Thursday, May 28, 2020
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SPORTS | 16-05-2020 10:00

The Superclásico that took the Boca-River rivalry to new heights

Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of the infamous Boca-River Libertadores pepper-spray incident, an event that pushed the rivals’ animosity to almost-unseen levels.

“That night I was scared. In the opening minutes I was already scared. In the middle of all that chaos I stopped for a moment and looked at the stands. I said: 'They are going to get us, they will break onto the field and kill us all'.”

Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of one of the most infamous games in the long history of Argentine football. Drawing 0-0 at half-time in the second leg of a crunch Superclásico Copa Libertadores tie, Boca Juniors' clash with River Plate was interrupted at the Bombonera when the away players were attacked with a substance as they made their way back onto the pitch.

Confusion and bewilderment held sway as CONMEBOL officials debated what to do: in the meantime several River stars received treatment for eye injuries, Millo President Rodolfo D'Onofrio sprinted across the Bombonera turf to make his weight felt and Boca's charges went through the motions of warming up as if the game were due to start at any minute. And throughout, the deafening, menacing roar of the Xeneize faithful pounding down from the tightly packed, gravity-defying terraces of their iconic stadium. 

As CONMEBOL's observer for the evening Roger Bello remarked to Olé, the feeling of imminent peril was always present and all too real.

Before Madrid and Pity Martínez running the ball into an empty net, before last year's semi-final, continental clashes between Boca and River were the rarest of treats. The previous year they had met in the Copa Sudamericana semi-finals during Marcelo Gallardo's debut season on the Millo bench, with River taking the honours in a narrow 1-0 aggregate victory on their way to lifting the title over Atlético Nacional. But the Libertadores was a different prospect: not since 2004 had the two Buenos Aires giants met in South America's most important club competition, and that defeat on penalties, complete with Carlos Tevez's famous 'chicken dance,' still rankled around the Monumental.

As one might expect, the first leg of the last-16 encounter was once more a cagey affair. Uruguayan midfielder Carlos Sánchez made the difference, firing River 1-0 ahead from the penalty spot late on after Jonathan Calleri had spurned a golden chance at the other end clean through against Marcelo Barovero. That slim advantage left Gallardo's men with a slight edge going into the return, but it was far from an insurmountable difference and meant the Xeneize had every chance of turning the tables in front of their own fans.

“I was confident, games against River back then were very even, they were decided by the smallest detail,” then-Boca boss Rodolfo 'El Vasco' Arruabarrena recalled to TNT Sports. “I thought that we could turn the tie around in those 45 minutes, although we will never know.” 

Whether Boca could have fought back in the second half after a dull opening to proceedings will remain a mystery. Even as River filed back through the protective sleeve designed to protect them from the Bombonera's more undesirable elements, a fan was able to tear open a hole in the device, into which he released the infamous pepper spray that left four players needing hospital treatment.

That supporter was later identified as Adrián Napolitano, 'El Panadero' (“The Baker”), who had known links with Boca's La 12 barra even if he was not a recognised member himself. 

“Everything was fixed so River would go through, just like everything else that came after,” Napolitano told Infobae in 2019. “[My intention] was only to put pressure on them and it got out of hand, it wasn't meant to hurt them physically.” 

That attack earned him a three-year ban from the Bombonera as well as community service; he is still yet to return to Boca's hallowed home as the board refuses to reinstate his membership.

Tense minutes followed on the Bombonera turf as River president D'Onofrio and his counterpart, Daniel Angelici, both cornered CONMEBOL officials to give their opinion on how to proceed. Arruabarrena, meanwhile, had to be held back from lunging at the Millo chief, incensed by what he understood to be an insult launched at Boca. Into the fray also jumped one Alejandro Burzaco, then the chief executive of production company Torneos and soon to be indicted as part of the global corruption case that engulfed both the South American governing body and FIFA. Above, with what in hindsight appears spectacularly catastrophic timing, a drone took to the air bearing the 'Ghost of the B', mocking River's recent stay in the second-tier Nacional.

Somehow, and none too quickly, a semblance of order was restored, with both teams taken off the field and the match officially postponed. While the visitors were ushered down the tunnel, Boca's stars stayed a moment longer to applaud a Bombonera that by that point was on the verge of total meltdown. 

Despite Boca's later entreaties, CONMEBOL had in store a heavy punishment: they would be disqualified from the Libertadores and River sent through to the next round, the first step on a journey that would end with Gallardo taking the crown with victory over Tigres.

Even five years later, many Xeneize sympathisers insist they received a raw deal and that the game should have been played, an argument that only strengthened following the events of the 2018 final outside the Monumental. 

“The pepper spray thing was political,” Arruabarrena maintains, “not just one person. Maybe few people will be able to find that out, but it is something a single person cannot do alone.”

The incident coincided with an upturn in fortunes for both Superclásico sides. Prior to their 2014 Sudamericana clash neither Boca or River had managed a continental triumph since the Xeneize's Recopa win in 2008; while domestically they had only lifted one Primera title each out of the previous 12 tournaments. Under Gallardo the Millonario have since gone on to take six pieces of international silverware, leaving Boca to dominate locally with four of the last six Primera crowns landing at the Bombonera.

That resumed superiority has served to heighten this most ancient and vociferous of rivalries, ensuring regular clashes between the pair with trophies on the line. But it was the Panadero and his pepper spray that really pushed their animosity to almost-unseen levels, meaning that now more than ever each Boca-River clash feels like a matter of life or death to all those involved.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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