The 2018 Conmebol Copa Libertadores final received an astonishing amount of press attention. Some have obsessed over the notion of Buenos Aires’ two largest clubs meeting head-to-head for the first time ever in South America’s largest club fixture. Pundits have dubbed the fixture as “The Biggest Club Football Match Of All Time”. And newspapers have lambasted the Asociación Fútbol Argentino‘s inability to curb fan aggression and violence over the two legs.
Yet after the dust has settled from the final of the 2018 Conmebol Copa Libertadores, we choose to highlight one highly ironic narrative of the River-Boca derby staged at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Excluding the oddities of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, every single South American country has historically been ruled by one of the two Iberian Empires; Portugal in the case of Brazil and Spain in the case of every other country. The ubiquity of the Roman Catholic church on the continent and the extent to which the romance languages Spanish and Portuguese are spoken there owe themselves to European conquest and governance. And the complicated ethnic diversity that pervades South America is the legacy of European colonialism and, unfortunately, the transatlantic slave trade from which the Spanish and Portuguese prospered.
Each of these institutions has left its mark on the national culture of each South American country to the extent where nationals of any South American country are largely able to interact and empathise with those from another country on the continent; their customs, traditions, values and frustrations are largely the same. The development of a common pan-South American culture, mindset and identity has, in turn, provided a platform for the fight for independence from Spain and Portugal.
The largely mythologised figure Simon Bolivar, “El Libertador”, has been immortalised by having one country and two currencies named in his honour. It was he who many South Americans view as the leader of their independence movements from Spain and Portugal. Many Chileans, Colombians, Peruvians and Uruguayans share their affection for Simon Bolivar and see themselves as culturally related to one another, united against a common enemy. When it came to selecting an appropriate and inspirational name for a continental club Football competition, the “Copa Libertadores” was in many ways the obvious choice; contemporary South American society has unquestionably been heavily influenced by its struggle for independence. Modern South Americans may be amicable toward individual Spaniards and Portuguese, but a large part of their identity traces itself back to that successful fight against empire.
So imagine how your average Buenos Aires citizen must be feeling when the final match of the continent’s largest Football trophy named in honour of South America’s liberation from Spain was to be held in the capital city of the very country against whom the continent fought for its independence.
After a stalemate first leg at La Bombonera, River Plate’s home stadium El Monumental was to hold the second leg. Yet it was not to be, thanks to a now infamous incidence of aggression on behalf of River Plate fans toward Boca Juniors players’ team bus, resulting in injuries severe enough to Boca Juniors players to postpone the game for 24 hours. And then another 2 hours. And then another, before eventually the match was called off. The pressing concern however was the looming G20 summit held in Buenos Aires shortly afterwards in December. The security risks were deemed far too high for the final to be replayed in Argentina. Time was running out. If the world was going to get a second leg of the 2018 Copa Libertadores final, an alternative host city would have to be found.
Conmebol ran to FIFA, who intern began to look for alternative cities that could host the “Biggest Club Football Match of all Time”. Asunción, Doha and Miami were immediate suggestions, before word got around that Nasser Al-Khelaifi hoped to bring the sporting event to Paris. Ultimately, it was la Federación Española de Futbol to whom FIFA turned. The Bernabeu beckoned. The rest is history, as is the end result.
The irony of the tale is either painful or delightful, depending which way you’re looking. Thanks to the inability of Conmebol, the AFA and the Buenos Aires security forces to oversee a trouble-free and safe second leg of the continent’s largest Football competition that is effectively named after South America’s independence from Spain, the governing Football body of the country against whom South Americans most desperately want to appear strong, advanced and modern was the one that saved the day.
One can fully appreciate the extent to which this episode will feel like a major humiliation for South Americans. Not least for Argentinians, who are, in the words of Andreas Campomar in his excellent book “¡Golazo!”, the South Americans most inclined to be paranoid about the way in which other cultures and nationalities may look at them as inferior. This episode is surely a kick in the teeth to any Argentinian, or indeed to any South American, who believes in a modern South America that is on equal terms with what they view as the sophisticated and developed Old Country; Europe.
Does the name “Copa Libertadores” still maintain its integrity in light of this episode?