MADRID: And so it has come to this: the quintessential Buenos Aires derby and 'final to end all finals' will have a very different feel on Sunday as the Santiago Bernabeu " the imposing boxed-up, tiered stadium that has served as the backdrop for Real Madrid's regal history in the Spanish and continental game " provides the stage for River Plate versus Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores final. The match has become a surreal hipster event in the Spanish capital, and may signal a moribund future for the game.
A fortnight ago, there was, apart from the mayhem and human drama, plenty of political intrigue at the Monumental Stadium, River Plate's home ground: FIFA, CONMEBOL, the two club presidents and Fox Sports, the rights-holding broadcasters, convened to deliberate the fate of the final, and somehow there must also have been a telephatic connection with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez.
Chaos and violence had forced the stakeholders to reconsider, but slowly they all became part of a self-inflicted farce. FIFA president Gianni Infantino was spat on. It wasn't that his cushioned life was under siege " Infantino hadn't been accosted at the airport, he hadn't been bullied by fans in his hotel either, but supporters simply vented their anger at the situation inside the stadium.
The second leg was ultimately postponed and soon followed by a decision to play the game abroad: was CONMEBOL simply auctioning off the game to the highest bidder? Organisers discarded any regional alternative: playing at another venue in Argentina or South America was not an option. In 1987, Santiago, which will host next year's 90-minute final, last hosted the Copa Libertadores final on neutral ground when Uruguay's Penarol defeated Colombia's America de Cali 1-0.
Miami and Doha were touted as host cities, the Qatari capital incentivising CONMEBOL, a dysfunctional governing body, with a lucrative offer. FIFA rules stipulate that all official fixtures of this nature must be staged in the area covered by the ruling governing body: the UEFA Champions League final can't be played in Doha and the Copa Libertadores final can't be held in Madrid. 'Extraordinary circumstances lead to extraordinary decisions," declared Infantino and so Madrid was awarded the hosting rights. Argentine sport's daily OlÃ© would have none of it and simply wrote 'Copa Conquistadores.'
It remains a mystery why Madrid was chosen as the host city, but the choice has furthered the idea that greedy football administrators have been drooling over in recent years: auction games that can command a global audience off to the highest bidder " a 39th Premier League game abroad? Barcelona-Girona in Miami? The Champions League final in New York? You get the picture.
And so, Boca-River derby become a godsend and a fine guinea pig for a transatlantic exercise. All the chaos, fierceness, rivalry and violence reinforced, strangely, what the world already knew: this game is the ultimate rivalry with a unique selling point, its authenticity based on unmatched passion. The poor services at the stadium, the brutality of the police and the fan violence are all part of an unhinged and unchecked system of passion. Perversely, it's a huge part of the allure for both outsiders and the marketability for executives.
On the eve of the second leg that never was, Alexander Dominguez, the president of CONMEBOL and a close ally of Infantino, had suggested this Copa Libertadores final was to be the dawn of a new era for the competition. He admitted that the gap with Europe was huge, if not unbridgeable, but argued that South America had other assets and could become a valuable counterweight. Indeed, in shifting the final to Madrid, Dominguez has engineered a future in which flagship finals " and perhaps Super Leagues " will tour the world. It's a box of pandora: modern elite clubs have already been uprooted from their direct environment with mercenaries on the pitch doing the bidding of big capital, which comes in different shapes and forms through sheikhs and wealthy businessmen. Fans will get more alienated and be replaced by a consumer class who enjoy the match day experience. That is already happening, but a breaking point seems ever more imminent.
Infantino dismissed the issue in an interview with Spanish sports daily Marca. "The issue with the Copa Libertadores final is a unique exception," said Infantino. "CONMEBOL analysed everything and reached the conclusion that playing it in Madrid was the only solution. You can't at all compare this with the idea of playing a league match abroad for business reasons."
Still, this game feels like a road test for a dark future. This was supposed to be Argentina's final. COMNEBOL, the local authorities and fans blew it, but that did not warrant moving the 'final to end all finals' away from where it belongs.