After the melodramatic soap opera that accompanied these last months of football action, the end of 2018 has ultimately been an anti-climax. River Plate were looking forward to a dream Club World Cup final against the giants of Real Madrid to close out one of the most memorable years in the Núñez team’s history, but instead they have to settle for a rather less prestigious third-place play-off against Kashima Antlers, after blowing their lines in spectacular fashion in Abu Dhabi.
Marcelo Gallardo’s men went into Tuesday’s semi with the unheralded Al Ain on a high. Having downed their bitter rivals Boca Juniors in that drawnout, controversial, scandal-tinged and unforgettable Libertadores Superclásico, their first Club World Cup opponents were meant to be a mere warmup for stiffer challenges to come – a chance to shake off that Copa hangover and reproduce their imperious South American form on a global scale.
It did not quite work out to plan. A River side that looked tired, dishevelled and at times shambolic – as if they truly had spent the nine days since the final whistle blew in Madrid partying as if the end of the world was upon us – rode their luck even to snatch a 2-2 draw against Al Ain, who would have been justified in feeling aggrieved at seeing two key VAR decisions go against them. The United Arab Emirates team then made no mistake in the ensuring shoot-out, converting all five of their penalties before Enzo Pérez became the villain of the piece with his saved effort.
All of the good fortune that seemed to accompany the Millonario throughout the Libertadores had evaporated, leading to a humbling and a defeat in the Club World Cup that’s almost without precedent. No Argentine side had previously failed to make the final since the competition took on its present guise in 2005. The wait for a South American team to take the title last won six years ago by Corinthians of Brazil will now continue for at least another 12 months.
“[The defeat] had a lot to do with what we are all going through,” admitted Gallardo after the game, recognising that the euphoria of Superclásico victory perhaps led to his side taking their eyes off the ball. “I tried to focus as well as possible, although it was even difficult for me too.”
He continued: “Defeats always teach lessons, for me and my players. No matter what, our team needs to keep celebrating. Just over a week ago we did something historic and this does not taint any of that.”
The coach is correct in his assessments. While the Club World Cup defeat marks a sharp return to earth for River’s buoyant supporters, the shock will last only briefly compared to the feat of downing Boca at the highest level possible, an act that has already passed into the history and folklore of both clubs. On a wider level, however, the semi-final defeat exposes how such intense concentration on parochial affairs can prove counter-productive in the long run.
Fans of the Copa Libertadores, both inside and outside South America, do not hesitate in dubbing it the ‘world’s best football competition.’ In terms of pure drama, spectacle and unpredictability that may not be far off the mark. Compared to the anodyne commercial behemoth of Europe’s Champions League, the Copa still has that sense of chaos unrelated to 2018’s organisational disasters that suggest anything can happen. Since 2014 representatives of five different nations, half of the entire CONMEBOL bloc, plus CONCACAF’s Mexico have been present in Libertadores finals, a total of nine different teams out of a possible ten with only River making repeat visits; in the same period all five Champions League winners and seven of the finalists have come from Spain, with five teams from just three different nations winning their through to the showpiece.
Even the most blinded fans, however, cannot fail to see that in terms of ability the Copa is falling behind. Europe’s growing dominance in intercontinental trophies has been evident since at least the mid1990s, when the Bosman ruling turned football upside down; now South America’s finest are struggling against what have been considered for so long as the ‘lesser’ federations of Asia and Africa.
The Superfinal and subsequent Club World Cup clash was watched and commented upon with fervour by the likes of Leandro Paredes and Sebastián Driussi, past Boca and River players who traded barbs over their teams’ successes and failures. But both did so thousands of kilometres from Buenos Aires, as Zenit players in Russia’s St. Petersburg, where another former River star, Matías Kranevitter is also playing. Here lies the problem: Boca, River and countless other South American giants in the grand scheme of world football act as little more than feeder clubs, supplying talents by the dozen for their European cousins to enjoy, while weakening their own game.
For once the world turned its eye on Argentine football for the Superclásico, with admittedly mixed headlines thanks to the scandal that tainted the final. But they have now returned home, leaving behind a local game that still bleeds money and its best players on a yearly basis. As long as the likes of Paredes and Driussi – and they are set to be followed this winter by the best of the two rivals’ current squads in leaving their homeland – support their teams only from afar, results like Tuesday’s will continue to be the norm for beleaguered CONMEBOL sides.