The Shape of Things to Come


River Plate's extra-time win over city rivals Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores final was a great day out for the Bonaerense fans who had made the trip to Madrid, as well as the Argentine expats living in Spain.

My River-supporting friends from Ponferrada, four and a half hours' drive to the north-west of the capital, could not believe their luck when CONMEBOL announced the premier competition of South American club football would be coming to Spain.

81,000-capacity Bernabeu
The 81,000-capacity Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid

But the atmosphere in the 81,000-capacity Bernabeu, although warm, was not as fiery as the first leg was at Boca's 49,000-seat La Bombonera or as passionate as it would have been at River's 61,688 seat Monumental arena in Buenos Aires.

Only 4,000 fans of each club had crossed the ocean but nevertheless the occasion felt auspicious, in the home of the reigning UEFA and FIFA champion club and also with a historic connection to Argentina as the field where the great Argentine ball wizard Alfredo Di Stefano dazzled for Real Madrid and pioneered international team competition.

The game itself was a lively affair with plenty of goalscoring chances but the cauldron of the Superclasico between Buenos Aires' great rivals was not conjured up.

While River had lost home advantage thanks to some of their violent aficionados, they still won the cup in the end thanks to their Colombian midfield orchestrator Juan Quintero, whose exquisite strike was a tribute to the technical heritage of South American soccer.

The irony of the trophy named after the continent's rebels against Spanish rule returning to the home of its colonial masters was somewhat lost although as CONMEBOL's boss Alejandro Dominguez correctly confirmed, it was "an exceptional decision in exceptional circumstances."

Equally ironic was that the the Spanish Football Federation and Players' Union have been fighting La Liga's plan to stage league matches in the United States, beginning with the Barcelona v Girona clash in January, yet moved hell and high water to bring the Boca v River game to Spain.

As it stands, that particular game looks dead in the water as Barcelona have withdrawn, scared by UEFA threats to ban them from the Champions League for up to two seasons and FIFA threats to ban its players from their respective national teams. Yet you can bet your last Euro we have not heard the last of such ideas. Javier Tebas, the chairman of La Liga, is ploughing on having taken the bold or rash step of penning a 15 year deal with Charlie Stillitano and Relevent Sports.

While it was sold as helping out the South American confederation in its hour of need as they searched for a safe venue for their showpiece, the successful staging of the show in Madrid will inevitably sow the seed of future big South American matches crossing the Atlantic or heading north to Mexico or the USA, all countries which would fill stadia the size of the Bernabeu.

As a football fan who grew up with terrace culture, playing matches overseas remains anathematic to me, but as a European I have to admit the sight of two big South American sides thrashing it out in Spain was a rare treat.

Another region of the world desperate for big-name soccer is the Middle East of course and victorious River Plate are now in the United Arab Emirates for the FIFA Club World Cup, where a final with Real Madrid no less looms on the 22nd of December in Abu Dhabi.

Perhaps the genie of matches being played overseas is now out of the bottle.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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