River and Boca to ‘give lives’ in quest for Libertadores glory
Buenos Aires - The eyes of the world may be focusing on leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Argentina this weekend, but the heart of Buenos Aires will be beating to a very different football drum.
River Plate and Boca Juniors, by far the two most popular football clubs not just in the Argentine capital but also the whole country, will clash in the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final on Saturday in what has been branded a “superclasico“.
Honors are even from the first leg two weeks after River twice hit back from a goal down to draw 2-2 at Boca’s iconic Bombonera stadium.
And so it is to the Monumental, home of the “millionaires” for the deciding tie, the first time two Argentine sides have faced off in the final of the continent’s premier club competition: the equivalent of Europe’s Champions League.
And there can be no downplaying the importance of this clash.
“We’re going to give our lives to win,” said Boca’s coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
“For this jersey, we’re going to leave everything” on the field.
Passions run high in Argentina when it comes to football and more so than ever when it relates to the local derby whose rivalry has been dubbed by many top football magazines and newspapers as the fiercest in the world.
There won’t be any Boca fans at the Monumental — visiting supporters have been barred from Argentine grounds since 2013 due to a sorry record of more than 300 football-related deaths over the last 50 years, according to figures from the Salvemos al Futbol (Let’s save football) charity.
River’s coach Marcelo Gallardo missed the first leg at the Bombonera due to a four-game ban from South American football’s governing body Conmebol, but he’s determined to make up for that on Saturday.
“I and the players owe it to the fans,” he said, although he is relying on them to give the club a second-leg edge.
“We simply believe that our ground and our public will play in our favor in the return leg,” said Gallardo.
On the pitch, the center of midfield is where the battle will reflect the two clubs’ respective nicknames: the millionaires against the manure-shovellers.
Racing’s elegant orchestrator Gonzalo Martinez has caught the eye of Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni recently and scored a goal on his international debut in September’s 3-0 win over Guatemala.
But he will have Boca’s Colombian “Pitbull” Wilmar Barrios snapping at his ankles on Saturday — a player of the same age and a national team regular since 2016.
River will welcome back veteran captain Leonardo Ponzio, 36, who missed the first leg with a muscle strain while Boca’s own golden oldie Pablo Perez, 33, is back to full fitness having played two weeks ago despite suffering pain in his ankle.
The battle of the bosses is almost as fascinating as that of the players as each is a legend at his club.
In three separate stints as a player, Gallardo won six Argentine titles with River and the Libertadores in 1996.
When he took over the coaching reins in 2014, he landed the Copa Sudamerica in his first season in charge, the club’s first international trophy for 17 years, and the following season led them to a third Libertadores triumph.
Barros Schelotto’s record, though, is if anything even more impressive.
As a player he also won six Argentine titles but also four Libertadores and the Copa Sudamerica twice.
He only took over the coaching reins at Boca two years ago but led them to back-to-back Argentine titles.
With six Libertadores crowns, Boca’s record is bettered only by another club from Buenos Aires, Independiente, with seven. But their last title was more than a decade ago, whereas Racing’s was in 2015.