Two nights, two games, one city: Attending the Copa Libertadores semi-finals in Buenos Aires

“Look mate, you’re going to need to sit in the front. If you sit back there it’s obvious I’m an Uber car, and some taxi drivers could kick the shit out of me. It happened to someone I know about a week ago.”

Such an overwrought arrival at EZE airport in Buenos Aires on 23 October was a strangely fitting prelude to one of those delicious anomalies that knockout football can throw up. This was the Copa Libertadores – South America’s answer to the UEFA Champions League – and the semi-final draw had thrown up two huge games featuring four mammoth teams, with the tension palpable across the Argentine capital.

The rivalry between South America’s two greatest football nations is well established, thanks in no small part to their success in this tournament. Argentina, with 24 wins, and Brazil, seven further back on 17, were set to go head-to-head in the continent’s premier club competition.

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Well, not quite Argentina vs Brazil. To be more precise, this was Buenos Aires vs Brazil, the big two from the metropolis taking on a pair of giants from across the border.

Two nights.

Two games.

One city.

First up, River Plate were to welcome current Libertadores holders Grêmio to their giant bowl of a home which goes by the name of El Monumental.

The following evening Boca Juniors would cram close to 50,000 into the lopsided Bombonera. A ground one fan proudly told me looked like a collapsing cardboard box would host the outright favourites for the continental crown, Palmeiras – the club who had welcomed back veteran boss Luiz Felipe Scolari and had spent far more than any of their rivals in their pursuit of tangible success, something which was proving tough to come by on the continent.

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Debate has raged for years over which of the Champions League or Libertadores is the tougher competition. The former is light years ahead in terms of technical quality, logistics and playing surfaces, but the latter can make for a more trying experience for players due to the less comfortable conditions, lengthy travel and ferocious atmospheres.

Colin Kazim-Richards, who has played for the likes of Fenerbache, Galatasaray, Feyenoord and Corinthians, has no doubt over which he found harder.

“Logistically speaking, continental competition in South America is crazy,” he told me last year. “You can take a four-hour flight, which isn’t chartered, then another two hours on a bus. And with the quantity of games, you aren’t travelling so far in advance. By the time you get to the stadium you’re already tired.”

On this occasion, it was sure to be the atmosphere and need for one-upmanship between the two nations that would set these encounters apart, catching the attention of football fans far beyond the borders of Argentina and Brazil.

Tuesday, 24 October, 4pm

Things haven’t started positively in the central Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo. There are just a few hours to go until kick-off between River and Grêmio, and the wait for my highly coveted ticket to arrive is taking longer than expected. Officially they have long since sold out, and word is that they’re exchanging on the black market for up to 10,000 pesos.

Simply tracking down someone willing to sell one has taken over a dozen calls, a rudimentary grasp of Spanish and a large dose of faith. As a River fanatic who only wishes to be identified as ‘Ari’ explains, tensions are always heightened when a Brazilian club comes to town.

Grêmio, who saw off Argentine side Lanus in last year’s final, would be a huge scalp, and victory for the Argentines would also move the competition closer to a mouth-watering final: River vs Boca.

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The approach to River’s Monumental is smooth; observed from up close, the ground is not unlike the Maracanã. It’s vast and open, yet the sounds of the stadium aren’t carried away on the wind – not on a night like this, anyway.

The support is fierce as tensions arise between a group of supporters and police on one of the gates. A large number of false tickets have also been in circulation and some unlucky souls won’t be able to pass through. To describe them as angry and frustrated would be a gross understatement.

Inside, Renato Gaúcho, coach of the Brazilian side, is continuing his excellent work in disproving the myth that he’s tactically lacking on the big occasion. His side have recently lost midfield maestro Arthur to Barcelona; star forward Luan is also missing, so Jael – not exactly renowned as the most consistent of finishers – leads the line on Grêmio’s most important night of the year.

The visitors are tested throughout, not only by their opponents but by the stadium itself, with a chorus of over 60,000 voices lending themselves to the River cause. Holding midfielder Michel grabs the only goal of the game for Grêmio just after the hour mark, meaning Renato Gaúcho’s side would only need a draw in Porto Alegre the following week to advance to their second final in as many years.

Wednesday 25 October, 9.30am

“Are you wearing socks?”

It’s not the most traditional greeting I’ve ever received, but I nod as Jorge Arrito arrives bright and early with a ticket for the second semi-final in Buenos Aires: Boca Juniors vs Palmeiras at La Bombonera.

“Keep money and keys in your socks, then. I wouldn’t take a phone or anything you don’t really need. I never do,” Jorge explains. It seems like sound advice to follow.

“This is a night that we’re going to fuck Palmeiras up,” smiles Jorge’s friend and driver. It’s unclear whether the fucking up will be done on or off the field of play.

