It was supposed to be the Final to End All Finals.
On Saturday, Argentina’s two biggest soccer clubs were supposed to meet in the final of South America’s biggest soccer competition. The rivalry between River Plate and Boca Juniors is arguably the fiercest in the entire world, and with the first leg of the final finely poised at 2-2, the scene was set for an epic clash. Public-service announcements advised those with medical problems to check-in with their doctors prior to the game, while Argentina’s AM550 Radio Colonia said they’d offer a special broadcast — complete with Zen music — for fans with heart conditions.
Instead, the match turned into a shambles before it had even began.
As the bus carrying the Boca Juniors team was escorted through Buenos Aires, it was attacked with stones and projectiles by rival River Plate fans. Boca players were injured by flying glass, and when police used tear gas to try and disperse the crowd it drifted inside the bus, causing players to wretch.
River Plate supporters attack Boca Juniors squad bus with pepper spray and rocks ahead of the Copa Libertadores final pic.twitter.com/h1FktcFQkF
— Indy Football (@IndyFootball) November 24, 2018
The scenes could have been a lot worse — the driver was apparently injured by the projectiles as well, and the Boca club vice-president had to grab the wheel. “He held the wheel until I reacted and could take control,” driver Darío Ebertz told Argentine media. “If he didn’t, I don’t know what would have happened. It’s a disgrace.”
In the wake of the violence, the match was cancelled and re-scheduled for Sunday. However, after the initial postponement of the match, violence once again spilled out into the streets of the capital city, with police clashing with fans — these melees coming just two days after similar violent confrontations at another, smaller soccer match resulted in sixteen police officers being injured. The re-scheduled match between River Plate and Boca Juniors was then cancelled again. Now, the South American Football Federation, Conmebol, will meet on Tuesday to decide when the second leg of the Copa Libertadores can be played.
Soccer violence is nothing new in Argentina — as the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson noted there have been 93 deaths from soccer-related violence in Argentina in the last decade alone. But the importance of this game, coupled with Argentinian football’s desire to move away from the corruption and greed that has stymied the country’s soccer federation, as well as the chance of creating a Copa Libertadores that brings in more cash — which would allow South America to better compete with European soccer — means that its cancellation was nothing short of a sporting humiliation for the country.
“It’s a sad day for Argentinian soccer,” Boca president Daniel Angelici said. “It was supposed to be a great festival of Argentine soccer but a few [hooligans]…ended up ruining a day which all Argentinian soccer, and all world soccer, was waiting for.” Meanwhile, former Argentinian superstar Gabriel Batistuta opined that it was “shameful” to witness “another lost opportunity while the world watches.”
Otra oportunidad más perdida delante del mundo entero que nos observa, vergonzoso, lamentable.
— Gabriel Batistuta (@GBatistutaOK) November 24, 2018
To make matters even worse, the world’s leaders — including President Donald Trump, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron — are all scheduled to arrive in Buenos Aires this week for the G-20 summit. Not only does this give Argentine security forces the unenviable task of having to prepare for an international summit alongside their effort at securing the city for the re-scheduled soccer game, it also serves to show Argentina in the worst possible light precisely at a moment when it desperately wanted to put its best foot forward.
Argentina is currently in the midst of a massive economic crisis, with the International Monetary Fund lending it $50 billion this June to help combat debt obligations, inflation, and a huge fiscal deficit. Two months later, an explosive report by the Argentine newspaper La Nación showed that tens of millions of dollars worth of bribes had traded hands between politicians during the early 2000s.
Amid all of this political instability, soccer should be an outlet of joy for the people of Argentina — an escape from the constant news of government malfeasance and soaring consumer prices. Instead, at the expense of millions of passionate and law-abiding fans, the Copa Libertadores final has become one more dispiriting reflection of the wider corruption and woes haunting the country.