I was in the stadium for River Plate's first game of this overly dramatic 2018 Libertadores campaign -- and very few people can say that.
The match was against Flamengo of Brazil, and it took place in Rio de Janeiro on Feb. 28 -- behind closed doors. Flamengo were serving a punishment for the mass pitch invasion by their fans in the Copa Sudamericana finals the previous December.
It was clear, then, that River would have to suffer some kind of punishment for the action of their fans on Saturday, when, as it approached the stadium, the Boca Juniors team bus was attacked with a shower of stones and bottles. In the wake of this, there was little chance of the second leg going ahead in River's stadium in front of a packed crowd. Some kind of punishment was clearly applicable.
But CONMEBOL were caught in the headlights of another problem. The organization needs money. Its image, and its commercial possibilities, have been severely hit by the FIFA-gate corruption scandal, in which so many South American directors, and former CONMEBOL presidents, have been implicated.
A Boca- River final is a financial godsend. It is the biggest occasion in the history of club football in South America, and as such has huge commercial value. TV rights were sold all over the world. CONMEBOL now has to deliver the content.
It would seem that this is the explanation for the strenuous, not to say ludicrous, attempts to force the match to go ahead on Saturday. The CONMEBOL medical staff even issued a statement saying that the injuries suffered by the Boca players were superficial, and need not prevent the game from going ahead -- a position that looks, to say the least, bizarre, given the examination the following day of Boca captain Pablo Perez, who had been struck in the eye by fragments of glass from a broken window. The ophthalmologist said that Perez was still suffering a 60 percent loss of vision and that there was a risk of infection if he took the field.
On Saturday, the clubs agreed to put the game back 24 hours. But once it was clear that Perez should not play, there was no chance that Boca would turn up -- and CONMEBOL bowed to the inevitable.
Boca, of course, are looking for payback for 2015. Three years ago, when the teams met in an earlier round of the competition, the River Plate players were attacked, in Boca's stadium, as they returned to the pitch after half-time. A Boca fan sliced his way through the inflatable protective tunnel and threw pepper spray at them. The match could not continue, and Boca were kicked out of the competition.
Boca are now pushing for River to suffer the same sanction. There are differences; 2015 happened in their stadium. Saturday's incidents were outside River's. The regulations state that clubs are also responsible for what takes place outside the grounds, but in this case it is clear that responsibility can be divided between the club and an inept police operation.
Nevertheless, Boca are pushing for River's disqualification. A CONMEBOL disciplinary committee will soon decide. The likelihood is, though, that they will not kick River out. This is the most severe in a long list of possible sanctions. River will probably have to play some matches next year behind closed doors -- and they have already lost the right to stage the second leg of this ill-fated final.
CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez has announced that -- pending the outcome of proceedings in the disciplinary committee -- the second leg will take place on the weekend of Dec. 8-9. And that it will take place outside Argentina.
Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, has been floated as one option. This, though, is sufficiently close for Argentine fans to turn up in large numbers and cause a problem of public order. Other options are Miami and Doha. The latter makes a certain amount of sense, given that the winners will be in action in the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 18, disputing the FIFA Club World Cup.
Staging such a game outside South America will cause howls of protest from the purists. Then again, it could be argued that the events of the past few days point to a clear conclusion: that football culture in Argentina has forfeited the right to stage such a game, and needs to have a long, hard look at itself.
Argentina's loss is clearly a gain for the rivals in the race to stage the 2030 World Cup. The Uruguay-Argentina-Paraguay bid has massive sentimental appeal as a celebration of the centenary of a tournament that kicked off in Uruguay in 1930. Argentina would stage the bulk of the 2030 matches -- but if it cannot host a River-Boca, its 2030 chances are seriously compromised.