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The attacks before the Superclásico exposed soccer’s ugliest side to the world

The second leg of the Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate was supposed to be a glorious celebration of football. Instead, it showed the world all of the sport’s ugliness.

The second leg of the Copa Libertadores final this past weekend — the Superclásico, the final that was supposed to end all finals — was postponed because of violence. As the Boca Juniors bus left the team hotel and headed to the stadium, River Plate fans attacked it with projectiles, breaking the windows and injuring some of the Boca players. When police got involved and tried to disperse the crowd, they also harmed Boca players and officials with pepper-spray. At one point, the team’s bus driver passed out and the vice president of the team had to take control of the wheel.

This year is the first time in the competition’s 58-year history that the two teams are facing each other in the final, even though they’re the two most successful teams in Argentina football. The first leg of the matchup ended in a 2-2 draw, which set up the second leg to be a grand clash of superpowers.

The match was initially scheduled to start at 5 p.m. local time on Saturday. The Friday before, a video of Boca fans filling their stadium and singing during a training session went viral, and underlined the gravity of the game.

The final was supposed to be a representation of everything that is beautiful about the sport. Not only would the quality of the players be on display, but also the passion of the fans, the intensity of the rivalry, and how football connects entire communities. The Superclásico was to be a microcosm of the emotional connection that keeps us watching. The soul of football. It has been said that the life of the sport has gone out from competitions in wealthier European countries, where stadiums are quiet and everyone’s out for the money, and that in the poorer places, football is still a game of the people.

Like hundreds of thousands of fans who like to engage with football online during games, I watched the chaos of this year’s Superclásico unfold on Twitter. While reporters were in Argentina, I was watching their tweets while waiting on a game that seemed to grow bigger in stature as kickoff approached.

How did the Superclásico go so wrong?

Four hours before the game, another video went around of Boca fans singing, playing music, waving flags, and celebrating outside the Boca hotel. When the team bus departed from the hotel to make its six-mile journey to the River Plate stadium, fans crowded around it and sent their team off in good spirits. River Plate fans did the same for their team.

But between the time that the Boca bus left the hotel and when it arrived at the stadium, the idea of the game, what we wanted and hoped it would be, both the Superclásico and the sport itself as a whole, clashed with the reality of what it actually is. The beauty of the sport was shattered by the ugliness that we often overlook.

Reports of the events came quickly and in a steadily frantic manner from multiple accounts, but the timeline was something like this:

  • The Boca bus is attacked by a group of River Plate fans as it nears the stadium. Windows are broken. Some of the players are injured. There are scattered tweets that pepper spray has been used on the players by the fans.
  • The source of the pepper spray is corrected soon after. It was the police who used it while trying to disperse the crowd, but the Boca players were affected by it.
  • Since fan violence isn’t uncommon, the game is still set to go on.
  • Pictures of Carlos Tevez and other players vomiting on their way into the stadium are tweeted.
  • 90 minutes before the game, numerous accounts tweet that after the release of pictures showing the actual damage of the violence, and the state of the players, that the game should be delayed, if not suspended.
  • Pablo Pérez of Boca is said to have gotten glass in his eye.
  • The teams and other major football accounts tweet out lineups for their match as if it is going to go on as usual.
  • Boca officials request that CONMEBOL — the governing body of South American football — check on their players’ health.
  • River president Rodolfo D’Onofrio and Daniel Angelici, Boca’s president, discuss delaying the game back with CONMEBOL officials.
  • Suddenly, the discussion isn’t about delaying the game — Boca officials want the game called off.
  • The television channels continue counting down to the kickoff.
  • Pérez and two other players go to the hospital for their injuries.
  • It’s announced that the game will be delayed until 6 p.m. from its 5 p.m. local start.
  • FIFA president Gianni Infantino joins the two club presidents and the CONMEBOL officials in trying to work out a solution. It’s reported that Infantino and CONMEBOL want the game to be played because of FIFA’s commitment to the TV rights holders.
  • Pérez is ruled out of the game, if it goes on, because of his eye injury.
  • Legendary Argentina striker Gabriel Batistuta tweets that Argentina has embarrassed itself in front of the world.
  • The game is delayed again this time until 7:15 p.m.
  • CONMEBOL’s doctor reports that the game should go on because the injuries suffered by the Boca players are superficial.
  • Officials from Boca and River agree that the game should be postponed.
  • But FIFA and CONMEBOL are still determined to force the game to be played. Boca are threatened with disqualification if they don’t participate.
  • Tevez and Fernando Gago go on TV to say that they’re being forced to play.
  • The situation outside the stadium escalates as fans without tickets try to force their way inside. Police fire rubber bullets at them.
  • The game is officially rescheduled for the next day. But there’s concern about how to get the 70,000 fans already inside the stadium out without any further incident. The Boca players also have to wait inside until things are calmer before a replacement bus can come and take them back to their hotel.
  • The postponement of the match also means the postponement of the smaller clasico between Huracán and San Lorenzo that was supposed to be played that Sunday.
  • There’s confusion about how the Superclásico will be played Sunday, since the city government have closed the stadium for that day. D’Onofrio asks Angelici to use his connections in the city government to ensure that the stadium is not closed.
  • People debate what punishment River should face for their fans’ violence. When Boca fans pepper-sprayed River players in the tunnel during their round-of-16 match three years ago, Boca were disqualified.
  • On Sunday, after the two teams go back and forth on whether the game should be suspended indefinitely, with Boca officials pleading for a suspension and River encouraging fans to go into the stadium, CONMEBOL announce at 2 p.m. that the game will be suspended until they figure out the best conditions for it to be played. Apparently, the players, who had been cleared by their doctor the previous day, were not in the condition to participate.
  • Buenos Aires City Government chief Horacio Larreta Rodríguez, said of the events: “This could have been done better.”

The absurdity of the two days — the initial excitement, and the subsequent violence and the failings of the officials — exposed the world to football as it is. The manner in which the story was reported, through rapid and increasingly despairing tweets, left the events uncensored so that we were able to see them before governing bodies had a chance to sanitize them.

Football is amazing, but it teeters on the edge of beauty and destruction. Everything about it that we praise as great sits right next to something ugly; ugliness that we would rather overlook because it threatens our ideal vision, our delusion, of the sport.

There’s a thin line between the passion that drives fans to fill a stadium during a training session and the zealotry that drives them to attack rival players. That type of violence wasn’t new. Football divides as much as it connects — it brings people together because of a shared love, and drives them apart because of tribalism. Football doesn’t cure social ills, and doesn’t exist in a bubble away from the problems of society.

The great play and players that we see on the field is usually propped up by corruption by those in charge of the game. The events of the Superclásico made it clear that FIFA is more obligated to TV corporations than to its employees and fans, and they’re willing to risk safety for the profit. This was also true when they rescheduled Dortmund’s match against Monaco for the next day during last year’s Champions League after the Dortmund team bus was bombed. And it’s also true for how the sport’s greatest event, the World Cup, is built and sustained.

The violence of the weekend has created a new context for the Superclásico to be played in, whenever the game is eventually played, perhaps this December in Paraguay. Rather than the positive atmosphere that we all wanted, what we have now is the sport at its worst. The actual match will have to salvage beauty from that ugliness. It won’t be the ideal setting for one of the biggest games in the world, but it will at least be more true to the nature of football than the stories we tell ourselves.