20 summit of world leaders arrives in Buenos Aires later this week — US President Donald Trump is among those expected to attend — and Argentina’s security apparatus is not capable of handling both events.
There are football considerations, too: the Conmebol champions will be one of the favourites in the Fifa Club World Cup next month in the UAE. That tournament begins on December 12, although the South American representatives’ first match is not until December 18.