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SPORTS | 09-11-2023 17:19

Boca must stop treading water after death of Libertadores dream

A painful defeat in Rio de Janeiro spelled the end for Jorge Almirón and has left behind a lingering question: where do Boca go from here?

For the best part of 2023, all of the Boca Juniors world was focused on just one, key objective: the Copa Libertadores came before all else, and the Xeneize’s epic run to Rio de Janeiro sent any other consideration into the background. One could overlook the team’s difficulties in winning games or performance deficiencies as long as Rio loomed on the horizon: the dream of the seventh Copa, a rallying point for anyone connected with the famous blue-and-gold jersey.

And then, one day, the dream was over, and seemingly nobody was prepared for reality to hit once again.

Last Saturday’s final was essentially a microcosm of the entire Xeneize season under Hugo Ibarra and then his replacement, Jorge Almirón. In the midst of a city that had been put on a war footing due to the massive influx of fans into Brazil – up to 100,000 according to most reliable estimates – and with a backdrop of ambushes on Copacabana beach and outrageous police brutality, the clash against Fluminense in the Estádio do Maracanã took on an entirely new, more intense dimension for the visitors.

But while they showed plenty of passion and commitment, they were again found lacking on the field. Fluminense went into the final as the form team and showed it across two hours of hard-fought, at times chaotic play. Only the Brazilians’ timid tendency to retreat into their shell every time they had a lead to defend allowed Boca to push their way back into contention, and dreams of a famous upset were fed when Luis Advincula sent the away support into raptures with a brilliant equaliser in the second half.

Once parity was restored, however, Fluminense went back on the front foot and reaped the rewards when John Kennedy (no relation) fired home in extra time. Boca could not even take advantage of the youngster’s subsequent red card for his overzealous celebration, as Frank Fabra’s idiotic slap during a penalty area melee saw the Buenos Aires side in turn reduced to 10 men and more or less resigned to their fate. This time, there would be no penalty salvation, just another painful defeat which spelled the end for Almirón and the lingering question: where do Boca go from here?

There is no doubt that the raw materials are there. Six of the players who featured in Rio are aged 22 or under and came up through the Boca system to star in this Libertadores campaign. If stars like Edinson Cavani or Valentín Barco had not failed to live up to the occasion, or if Fabra’s temper had not betrayed him at such a crucial moment, the story could have been all so different. But with the current Xeneize administration, headed publicly by vice-president and club legend Juan Román Riquelme, coming to the end of its first term, the club remains at a crossroads. While the domestic titles continue to come, the Libertadores remains out of reach, and Almirón’s resignation means that four coaches have tried and failed in that period to take Boca back to the biggest stage.

Such is Riquelme’s popularity and the residual resentment reserved for any candidate tied to the main Mauricio Macri-connected opposition that a new mandate at the end of the year seems assured. But the idol must overcome two significant challenges to dispel doubts over his capability in running a football club.

First, in the short term, ensure Copa Libertadores football in 2024. That might be through the annual table – Wednesday’s draw with San Lorenzo leaves them three points from qualification with two games remaining – or with victory in the Copa Argentina, but a year away from the competition would be nothing short of a disaster at the Bombonera. Then, in what might be the most important decision of his tenure so far, find a coach with the intelligence and ambition to match this young, enterprising team and finally get the best out of them. Román has continually fallen short on this last point, and Boca have suffered as a consequence. 

Now the Libertadores is over, though, the club cannot afford to keep treading water and hoping for the best. Be it a relatively inexperienced yet promising figure like Fernando Gago or Diego Martínez, or a grizzled veteran of the ilk of Ricardo Gareca or José Pekermán, Boca need someone who can inject a dynamic attacking spirit into this side – otherwise, disappointments like Saturday’s appear destined to keep occurring amid growing discontent with those in charge.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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