Moving the Copa Libertadores final to Lima another headache for CONMEBOL
The Under-17 World Cup, currently taking place in Brazil, was supposed to happen in Peru. The country was stripped of its right to stage the tournament when FIFA was not satisfied with the guarantees offered by the Peruvian government.
And a new era of club football in South America was supposed to kick off in Peru this Saturday too. Lima, the capital, was chosen to stage the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent. Instead of the traditional home and away two legged final, the continent has now gone with a one-off decider on a neutral ground. But, also for lack of governmental guarantees, Saturday's game was moved from Lima to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.
But Lima has now become the unlikely savior of the South American game. The continent's big showpiece is the final of the Copa Libertadores, the local version of the Champions League. The first neutral-ground final could hardly be more glamorous -- reigning champions River Plate of Argentina against Flamengo of Brazil. They were due to meet in Santiago, Chile on Nov. 23, but on Tuesday an emergency meeting ended up changing the venue. The match will now take place in Lima.
Santiago had seemed such a safe choice for the first neutral-ground Libertadores final. Chile had often been held up as an example of stability.
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Not any more. On Oct. 18 the country was shaken by a wave of protests, sparked originally by a rise in Santiago's subway fares. Discontent that had been simmering away for some time came to the boil. A heavy handed response for the government inflamed matters still further. Huge multitudes of Chileans took to the streets to protest, and it has been reported that around 20 people have died in the disturbances.
CONMEBOL, the South American football confederation, hoped that the situation would calm down, and that the Libertadores final could go ahead as planned. That started to look a forlorn hope last week, when Chile announced that it would no longer host two events, a climate change meeting and an economic summit for Asian and Pacific nations. Even so, Chile's new sports minister announced that the Libertadores final would go ahead.
Santiago's mayor, meanwhile, doubted that it could happen while Chilean football remains suspended. The national team were scheduled to face Bolivia in a friendly on Nov. 15 in Concepcion, Chile's second city. When this was cancelled, it seemed much less likely that the Libertadores clash would be played in Chile -- especially as it seemed clear that the game itself would provide a focal point for further protests.
And so on Tuesday an emergency meeting was held at the headquarters of CONMEBOL in Paraguay, attended by the presidents of Flamengo and River Plate, and also of the football federations of Argentina, Brazil and Chile. They had to decide on whether the change the venue and/or the date of the game.
Might a week's delay give Chile time to control the protests? Might it better to give an alternative venue an extra week to prepare?
It seems that on this issue commercial considerations prevailed, and the original date was kept. This was almost certainly enough to rule out any possibility of the game taking place in Santiago -- indeed, when the change of venue was announced, there were scenes of celebration in the streets of the Chilean capital.
But the decision on the alternative was not an easy one. The meeting went on for almost five hours.
It is believed that CONMEBOL would have been happy with Asuncion, taking advantage of the structure in place for this Saturday's Sudamericana decision. But the clubs had doubts about the city's capacity to handle an influx of so many fans. This weekend's meeting is one thing; Colon of Argentina and, especially, Ecuador's Independiente del Valle are relatively small clubs. Flamengo and River Plate are giants who move multitudes. Montevideo in Uruguay was a possibility, but Flamengo had made it known that they thought it was too close to Argentina. A number of Colombian cities were discussed. But the outcome, stressed by all as the consensus solution, was Lima.
The Peruvian capital is a long way from Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires -- all of five hours flying time. But given the logistical nightmare that is just beginning, there are advantages. Many supporters have already finalised their travel plans for Santiago. Will hotels refund their money? Maybe not. But in most cases the airlines that serve Santiago also fly to Lima. The clubs should pressure the airlines to allow fans to swap. Failing that, there is no need to scrap the original flights, since return trips between the two cities are relatively cheap.
Then there is the question of tickets. Clearly the original tickets will be honoured, and those who cannot travel with have their money refunded. But there should be more tickets available.
The new home of the 2019 Libertadores final is the Monumental, the home of the Universitario club. It has an 80,000 capacity, over 30,000 more than the original venue in Chile. The good news, then, is that more fans will be able to watch the big game. But access is problematic. It is located on the edge of the city. Policing both sets of supporters all the way along the endless Avenida Javier Prado would be a headache. South America's football bosses have plenty of those -- this is the second consecutive year that the final has had to be moved. Last year's second leg between Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors was controversially switched to Madrid.
This time, though, they have kept the showpiece occasion on South American soil.