When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. In the end, the most anticipated Copa Libertadores final of all time gave us a second leg that few will remember, such will be the legacy of this strange and regrettable football fiasco.
Sunday’s re-re-arranged final between River Plate and Boca Juniors in Madrid was a fine spectacle on the Bernabeu pitch; energetic, committed and fully befitting of the occasion that the pre-debacle build-up in Buenos Aires three weeks ago had promised the world.
Amidst all the consternation that the game was going ahead under such circumstances, it was easy to forget that there was a final still to be settled on Sunday. The score was 2-2 after a first leg that seems like a lifetime ago at Boca’s La Bombonera on November 11.
The final will be recorded as a win for River, 3-1 in extra time to seal a 5-3 aggregate victory. But the damage done in the streets of Buenos Aires won’t be smoothed over by any amount of late drama, however high-octane it was.
Much of the talk surrounding this mess was of missed chances, a lost opportunity for Argentinean football to show itself to the world. Missed chances were the theme of the first half in Madrid, too. Pablo Perez battered a shot into the grateful arms of River goalkeeper Franco Armani after 10 minutes when fortune looked to have favoured Boca from a corner.
Next, it was River’s turn to wince, Ignacio Fernandez leaned back and hoisted a loose ball into the midst of his team’s fans from close range when opportunity beckoned.
But it was on the stroke of half time that the ultimate sliding-doors moment threatened to derail the team from Belgrano. Boca goalkeeper Esteban Andrada raced from his area to mop up a through ball and found himself woefully exposed. Any one of a handful of River players could have finished into the empty goal, if only composure had prevailed. The team dithered, and the moment was lost.
Instead, Boca broke – in a flash, Dario Bendetto was in on goal with just Armani to beat, and the game was turned in favour of the team who had, wrongly or otherwise, held a kind of moral priority ever since their team bus was smashed to pieces in the streets of Buenos Aires last month.
The equaliser for River, stroked home gorgeously by Lucas Pratto at the end of a passing move befitting of the Bernabeu’s usual headliners, provided one of the night’s only moments where the football outshone the politics. It was a reminder, if one was needed, of what this occasion should have been about from the start.
Time and time again, players from either side collected the ball in promising positions, only to lean back and balloon shots high over the bar, as if consumed by the prospect of what a 30-yard screamer to win La Copa would mean in this most weirdly anticipated derby.
The winner came from that same side as Pratto’s goal. Juan Quintero collected the ball after a flurry of passes and, as three Boca defenders swarmed around him fearing the unthinkable, he took aim. Then, as though bereft of ideas after the grueling madness of the last month, Quintero pulled back his left foot and gave it everything.
The euphoria that followed was a reminder that this has all been hard on River, too. It wasn’t the players, after all, who pelted their rivals with rocks and stones back in Argentina.
The third goal, finished by Gonzalo Martinez into an empty net after Andrada had been caught short attacking the opposition goal, in the end was little more than a statistic. River’s win may in time prove to be the same.