MADRID: This was the final that did not want to end. It had almost never started, but in Madrid Boca Juniors and River Plate stretched time to the limit. It ended the way it had all began, on Remembrance Day, with an asphyxiating fear of losing. Everyone seemed complicit: the clubs, the fans, CONMEBOL, FIFA and the football Gods. In the exhaustion, legs tired, nerves frayed and chants died out, but the deep tension endured. Even after 90 gut-wrenching minutes, there was no winner. The eternal final was to have another excruciating 30 minutes.
On the streets of Madrid, little had suggested a denouement so throttling, so stifling. For much of the day the Boca Juniors and River Plate fans had transformed the Paseo de la Castellana, a wide and famous boulevard passing by the Bernabeu stadium, into a little Argentina, mimicking the feverish support from back home. They had sung and danced in an alternative universe, the Spanish capital.
Slowly, they trickled into the Bernabeu, a magnificent tiered venue, and transformed the stadium into a sea of Argentinean bedlam. As 20.30 pm drew closer, and with it the realisation that the 'Final to End All Finals' was at last to kick-off, the ardour intensified. This was still -- after all the politicking, the controversy and the exhaustion " magical: the iconic red strips of River Plate and Boca's symbiotic yellow and blue shirts dancing around on the pristine Madrid pitch.
In Champions League style, Ramon Diaz and Miguel Angel Russo, both former Copa Libertadores winners, presented the trophy. Another European gimmick was less successful. The attempt to have the fans chant the family names of the players as the line-ups were announced, was met by a resolute 'p**o' from the opponents.
Bernabeu played host to the conquering invasion of Hinchada, who produced colour, fiery and unmatched passion, unrelenting in their fixation with victory over their Buenos Aires siblings. This still meant everything to the fan base, even if the backdrop and complexion of the final, on a different continent, in a de facto 90-minute decider, had been redefined. Perhaps they were not even intimated by the grandiose theatre that the Bernabeu is, so often host to posh and spoiled fans, who wince even in the face of a single defeat, but here the mutual contempt endured.
The game was dense, physical and at time pedestrian with plenty of stray passes and sloppiness. This was not the 'Play Station football' of the European Champions League " where clubs, buttressed by huge budgets, mount high-tech teams " but a derby of unending engagement and confrontation.
As Boca Juniors coach Guillermo Schelotto had predicted, these 90 minutes would be scrappy, full of hard grind. In the opening stanza, Boca had more zip, seemed more coherent and tried to settle down. Every half chance was met by a cacophony of noise and hysteria in the stands. The loose touches from an army of zealous players, almost buckling under the suffocating pressure, were innumerable, sucking the quality from a game that lived of twists and turns.
When football did prevail, two beautiful goals ensued. In the 44th minute, Dario Benedetto finished a superb Boca counter. Lucas Pratto equalised in the 68th minutes as River carved open the Boca defence. Tied, the fear of losing " not uncommon in major finals, but amplified in this game " reared its ugly head again. The players dallied on the ball. They were physically drained, but still taunted the Gods.
It was almost perverse, after weeks of anxiety and mayhem, that the ultimate drama was reserved for the last 30 minutes, the extra times, reinforcing the power of the game: even in dark times of global capital and shadow forces, who manoeuvre the game ever more in the direction of sportainment, football remains unrelentingly thrilling, unmatchably dramatic.
Terran Barrios was sent off; Colombian whiz kid Juan Quintero struck with a fine strike from the edge of the box and as Boca sensed that the end " and their end " was nigh, goalkeeper Esteban Andrada, in a bout of insanity, befitting the unhinged finale of this stirring epic, strode forward with seven minutes left. There were shades of sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer. Substitute Jara struck the woodwork, but then as the clock passed 11 pm, Boca at last surrendered as Nicolas Martinez ran the half of the length to score with the last kick off the game. It was cruel on Boca. In more ways than one, this final perhaps didn't deserve a winner, but at long last South America had its champion.