The military machines rolled down the Castella early on Sunday morning, armoured vehicles pulling up on the city’s biggest, most emblematic avenue. Above, helicopters hovered. Police stood, fingers on the triggers of guns, while snipers took up positions on rooftops. People walked down the middle of the road, closed off to cars. As the day went on, more and more of them came, heading towards the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
Real Madrid’s home has hosted the Spanish Cup Final – albeit they have refused in recent years, as Barcelona have found their way there – the Champions League Final and the World Cup Final. It was there that Spain won their first European title, defeating the Soviet Union. And every year it hosts the world’s biggest club match, between the planet’s biggest clubs. Well, maybe the second biggest perhaps...
If Madrid-Barca is the Clasico, BocaRiver is the Superclasico. And this was the biggest, most intense Superclasico of them all: River versus Boca in the Final of the Libertadores Cup, the trophy named after those who liberated South America, now packed up and played in the capital of the old imperial power. Some called it the Copa Conquistadores. The Bernabeu had seen it all, but nothing quite like this.
There had been a fight for the game to be cancelled, a decision placed before a judge, but it went ahead in the end. The never-ending match finally ended in Madrid – 10,000km from where it was supposed to be played, after Boca’s bus was attacked, windows smashed and players hurt.
It was two weeks late and it had taken five attempts. It had taken four fantastic goals and extra time too, with the game still in the balance until the last second, the ball hitting one post and then being run up the other end and into an empty net, with the Boca goalkeeper caught out attacking. I had seen a biblical storm and trouble on the streets, police charges, shots fired, tear-gas too. Its impact will be felt for years, and everywhere. But it was, eventually, over. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s finished,” said Boca boss Guillermo Barros
Schelotto. “River won.”
So did Spain. Whether it was right that it ever had the chance to is another issue but that was the conclusion.
“River reigned on Di Stefano’s field,” as the sports daily AS put it. Its front cover ran: “River won, Madrid won.” The stadium had become the centre of world football, hosting a game attended by players from Juventus, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Madrid. Lionel Messi was there, Antoine Griezmann too. Diego Simeone showed. As did politicians, judges and celebrities. It had become an event as much as a match.
Madrid had been offered up as a solution and CONMEBOL leapt at it. Many in Spain celebrated the fact, which always felt a little grubby, given
the gleefulness of it all. However well it went, it always felt like this would be tinged with sadness at the way that it had been taken from its rightful place, and at the reasons why it was taken – some of which are still debated, some of which were painfully clear.
There were some concerns, of course. Much was made of the security set up, the police operation, of barra bravas turned away at Barajas airport, of the possible problems. The military set up on the Sunday was unlike anything ever seen, even in 2010 when Internazionale met Bayern. The streets were closed, security checks intense, queues starting a long way from the stadium.
And it worked. Or maybe it was simpler than that; maybe people just behaved perfectly. There was no trouble, which the Spanish were proud of, keen to stress that the policing had been effective and so had the logistics. Spain had shown it could host a huge event and at short notice, which will be good for when the World Cup bid comes – which it will. At the same time, handily for Spain, maybe Argentina had shown that they could not.
There had also been over 40m generated by the weekend, or so the figures said. Spain had put on a show, and they were delighted with it. The doubts had been forgotten.
Few in Spain questioned whether it was right, still less when a successful night came to an end. It had certainly been fun. They felt that they had handed out a lesson, offered up an impeccable image of the country.
They always hoped that might be the case and from the start there had been a sense of curiosity and civic pride; they had really embraced the occasion.
The game was infused with a huge importance: for a week or more, South America’s biggest game eclipsed all else in Spain, dominating media coverage, filling hours on the radio and pages in the papers: a dozen daily in the sports titles, and the first dozen too.
Tickets had sold instantly when they were offered to Real Madrid members and then to the public in Spain, although it soon became clear that some had snapped them up hoping to cash in. Difficulties in travelling for the match and the cost of the tickets – 80 was the cheapest – meant that the market was not eventually quite as buoyant as they had anticipated. As the game approached, more tickets were discreetly offered up, more put on sale. The Spanish papers declared that the stadium had been full, but the upper centre of the two ends had been covered with a tarpaulin.
There were over 70,000 there,
“Spain had shown it could host a huge event and at short notice, which will be good for when the World Cup bid comes – which it will”
though. River occupied the north stand, Boca the south. In theory, they had around 7,000 tickets each. Spain’s Argentinian population helped fill the other seats, while Boca and River fans from the rest of Europe travelled too. Spaniards – and Europeans – bought tickets, keen to see something unique, an opportunity they would never have again.
Only what they were buying – the most passionate clash in the world, the ultimate expression of Argentina, the seduction of something untamed, so different to what the game here had become – was not what they found.
It was noisy, very noisy, like the biggest Champions League games at the Bernabeu, although it inevitably lacked some of the authenticity of Argentina. It lacked the paraphernalia too: the fireworks, the flags, the banners, the ticker tape. It lacked none of the passion on the pitch though, right to the last second.
And then River’s fans headed into the Puerta del Sol to celebrate their Libertadores title in another city and another continent, over 6,000 miles from El Monumental.
Watchful...riot police observe Boca Juniors supporters making their way to the Santiago Bernabeu“As far as I’m concerned, it’s finished River won” Boca coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto
Victorious... celebrations in Madrid
River party...police in Buenos Aires try to disperse fans
Checks...fans wait to access the stadium