"The security operation could have been done better.”
Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta gave us the understatement of the century on Sunday, upon breaking his silence to comment on the events that brought chaos to the streets of Buenos Aires and further disrepute on Argentina’s already ailing, broken football. It was a game that fans from across the world were watching, and the images beamed from the Monumental were painful for everyone to see.
Having played the first leg of Boca Juniors and River Plate’s hotly anticipated Copa Libertadores final in relative peace, expectations were sky-high for Saturday’s planned return match. The tie was poised at 2-2, with goals for the hosts at the Bombonera from Ramón Ábila and Darío Benedetto twice cancelled out by River, Lucas Pratto equalising instantly after ‘Wanchope’s’ celebrations, while Xeneize defender Carlos Izquierdoz put past his own keeper to seal a definitive share of the honours.
Prior to the second leg the biggest questions were still football-related. Would Esteban Andrada return to the net after recovering from a broken jaw, or would Agustín Rossi be entrusted by Boca to see out the Copa campaign? Would River stick with five at the back, as they did in the first leg, or revert to a four-man defence? How much action would Boca standard-bearer Carlos Tevez, a lively substitute in the opener, see in the Monumental, the stadium he silenced with a late goal back in 2004?
Soon, however, we would all be forced to forget about sporting matters entirely.
A reported 2,200 police officers were on duty in and around the Monumental for the weekend’s showdown. With no away fans present despite the frustrated entreaties of President Mauricio Macri, security forces had one overwhelming priority: make sure Boca’s team coach passed into the bowels of the stadium safely past the hostile crowds massed in Núñez. They failed.
Only those in charge of the operative – conspicuously quiet in the fall-out of this disaster – will know why the vehicle was led ambling down Monroe street and into the arms of hundreds of boisterous River supporters. What is beyond any doubt are the consequences. Boca’s squad were attacked with stones, beer bottles and cans while the few police present watched on powerlessly. Three members of the team, including captain Pablo Pérez, required medical treatment for eye injuries while several others received cuts and bruises from the windows shattered by the impact of the improvised missiles or were otherwise left reeling from the tear gas fired in the authorities’ efforts to restore ‘order.’ It could have been even worse.
In a tale that seemed stranger than fiction, Boca’s coach driver told how he lost control of the vehicle during the attack, and that only the quick thinking of the club’s vice-president in grabbing the wheel prevented an accident that could have proved catastrophic. “When we got past the roundabout it felt like an army was waiting for us,” the man known as ‘El Gringo’ said of the incidents that befell his bus. “For me we were set up. We were going to a football game, not to war.”
That certainly was not the impression given from Boca’s dressing room, which took on the aspect of a Vietnam field hospital with players receiving treatment for their various wounds while trying to expel the nauseating contamination of tear gas from their lungs.
A DIFFERENT BATTLE
Outside a different battle was raging in the bowels of the Monumental. River and Boca were determined that the game should be postponed; CONMEBOL and the government, always with a watchful eye on a G20 week that promises to be eventful to say the least, that the show must go on. The second leg was pushed back first an hour, then two, then three, and for one fleeting moment looked set to go ahead – the playing over the River tannoy of classic Rocky theme ‘Eye of the Tiger’ only ramped up the sense of farce – before all involved finally bowed to the inevitable.
A second attempt at playing the game on Sunday also failed, amid Boca claims of being unable to play “in equal conditions” that were eventually upheld by CONMEBOL. While Argentina and the football world as a whole waited for a meeting between all concerned in Asunción that would determine the future of the Libertadores final, back in Buenos Aires heads were rolling.
Buenos Aires City Security Minister Martín Ocampo resigned, a decision that seemed to confirm at least two hypotheses over this failed showpiece: that the security authorities, and not solely River or “those who threw rocks,” as that same ministry had claimed just hours earlier on Monday; and that unlike in so many other areas, the inability to properly stage a football match is something that cuts deep into football-mad Macri. “I do not understand I. Do. Not. Understand,” the head of state blurted out during a press conference, following a series of events that left him visibly apoplectic and desperate for a scapegoat.
Nobody would be so bold as to remove blame from the thugs who launched this cowardly attack on the Boca coach. But neither was the violence in any way unexpected. As any habitual observer of Argentina’s lower leagues – where police escorts are even skinnier and the headlines at national level sparse – can tell you, barely a match goes by without an away club’s vehicle being subjected to such an attack, with the minimum of repercussions. In the same week as the Copa second leg Buenos Aires’ finest were sent into an ignominious retreat by a handful of rampaging barras of third-tier All Boys, showing once more that the police are not fit for purpose. If Macri and those in charge cannot or refuse to draw that conclusion from the weekend’s events, they will continue to repeat themselves.
SHOW WILL GO ON
In the meantime the Libertadores will, provisionally at least, go on. But not in Argentina. Tuesday’s meeting at CONMEBOL headquarters that included River and Boca chiefs Rodolfo D’Onofrio and Daniel Angelici ended in the commitment to replay the final outside the country, possibly in Paraguayan capital Asunción, on the weekend of December 8/9.
Angelici for one was furious with the decision, and steadfastly refuses to accept any decision other than the awarding of the Copa to Boca on the grounds that his team were punished with disqualification in similar circumstances – after the infamous ‘pepper spray’ match of 2015.
It is clear at this point that whatever compromise is reached, no single act will clear the name of a Libertadores that has been tainted beyond repair. The usual opinion-setters have come out in force, blaming a “sick” Argentine society and bemoaning the fact that, once more, the country has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Pinning responsibility on the supposed decadence of the Argentine people is an easy manner of avoiding a real conversation about the events of last Saturday, however. The Copa Libertadores and Argentina were brought into disrepute firstly because of the criminal actions of a handful of violent fans and secondly through the incompetence of those entrusted with keeping the peace.
Little can be done about that first group; but if those in charge do not act against failed security authorities and procedures, this kind of harrowing scene will never be eradicated.