The final of the 2018 Copa Libertadores will have been many casual football fans’ first introduction to South America’s most esteemed cup competition.
Thirty-two teams, the cream of the continent’s crop, were whittle down until just two remained. As luck would have it, those two were Boca Juniors and River Plate.
For those who don’t follow Argentinian football, the two Buenos Aires teams are arch-rivals, but not just any arch-rivals. This is a bitter feud which spans generations and runs far deeper than your average squabble over who’s the best team in the city. It is emblematic of a class divide, and while like any rivalry the origins may have been lost to the mists of time, the Superclassico matters so deeply to so many in Argentina.
So when it became apparent that they would face each other in the final of the Copa Libertadores, the highest prize available to either, sparks were always bound to fly. But no one could have anticipated what happened next.
The match was referred to in the media as “The Final to End all Finals.” If anything, that was underselling it. The final also happened to be the last two-legged Copa Libertadores, with subsequent editions held over a single leg at a neutral venue.
The first leg took place at Boca’s home stadium, La Bombonera. As with all Superclassicos, the event was marred by pre-match violence. But nothing that could have led to the postponement of the match. After 34 minutes, Ramón Ábila gave Boca the lead, pouncing on the rebound to his own shot to finish under the keeper.
The noise was deafening as the Boca faithful made La Bombonera tremor with joy. The mood could hardly have been any different a minute later, as River equalised through Lucas Pratto – a former Boca academy graduate had got the goal. The contrast in the noise that greeted the first goal was striking. No away fans are allowed to matches in Argentina, an edict that was decreed after the tragic death of a Lanus fan during a match against Estudiantes in 2013. There was no River roar to greet the goal as Pratto wheeled away.
The noise was restored on the stroke of half time as Darío Benedetto flicked home a lateral set-piece ball with his head. River restored parity in the second half, again through Pratto. It was a very similar goal to Boca’s second: a straight set-piece and a header on.
That was to be that for the first leg. Boca missed a golden chance to take a 3-2 lead to El Monumental when Benedetto missed a sitter as the game entered added time. But with no away goals rule, this was still a decent platform on which to build for the blue half of Buenos Aires.
The second leg at River’s stadium was due to be held two weeks after the first, on the 24th of November. In the end, the match wasn’t hosted until the 9th of December. And it wasn’t in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t in Argentina. It wasn’t even in South America.
As the Boca bus rolled up to El Monumental, hundreds of missiles were thrown and windows on the vehicle were smashed. Players on the bus were hurt in the melee, although not seriously. Kick-off was delayed to ensure the safety of the players. The match had originally been scheduled to start at 5 pm, but was moved back to 6:00, then again to 6:20, then again to 7:15, and once more to 7:30. Ultimately, the match was abandoned and scheduled to be played the following day.
But prior to kick-off, the Boca hierarchy was unhappy with the dangerous conditions, and so requested the match be postponed yet again. In the end, CONMEBOL, South America’s UEFA equivalent, announced that the replayed second leg would be played, not in Argentina, but elsewhere. It was a decision that was not greeted happily by River fans who feared that they would not receive the same home advantage as Boca.
In the end, CONMEBOL reached an agreement with Real Madrid, and it was organised for the match to be held at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Spain. There was a degree of irony in this as the name “Copa Libertadores” was originally given to the tournament to commemorate independence from Spain.
Moving the match was a logistical nightmare, with away fans initially banned and then subsequently unbanned, with 5000 from each team ultimately making the trip to Europe.
Finally, several weeks later than billed, the final to end all finals got underway. It was Boca that took the lead through Benedetto, the striker chopping inside his marker after receiving the ball on a lightning-fast counterattack and coolly finishing to make amends for his miss at the end of the first leg.
But River equalised with just over 20 minutes to play, Pratto on the scoresheet once again. He swiped home from a wide-right cutback and sent the travelling River fans into raptures. The match went to extra-time.
When Juan Fernando Quintero struck a beautiful shot into the top right-hand corner of the net with 12 minutes of the second half of extra-time remaining, things looked bleak for Boca. They threw everyone forward, desperately seeking an equaliser. Goalkeeper Agustín Rossi was essentially playing as a forward for the last eight or so minutes.
With the seconds remaining, Boca had a corner and the ball almost found the head of Rossi three yards from goal. But River got it clear, and with the goal empty at the other end, they knew they were about to score the goal that would secure the title. Pity Martínez did the honours and River won the title. That was that. One of the most extraordinary ends to one of the most extraordinary finals you’re ever likely to see.