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The Most Intense Rivalry In Football: Why You Shouldn't Miss The Copa Libertadores Final Between Boca Juniors And River Plate

Boca Juniors v River Plate is one of the world's great rivalries
Boca Juniors v River Plate is one of the world's great rivalries

There are currently storms forecast for Buenos Aires on Saturday evening, but even if the meteorological one doesn’t materialise, there is a metaphorical one sweeping the city and the country in the build-up to the Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate.

It is difficult to put into context just how big it is for these two teams to be meeting each other at this stage of the competition. It is like a Champions League final between Barcelona and Real Madrid or Liverpool and Manchester United but with the added dose of passion and ferocity typical of South American football - elements that enliven and enrich but also endanger the spectacle.

Matches between these arch rivals, the two most successful clubs in the history of Argentinian football, are always tense and emotionally charged affairs. The last time they met in continental competition, in the round of 16 in 2015, River Plate’s players were attacked with tear gas as they came out onto the pitch for the second half of the second leg, prompting the suspension of the match and the award of a 3-0 victory.

This, though, is the first time they have met in the final. As in domestic league matches, away supporters will not be permitted entry to Saturday’s first leg at La Bombonera nor to the return at River’s Monumental stadium two weeks later yet there will still be a serious security operation around both fixtures. Double the usual number of security officials will man the turnstiles, and somewhere in the region of a thousand will be involved in total.

The importance that some have attached to the final was demonstrated by an incident that occurred in Misiones province in the far northeast of the country. An argument between a home owner and his guest, one for Boca, the other for River, resulted in the guest setting fire to the house and fleeing the scene. The house and its contents were destroyed.

With such tensions surrounding it, the hope is that what happens out on the pitch will emerge as the primary talking point from the tie - that it can be a venue for dramatic scenes like Cristian Nasuti’s ultimately futile injury-time equaliser for River in 2004, moments of magic like Juan Riquelme’s wonderful nutmeg on Mario Yepes in 2000, an epic, back-and-forth encounter like Boca’s 4-3 win in the first leg of their 1991 tie or the consecration of ascendant stars, as the second leg acted for a 22-year-old Gabriel Batistuta.

There is certainly enough talent on both sides to produce a highly watchable encounter. River possess an able, on and off pitch, schemer in the form of Exequiel Palacios, as well as the little, left-footed live-wire Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martínez; Boca have tireless midfielder Wilmar Barrios, long linked with Tottenham Hotspur, and rapid forward Cristian Pavón, provider of three goals and five assists on route to the final. Carlos Tevez is aiming for a second Libertadores triumph with Boca, 15 years after his first.

The two coaches are fully aware of the gravity of the engagement. Marcelo Gallardo and Guillermo Barros Schelotto both won the Libertadores with their respective teams during their playing careers, and they were on opposing sides in that 2004 semi-final, when Boca won out on penalties, and a pugnacious Gallardo was given his marching orders.

Gallardo has been keen to strike a more conciliatory tone in the build-up to Saturday’s first leg. “This is a unique sporting spectacle but nothing more than that,” he said. “He who emerges victorious will have all the glory and he who doesn’t will continue striving for it, as is always the case. It isn’t life or death. That is the wrong message, and a very bad one for our society.” 

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