Of all the clubs in Brazil, it’s Palmeiras who embody the sense of financial disparity more than any other. The side from São Paulo routinely outspend their rivals at home and broad, offering relatively huge sums to the likes of goalkeeper Weverton, midfielder Lucas Lima – on his day, the best passer plying his trade in Brazil – and Colombian forward Miguel Borja. All are internationals, and all have been brought in to help Palmeiras land silverware. Young coach Roger Machado has made way for the conservative pragmatism of Scolari, and the short-term results have certainly been positive.

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The 69-year-old returned for his third spell in charge of the club – a more than common occurrence in this corner of the world – at the end of July and began his reign by overseeing 10 clean sheets in a row. The upturn in form saw the 2016 league champions shoot to the top of this year’s table, as well as advance to the final four of the Libertadores.

Approaching the stadium around 90 minutes before kick-off, the party is already in full swing. The layout of the “collapsed cardboard box” is comparable to Vasco’s São Januário in the north of Rio de Janeiro. Small, densely packed streets make for a tremendous din.

In the same way that a tightly packed stadium can produce a more vibrant atmosphere than a vast bowl of an arena, the tight roads and walkways in the neighbourhood of La Boca make it far easier to soak up the atmosphere under the lights.

Widely known to be home to one of the most electrifying atmospheres in world football, Boca also possess of the most instantly recognisable kits in the game. Yet for Gilmar Ferreira, a journalist for Brazilian daily newspaper Extra, there’s a certain level of animosity towards Boca which exceeds that which is aimed at River.

“I really detest Boca,” he says. “They have the same image as Flamengo and Corinthians in Brazil; they try and play up this popular image they have, away from the pitch. But I can see them finding a way past Palmeiras here.”

Having lived in Rio for nine years, it’s a stance this writer can sympathise with. Branding themselves garishly as the “time do povo” – “team of the people” – club directors at Flamengo don’t hesitate to charge 350 Brazilian reais for tickets when the club reach a final – a ginormous figure in a country where the minimum salary remains at the laughably low sum of R$964, meaning a pair of tickets would consume roughly 70 per cent of your income.

Back at La Bombonera and two well-struck second-half goals from Darío Bendedetto have given Boca a deserved 2-0 first-leg lead. It’s an excellent triumph over the richest side in the continent, and yet another disappointment for a Brazilian club on the biggest stage of all.

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Given their financial advantage over all of their South American counterparts, Brazil should be dominating the Libertadores year in, year out. Yet in the three editions of the tournament between Atlético Mineiro’s win in 2013 and Grêmio’s triumph last year, Brazil managed a solitary semi-final appearance (São Paulo in 2016), a record rightly seen as scandalous by the nation’s sporting press.

There are Boca fans who have their theories as to why Brazil has struggled to punch its weight. Marcelo Mesqueira puts it down to a superiority complex. “

There’s an arrogance about Brazil, from the press to the fans. They think they’re better than other countries and that feeling transfers itself to the players. Before the Grêmio vs Lanus final last year, there were Brazilian journalists saying that they didn’t know much about Lanus, and as they didn’t know a lot it would be simple for Lanus. What kind of attitude is that for a professional to have?”

That feeling resonates among Boca fans around the ground, and at the final whistle there’s much glee at their defeat of a more financially stable rival. The job, however, is only halfway done.

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The aftermath

A week later and it’s job done for both Argentine teams. This being South America, it wasn’t without controversy. Having been given a touchline ban for the delay in his players appearing for the second half of the first leg, River coach Marcelo Gallardo flouted the rules in Porto Alegre, entering the dressing room at half-time to address his team.

Given that Santos had earlier been punished with a 3-0 defeat for fielding an ineligible player against Independiente, the decision has inevitably brought howls of derision from Brazil. On the surface, the Libertadores has the final of its dreams – two giants from the same city making history in a grand final which the whole world will lap up. For Brazilians, though, the favouritism CONMEBOL have shown towards Argentine clubs has reared its head once again.

“We can’t forget that River fielded [Bruno] Zuculini, an irregular player, in this edition of the Libertadores and weren’t  punished,” said Leandro Webster, part of political group Grêmio do Prata. “I never truly believed in a change of result. I wasn’t overly concerned with the judgement as the decision had already been made in advance.”

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Zuculini had been sent off for Racing in the Copa Sul-Americana back in 2013 and ordered to serve a four-game suspension. With the passing of time the charge was reduced to two games, which still hadn’t been served when he took to the pitch when River met Flamengo in this season’s group stage, a fact conveniently ignored by those in suits.

You don’t even have to dig beneath the surface to see the decision stinks. A paltry $50,000 fine and a four-game ban for Gallardo has robbed the Libertadores of its integrity, while the glitz and romance of that one-city final remains.

Two nights, two games, one city: Attending the Copa Libertadores semi-finals in Buenos Aires
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