BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina’s proud soccer tradition has been sullied by its fervent, fanatical fans.
The land of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona has won the World Cup twice, and it felt a sense of overwhelming pride in hosting perhaps the most important club final ever.
But the second leg of the globally anticipated “Game of the Century” between Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate will be played Sunday more than 6,000 miles from the Argentine capital at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid.
“We’re going to play the Copa Libertadores 10,000 kilometers away,” complained River coach Marcelo Gallardo. “Someday we’re going to rethink what just happened, and we’re going to remember this as a total embarrassment.”
The change of venue happened after Boca Juniors players were injured when their bus was attacked by River Plate fans. That prompted organizers to postpone, and eventually move, the second leg of the final to Europe. The teams drew 2-2 in the first leg.
The switch only highlighted the rotten state of local soccer, which has been plagued with corruption, chaos and unrelenting violence for years. The decision also showed the waning influence of South American soccer’s governing body, which found it impossible to stage its biggest club match on its own continent.
“It’s a tough blow,” Argentine President Mauricio Macri told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
Macri, a die-hard Boca fan who presided over the club for more than a decade, said the attack “must lead us all to reflection.”
The rivalry between Boca and River ranks up there with the most intense in the world of sports. The matchup was more magnified than usual because the clubs were facing each other for the first time in the final of South America’s equivalent of the Champions League.
The Argentine soccer federation promoted the game as a personal achievement – a way to overcome the national team’s failure at the World Cup, where Argentina was eliminated in the last 16 by eventual champion France. Since then, Messi has skipped the national team’s friendly games and there are reports that he is still dismayed by Argentina’s poor performance in Russia.
Obsessed with promoting Argentina’s image abroad, Macri had said visiting fans should be allowed at the two-leg final. It was a call at odds with a 2013 ban in Argentine soccer aimed at reducing violence. Macri had said it was “a good opportunity to show maturity, and that we’re changing, and (soccer) can be played in peace.” He later backtracked on the proposal and left the decision up to the clubs.
The nonprofit group “Let’s Save Football” says 328 people have been killed in soccer-related violence dating from 1924.
“We have recorded more aggressions against players, referees and soccer bosses than fights or aggressions between rivaling fans,” the NGO said in a recent report. “Violence doesn’t disappear but rather mutates … it’s a cultural problem, not just a problem that has to do with police.”
Some Boca players were injured in their bus a few blocks from River’s Monumental Stadium when rocks and pieces of wood thrown by River supporters shattered the windows. Some players were also affected by tear gas and pepper spray used by police to quell the violence.
“Many years ago in England, there was a similar problem. And a strong decision changed that,” said Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, who is from Argentina. “Today, it’s fantastic to come here and watch football at the stadium. It’s a sport to enjoy. It’s not a drama. In Argentina, we’re still far from that.
“We’re an amazing country and people but we still have a lot of problems … it’s cultural. It’s going to be a very tough job to change that. I’m not sure it’s going to change.”
Although it’s not the most serious episode of violence in South America, governing body CONMEBOL said Argentina was not in condition to host the final.
Many see the decision to move the game abroad as a lucrative business deal aimed at filling the pockets of a few. Others say it shows how Argentina has lost influence at CONMEBOL since the 2014 death of Julio Grondona, the longtime head of the country’s soccer federation who was also a senior vice president of FIFA and head of the FIFA finance committee.
Maradona, former Paraguay goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert and Brazil defender Dani Alves were among those who criticized CONMEBOL for what they say is giving in to Europe’s might. The tournament, named after the “liberators” of South America from Spanish rule, is now dependent on the old colonial conqueror, prompting some to joke that it should be named “Conquistadors.”
Even the mood in Argentina has soured among Boca and River fans, who have yet to buy all of the 5,000 tickets available for each team.
The cost of traveling to Madrid is too much for most, especially during a time of economic crisis in Argentina, where the peso has lost about half of its value this year. But even if they did have the means, many say it will never live up to the hype after they were stripped of the “Final of All Finals” in their homeland.
“The Libertadores final is not the same,” said former Boca playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, who won the tournament three times. “They took away our final. It will now be the most expensive friendly in history.”
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