KEIR RADNEDGE in MADRID —- Police and security forces are waiting nervily in Madrid for potentially the most volatile sporting event ever staged in the Spanish capital.
Sunday night sees the Superclasico to top them all: the ultimate showdown between fierce Argentinian derby giants River Plate and Boca Juniors.
At stake is the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the European Champions League. The rain-delayed first leg last month ended in a 2-2 draw in Boca’s Bombonera in Buenos Aires. The second leg, in River’s Estadio Monumental 12 days ago, was called off amid hooligan chaos after Boca’s team bus was ambushed on its route to the ground.
Buenos Aires, already tensing for the G20 conference of world leaders, was infested with private security, gendarmerie, city and federal police. Yet – incredibly or maybe not- no-one had apparently foreseen trouble or even been alerted by the gathering crowds on one of the chicanes along the bus route.
Uncertainty surrounds the extent to which Boca players were affected by the shards of window glass splintered by bricks and other missiles and/or from tear gas deployed too late by police.
Confusion was exacerbated by angry fans bursting into security zones in the stadium and threatening Boca officials and visiting FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
Later Argentinian state President Mauricio Macri, at a post-G20 press conference, suggested that a threat to Infantino was the last straw which persuaded Alejandro Dominguez, head of the regional confederation CONMEBOL, to airlift the tie out of Argentina.
No other South American country rushed to rescue the game as River and Boca squabbled over blame.
River, fined for uncontrolled ticket sales, objected to losing home advantage while Boca demanded the cup be awarded to them on a walkover. CONMEBOL ignored both pleas.
Infantino roundly denied unsourced claims that he had wanted the game to go ahead so as not to endanger the presence of the South American club champions – whoever they might be – at the FIFA Club World Cup later this month in the UAE.
Hence the choice, whether the city likes it not, of Madrid.
All it took to settle on Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was an initial phone call between Dominguez and club president Florentino Pérez. That set off a chain reaction of fevered phone negotiations with the Spanish and city authorities to confirm the staging of what – given the countries’ shared history – was relabelled popularly as the ‘Copa Conquistadores.’
No-one is under any illusion about the risks as security and emigration/immigration officials in both Argentina and Spain strive to prevent any of the notorious barras bravas from either travelling and/or attending.
The Paseo de la Castellana on which the Bernabeu is situated in the heart of Madrid will be sealed for fans from nine on Sunday morning. A fan zone for River will be created in the Plaza de Cuzco to the north while Boca supporters will be in the south near the Nuevo Ministerios subway station.
Plans have been laid for the victory celebrations. Fans of Boca, if they win, will be directed to the Neptune Fountain favoured by Atletico Madrid fans; the River hinchada have been allocated the Plaza de Cibeles, traditional public party venue for Real.
This assumes all goes off peacefully.
A ‘clean’ security sector will separate both fan zones after the completion of security planning at a high-level summit on Friday finalising both preparations and contingency planning in case of trouble of one sort of another.
More than 3,000 security personnel are expected to be on duty compared with 2,500 for Spain’s own clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Sideshow fears include possible clashes between Bukaneros fans of Madrid club Rayo Vallecano and Boca followers. The Bukaneros have historic ties and sympathies with River barras.
Back in Buenos Aires only one man has been detained over the Boca bus ambush: Matías Sebastian Nicolas Firpo is a 31-year-old mechanic who was a registered River member. He risks a jail sentence of between two and six years for aggravated damage, causing malicious injury and other breaches of Argentina’s sports event law.
River have cancelled his membership and prosecutors are studying whether to bring other charges to pursue an exemplary sentence in a country infamously weak in dealing, if at all, with football hooliganism.
Local media quoted a senior judicial source as saying: “It cannot be that this guy throws stones, damages a bus, leaves Argentina without its most momentous sports party and then walks back out on the street as if almost nothing has happened.”
Four other suspects identified from video and cctv are still being sought.
River have also reassured fans who had bought tickets for the second leg – many of then in the Monumental the game was called off – that they will be reimbursed. Credit card payments will be returned electronically while cash purchasers have been told to bring ticket stubs and ID on specific days later this month.
The club expect to lose around $2m on top of the $400,000 fine imposed by CONMEBOL (with two closed doors games). Of course they will more than make up that by winning on Sunday and flying on to the Club World Cup.
** One item of happy financial news for River and Boca was confirmation from FIFA of the sums the two clubs will receive for their player releases at the World Cup finals in Russia in the summer. Boca will benefit to the tune of $1,136,952 followed, in Argentina, by Independiente ($949,465) and River ($465,535).