Continental champions again
10 August ~ As the rain hammered down and the lightning mixed with the pyrotechnics, Marcelo Barovero and Fernando Cavenaghi held the trophy aloft to signal the end of River Plate’s 19-year wait for a Copa Libertadores title. Although their two-legged final against Tigres of Mexico never really caught fire, River won the tie 3-0 on aggregate, with all three goals scored in the second leg in a soaking Buenos Aires last Wednesday night.
“This is a dream,” gushed Olé columnist Leo Farinella. “Maybe I'm writing this column with eyes closed. Or maybe it is true that River rose from the ashes and produced this miracle.” Such effusive words illustrate the occasional lack of objectivity in the Argentine sports press, but also hint at the feeling of redemption felt by sympathisers of River over this latest success.
The last time River lifted the Libertadores was in 1996 with a side that included the outstanding young trio of Hernán Crespo, Ariel Ortega and Matías Almeyda, as well as the great Uruguayan playmaker Enzo Francescoli. The current side is, in truth, some way short of having that star quality, which demonstrates both the continuing decline of domestic football in this region, but also at how smart a tactician coach Marcelo Gallardo has been in steering his side to the title. However the 1996 and 2015 Libertadores successes serve as bookends to a period that also included the club’s lowest ever moment: their one-season demotion to the Primera B Nacional, Argentina’s second tier, in 2011.
That relegation was the club’s first and one which their fans will probably never be allowed to forget. Winning the Copa Libertadores is about as close as the club will come to redemption, but even after Wednesday evening’s victory, the number of references to their time in “B" continues unabated. “One championship doesn’t remove the stain,” ran one hastily prepared graphic by a Boca Juniors supporter group.
Another bone of contention for Boca fans remains the decision of the South American Football Confederation to kick their side out of the tournament after May’s last 16 tie between the two sides was abandoned when a Boca fan sprayed River’s players with a homemade cocktail of pepper and acid. One meme after Wednesday’s final showed the River squad celebrating by triumphantly lifting a desk above their heads, a nod towards the perceived role played by the continent’s rule-makers in helping River to the final.
This latest success for River means they are now holders of all three of South America’s continental trophies and while the taunts may endure off the field, few can dispute that they hold the advantage on it. Marcus Haydon