Opinion

Why the Copa Libertadores final is set to be the biggest match on the planet

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There may be many good reasons to stay up late on Saturday night. There are certainly not so many good reasons to wake up early on Sunday morning. But, on a couple of Sundays this month (the 11th and the 25th), SBS have one of the best.

From next year, the Copa Libertadores (South America’s Champions League) will come to a climax with a one off final on a neutral ground. 

2018 is, at least for the foreseeable future, the last of the traditional, home and away, two legged final – which means a double dose of one of the world’s great derby matches.

Boca Juniors and River Plate grew up as neighbours in the working class dockland area of Buenos Aires. 

The population of the Argentine capital exploded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with immigrants pouring in from Italy (especially), Spain, Germany, Poland and the Middle East. 

With this new intake all searching for an identity, looking for something with which to identify, football quickly became a common language. 

Buenos Aires swiftly turned into one of the world’s great football cities. Clubs were formed all over. But none were as important as Boca Juniors and River Plate.

The symbolism is clear. Boca have stayed defiantly put. They remain in the old Boca neighbourhood. 

It is cramped and run down, claustrophobic.  You walk through it in a hurry, eyes down.

River Plate, meanwhile, have long since achieved the immigrants dream. They have moved out to the snooty suburbs. Their home base for nearly 80 years is surrounded by wide, leafy avenues.

Boca’s stadium is built straight up, layer upon layer – hence the nickname ‘Bombonera,’ chocolate box. 

River’s ‘Monumental’ is a wide, open bowl. Architecture matters. Different spaces create different atmospheres.  Boca’s stadium pulses with pure passion. River’s can be more cerebral.

The two clubs define themselves against each other. 

Any defeat for one is automatically a victory for the other. River’s slogan – ‘the biggest – by far’ – essentially boils down to a boast that they have more titles than Boca. But they have never met before in a final of the Libertadores.

This the first time there has been an all-Argentine decider. For most of the competition’s history, it was not possible to have a final between two sides from the same country. Compatriots were obliged to meet in the semis. 

The recent expansion of the Libertadores has opened up new possibilities. Just over a decade ago there were two all-Brazilian finals. But not between teams from the same city. 

Not between the two clubs whose matches are followed closely all over the continent, and the rest of the world. Not between clubs whose fans have gained a reputation for creating an unmatched atmosphere.

In the SBS coverage of the closing stages of the Libertadores, it has been fascinating to see the action through Australian eyes. 

Lucy Zelic, Craig Foster, Ante Covic and Aytek Genc have at times all been disappointed by the quality of the play – South American club football has suffered from being turned into an export industry. But they have been utterly captivated by the drama of the spectacle and the atmosphere in the stands.

These two matches take it up to another level.

Boca Juniors against River Plate, River Plate against Boca Juniors. 

With the continent’s premier club prize at stake. The biggest matches in the history of one of the fiercest rivalries on the planet. Live, free and in HD on SBS. I think you should set the alarm clock.