High farce and low morals sullied one of the showpiece occasions of South American football on Thursday night, when, with a place in the quarter finals of the Copa Libertadores at stake, the Buenos Aires super-classic between Boca Juniors and River Plate was abandoned at half time.
As they made their way onto the field for the second half, the visiting River players were attacked with a home made concoction of pepper and acid thrown by a group of Boca fans. The incident cast a global spotlight on some of the problems faced by Argentine football and society; the atmosphere of general disorder in which organised groups of fans, with strong links to the formal political process, promote violence and profiteering.
Some have concluded that the problem has such deep roots that no current solution is feasible. The immediate consequence was that Boca were eliminated from this year’s competition. They were behind by a goal to nil on aggregate after a game and a half of the tie – something of a surprise since they had gone into the clash with their historic rivals as clear favourites.
River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo had a good two games. Giving up his usual diamond formation to block Boca’s passing through the middle. In the home game his four man midfield had two holders in the centre and two more attacking ones wide – and it was down the flanks that his side caused Boca problems, winning a late penalty that led to the only goal of the game. For the second leg, with star striker Teo Gutierrez suspended Gallardo strung five across the middle – a holding triangle and two wide. Boca had not created a single chance in the first half. It would have been fascinating to find out what Boca would have thrown at River in the second half. Instead, it was a group of Boca fans who did the throwing.
Boca, admittedly against relatively easy opponents, had won all of their matches in the group phase. Corinthians of Brazil, meanwhile, had come out on top in the ‘group of death,’ qualifying together with neighbours Sao Paulo at the expense of reigning champions San Lorenzo of Argentina.
But there was a rapid demise for both survivors of the group of death. Sao Paulo went out on penalties to compatriots Cruzeiro, marking the farewell from the competition of their legendary goalscoring goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni. And Corinthians, in the huge shock of the round, lost home and away to little Guarani of Paraguay.
Corinthians had started the year in fine form. In retrospect in seems clear that much of the press, current writer included, were in too much of a hurry to proclaim their virtues, a process given a considerable boost by the respect in which coach Tite is held.
Guarani, in the first leg at least, were clearly underestimated. Spanish coach Fernando Jubero has fashioned a team which is certainly no worse than the Paraguayan sides, Nacional and Olimpia, which reached the final in the last two years. The pieces fell into place during the competition with a switch to a back three, in which two veterans excel. Ruben Maldonado is a no nonsense defender in the best Paraguayan tradition, while, in the middle of the back three, Julio Cesar Caceres shows superb reading of the game and timing in the tackle. Big centre forward Fernando Santander is well supported by the tricky Julian Benitez, and, without ever getting into gear Corinthians were beaten 2-0 in Asuncion.
They were much better for almost an hour of the return match, moving the ball well, setting up two against one situations down the flanks and applying plenty of pressure. But then they self-destructed. The team have picked up a number of red cards in this competition – indeed centre forward Paolo Guerrero was very fortunate not to be sent off in the opening minute of this game. Early in the second half captain and left back Fabio Santos was sent off for an absurdly unnecessary violent high foot. Attacking midfielder Jadson soon followed – Corinthians’ sixth red card in 10 Libertadores games – and Guarani rounded off their magical night with a stoppage time winner.
They now face Racing of Argentina in the quarter finals, opponents they know well from the group phase. Guarani lost 4-1 away, still with a back four, but after the defensive reorganisation won the return match 2-0.
Corinthians, meanwhile, have quickly found some consolation. After two rounds of the Brazilian Championship they are the only team with a 100% record. One team has failed to collect a single point – Cruzeiro, champions in both the last two years. For the time being the Belo Horizonte club are relatively unconcerned. Still alive in the Libertadores, their focus is continental rather than domestic.