Day of chaos leads to River Plate vs. Boca Juniors being postponed, eventually
A worrying aspect of South American football -- especially viewed through the eyes of someone who lived through the bad, old days of the English game in the 1970s and '80s -- is the occasional lack of basic measures in crowd control. The latest example was seen on Saturday, when trouble before the Copa Libertadores final second leg led to the game's postponement.
As the Boca Juniors team bus approached River Plate's Estadio Monumental for the decisive second leg of the Copa Libertadores final, streets should have been cordoned off and crash barriers should have been used to ensure that, close to the ground, it was not possible for the bus to be attacked.
As it was, the scenes that followed showed any separation was clearly inadequate. The away team's transport might have had a police escort, but with thousands of River fans up close, it was struck by a hail of bottles and objects, breaking several windows.
The effect was twofold. First, in an attempt to gain control of the situation, Buenos Aires police reportedly used tear gas, which had a harmful effect on several Boca players and caused them to vomit as they reached the dressing room.
Second, physical injury was suffered by at least two Boca players as a consequence of splinters of glass from the broken windows. In particular, team captain Pablo Perez was hit in the eye and was taken to a hospital.
Even at that point -- some 90 minutes before the scheduled 5 p.m. local time kickoff -- it was clear that the game should not go ahead. There was clearly no common sense in the idea that any quality of spectacle could be maintained under such conditions.
Moreover, player safety should be paramount. Perez came back from hospital -- his eye bandaged -- and would have been ill-advised to take the field. His colleagues, even with time to recover from the effects of ingesting a toxic substance, could not possibly have been at their psychological peak for what is almost certainly the biggest game they will ever play and the biggest game in the history of South American club football.
All of which leads to an obvious question: Why did it take so long to decide that the game should be pushed back to Sunday?
Kickoff was initially delayed for an hour; then for another 20 minutes; then another 55. The eventual 7:15 p.m. start time also passed by without teams taking to the pitch. Only after all of these deadlines had come and gone did the news come that the match would take place Sunday.
True, there were security considerations. Argentina has a deep problem of fan violence -- hence the ban on away supporters from this final -- and, seemingly, a lack of political will to get to grips with it. A charitable view might be that the delay had a common sense explanation: It would buy time for Boca to leave the stadium and get safely away before the crowd dispersed.
Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. It would appear that CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, was keen for the game to go ahead. Carlos Tevez, Boca's veteran striker, told media that he and his teammates did not want to play, but were being forced to do so. CONMEBOL's medical staff issued a statement declaring that there was no medical reason for the match to be suspended.
Perhaps commercial motives were upmost in the mind of the administrators. CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez also mentioned illustrious guests, such as FIFA president Gianni Infantino. He did not mention the fans, left hanging in a packed stadium for up to seven hours before being told to come back the next day.
The welcome outbreak of common sense appears to have come from the clubs. With entire justification, Boca did not want to play the game, while River came to the realisation that a title won under such conditions would inevitably be stained.
Better for everyone, then, to postpone, although that scenario creates problems of its own. Time is tight, for one. With the G20 summit coming to town next weekend, security services will be stretched. From a football point of view, next month's FIFA Club World Cup means that South America urgently needs to define its champion.
And so they will try again Sunday, hopefully without any further pregame trouble. However, the rescheduled match itself is already in a bit of doubt after the city government ordered River's Monumental stadium closed later on Sunday for exceeding capacity limits and failing to keep exits clear. Ricardo Pedace, head of the government's safety agency, said they would do everything they could to make sure the match would take place.
Ticketing could still be an issue, as the ground was packed hours before Saturday's scheduled kickoff, with some ticket holders unable to get in. However, it is surely preferable to wait 24 hours, rather than play such a showpiece occasion in the shadow of chaos.