A fairytale final

Superclasico Libertadores final

One year and one week later, yet it feels like only yesterday that I arrived: I am waiting for my residency documents to be processed; and no-one cares because there’s a Superclásico on.

Incidentally, my tramites were all lined up ready to be stamped for another year back in the third week of September. It’s a very simple process, they repeatedly assured me. Almost there now, should be any day. But Argentina.

It was around this time meanwhile that River Plate and Boca Juniors started to breathlessly glance at each other from their respective sides of the Copa Libertadores quarter-final draw. The last ever final to be played across two legs, the fairytale ending of defeating a most bitter rival to be crowned kings of South American club football was a dream that both now dared to make.

Hay que esperar’. That’s already the default answer to most things here. Meaning ‘You’ve just got to wait’, imagine how often one hears it when one actually does have something specific to wait for (like residency documents). A lot.

Amidst the fever pitch of anticipation that swept the capital during the semi-finals, this deliberately vague one-liner was of course the golden punchline heard when porteños would chance meet in the street.

‘Do you think it could really happen? A Superclásico Libertadores final?!’

‘…And how are you by the way?’

Well, the city waited. And it got.

*

An Argentina v. Brazil pair of semi-finals, of the two domestic clubs River faced the biggest challenge – drawn against current holders Gremio. Whilst those two did battle on consecutive Tuesdays, Boca were tasked with despatching Palmeiras of Sao Paulo on the Wednesdays that followed.

In the end, despite a brief scare in the second leg, Boca rode through with relative ease thanks to the dynamite impact of a reborn Darío Benedetto. A second half substitute in both games, he scored 3 of the Xeneize’s goals in their 4-2 aggregate victory.

Things were far less straightforward for Los Millionarios however. Having gone down 1-0 at home, the road trip that thousands of hardcore River fans such as my ex-boss made to Porto Alegre seemed most likely fruitless. Trailing by a goal in Brazil with 10 minutes to go, they probably thought as much too. Enter VAR.

Following a cross swung on to the head of Rafael Borré by Pity Martínez late on, it was the latter’s controversial 95th minute penalty that would snatch an improbable, unforgettable victory on away goals right at the death. Whether the ref saw it, we’ll never know, but someone with the benefit of camera angle manipulation and super-slow-mo replays certainly did. Seven minutes passed between the red card given for the handball and Martínez’s converted spot kick, before the officials were given a military escort off the pitch at full time. The whole situation could only be described as a VARce.

Thereafter all the River fans in the vicinity made themselves known, spilling out onto the balconies in my building and those opposite, to release various warbles of emotional outpourings. One Boca fan two floors below me was less than impressed, making sure he also had his piece on the matter. A brief crossfire of colourful exchanges later, and off both parties went. Saving some for the final, no doubt.

Unfortunately, this inevitable sequel was one I missed, electing instead to watch the Boca home leg and drink champagne with the River fans in a bar next to their stadium, in Núñez. More on that shortly, though.

Still, how I would have loved to have been a mosquito on the balcony yesterday during that one minute or so period in which Boca took the lead through Ábila’s thumped finish (’34), only to be pegged back 1-1 from the ensuing centre by River’s Pratto (’35).

Having only recently returned from a long injury layoff, Benedetto again found himself on the bench for this one. There was a murmur of unease around the River fans bar when he came on ahead of schedule to replace the limping Pavón however. Not long after, on the stroke of half time, Boca duly took the lead. Who else?

Something not to be overlooked is how this treat of a first half almost didn’t happen this weekend at all. Due to a cluster of electrical storms, beginning on Friday night – and partially flooding my kitchen – to the absolute dismay of almost everyone here, the footballing body CONMEBOL said it would conduct a pitch inspection at 13:00 (ahead of the 17:00 kick-off) with a view to postponing the fixture.

To be seen to be believed, the TV channels had pundits commentating on whether they thought the game would be on and what it would mean for each team if it wasn’t, whilst we saw CONMEBOL officials walking around La Bombonera in wellies and dropping match balls in the puddles.

With many events around Buenos Aires such as weddings having been rescheduled to accommodate this once-in-a-lifetime final, the bated breath of one and all was palpable, post-pitch-poddle. Initially deciding to delay the game by 2 hours, another more intense storm localised to the La Boca neighbourhood almost immediately put paid to CONMEBOL’s desperate efforts to proceed as planned on the Saturday.

Not to worry. There was I, 24 hours later, celebrating River’s leveller with a glass of bubbly being loosely swirled around in my left hand as one over-zealous fan had bought a dozen or so bottles of champagne to give out to people at the start of the second half. His beloved River were losing at this point too, let’s not forget. 2-2 it finished though, and so quite the result for him and others in the leafy north of the city over their rivals from the docks in the gritty south.

Less than a fortnight from now is the final chapter of this incredible epic. There’ll be plenty more drama to come one suspects too, as River hope to capitalise on their home advantage from 5pm local time on Saturday 24th.

Victory would be sweeter than ever for the winner, defeat unimaginably unbearable for the loser. Whether directly affected as a fan or otherwise, there is apparently no space available on anyone’s mind here for anything other than the Superclásico Libertadores final right now.

I guess that paperwork will just have to wait a bit longer, then.

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