It’s been a week since Boca Juniors took one of the most critical hits in its entire history. After losing the one that was labelled as the ultimate final of the CONMEBOL Libertadores against River Plate at the Santiago Bernabéu of Madrid, the majority of the Xeneize’s fanbase is still trying to digest and comprehend what happened. More than to analyse, the purpose of this article is to formulate a consistent opinion on what comes after this unprecedented defeat which feels like a sort of ending of times.
Juan Román Riquelme – authorised opinion
Yesterday, Juan Román Riquelme, probably the greatest player in Boca’s history and one of the finest football players of all time, spoke on live television. Whenever that happens, it shall always coincide with an important moment in Boca’s history. There is hardly a doubt about how determining this moment is, although the tone of his declarations was a true surprise considering how counterproductive his opinions had been recently. The three-time Copa Libertadores winner and protagonist of Real Madrid’s nightmare in Tokyo opted to express how proud he was of his club and also highlighted, from a former footballer’s perspective, how big of an achievement reaching the final is, this way discarding any possibility of this being a failure.
During times like these, hearing such words from a player like Riquelme is a great first step. Opinions like his are always important, even more, when they are emitted with such responsibility and intelligence. Because, after all, no benefit for the club can come after a legend publicly blames either the president, the manager or our players for this devastating moment. Most of us are too worried thinking about the future, with no time to find anyone to blame, because even if there was someone responsible, the supporters will continue to get that uncomfortable sensation in their stomach every time they reminisce on how close we were from true eternal glory.
The match itself was fantastic, worthy of a continental final between two of the most feared clubs in the continent. Despite all the shameful fuss around the venue and the incidents caused by River fans, the final of the Libertadores continues to improve year after year. It was a high-intensity match. A bit less classy during the first half, but every minute of those extra two weeks of waiting would have been worth it after not only the goals but also the passages of play between them. In case you haven’t read our tactical analysis, we strongly recommend you do so.
It was a game we could have won. Had we been smarter, had the substitutions been spot on, had Barrios stayed on the pitch (because he should have), had Leonardo Jara’s shot not hit the post on the 120th minute of the eternal final. We were so close from winning it, but we didn’t. It is a game, after all, if I am allowed to paraphrase Román: “They reached the final, I cannot ask for anything else.” He is right, this team gifted us the possibility of experiencing the feeling of being there, again, for the seventh time since the turn of the millennium. That is a lot if you think about it. It even makes us reconsider if there really is anything to be upset about. But let me tell you something: I believe there is.
A problem located off the pitch?
Although the team’s attitude during the entire final sprint of this Libertadores was nothing short of remarkable, still this final was the perfect representation of Boca Juniors in this last year. A team that means a threat you cannot take your eyes off, because as soon as you get distracted you will be a goal down, yet one that is highly pragmatic and won’t play any beautiful football. It compensates its lack of football with a deadly attacking force, capable of scoring any minute. However, as we’ve said on countless times since the creation of Boca Juniors Analysis, this team plays deficiently and can’t win important matches – especially against Marcelo Gallardo’s River Plate.
Even for the most positive fan, there was a fear we could lose this final because Boca is not the same club it once was. Even though no one will admit it, Boca Juniors might be one of the only giant clubs in the world which reaches a final and automatically feels it is at a disadvantage. In our article discussing the matter, we conclude this is a problem that comes from much before Guillermo and Gustavo Barros Schelotto’s tenure in the managerial position(s). It does not have to do with Gallardo either. A football club is inevitably affected by its surroundings – for it is an institution – and by the policies implemented within its walls. The truth is neither have done much to help our club during the past couple of years. Now slowly moving away from Riquelme’s cheerful message, and considering this momentum transcends managers, it is time for the board to be seriously questioned.
The fact that Gallardo’s River Plate won four of its international titles after beating us (thus accessing the other four competitions it also won, with three left to play consequently), despite having average squads and never being favourites, says a lot. First, it speaks highly of the manager, because we would never omit that. However, going back to what concerns us, this makes us question where our prestige went because it is no longer reflected in the club’s approach to competitions. Although some might disagree with me, I believe the will of the president is always present in the way a team plays its matches. Perhaps not evident in the formation or tactics, but surely in the way, the players defend the shirt and represent the club, and especially in their reactions before injustice. I know it is ironic to speak of injustice while discussing Boca Juniors and River Plate, but we are not discussing abuse of power this time, but rather all things that are encompassed by legitimacy that our club does wrong.
Had this club won everything or at least half of everything it has played for in recent years, we would be talking about a fantastic presidency. The thing is we didn’t, and Daniel Angelici and his board will blame themselves for that. Under their administration, our club has lost what made it distinctive, leading to any inferior rival seeing us as the result of a metamorphosis into a nostalgic figure that has seen better times, whose golden era is already over. Don’t get me wrong, though. Like Román said: there is nothing wrong with losing. However, there is a difference between just losing and losing four cups to the same club in as many years, all under scandalous circumstances, including the most important Copa Libertadores ever.
Our teams did not just lose. They lost to a very similar model, one that aims to put River Plate at the pinnacle of world football. This, year after year, not only is sustained but also made more unquestionable, greatly by courtesy of Boca Juniors. It becomes clear that, when two clubs have the same resources, both play good football as a result of exemplary projects, then the problem is in the club’s philosophy, which is dictated from above. The decisions taken in the top office of the structure are the common denominator in the pattern of failure this club has adopted, that is my hypothesis.
Because everything contributes to building this sense of helplessness whenever River appears in the horizon. It all started in 2014, when our striker Emmanuel Gigliotti – whom I still admire and like as a player – decided it was better to place a penalty given before the first minute of the second semi-final even passed, rather than blasting a shot that would go in with goalkeeper and all. Can he really be blamed? Perhaps, but in my opinion, these situations of underachieving, so common for us these days, can all be solved if the right person commits to taking personal care of them. Those are all small decisions that can decide the future of your club, where managerial guidance is evidently lacking, both from the manager himself and, perhaps more importantly, the president:
“Listen, son. We only need one chance tomorrow. Should it come, just kick it as hard as you can. Also, they will be all over you. Let them know that you are there first.”
It is the manager who decides what should be done on the pitch. The one that states what image a club should transmit in every other scenario, such as values, attitude, and even having a word with the manager should his project agonise, is the president. His figure should always wander around every corner of the club, making sure every part of this giant machine is oiled and well-place. This includes gestures which might sound small and unimportant, but that are the base for establishing a philosophy.
There is a reason why I grew up used to getting up at 4 in the morning to watch my team play Real Madrid, AC Milan or Bayern Munich in Intercontinental finals, to reaching Libertadores finals as routine, but most importantly, used to watching a team that, yet not invincible, was relentless, full of courage and devoted to its colours. Those people knew they could win and were intimidated by no-one. It was the times of Mauricio Macri, today President of the nation, as the head of the club, and Carlos Bianchi, one of the best managers of all times, who could turn any Sunday league dad into a world champion. It is the exact same experience River is living these days. A strong figure of leadership in Rodolfo D’Onofrio, however questionable his methods might be, and a fantastic manager that can both make the right substitution at the right time and roll his sleeves up whenever there is a need for a more pragmatic style of being a leader, particular of our folklore.
After the death of Julio Humberto Grondona, the cold war between Daniel Angelici and Rodolfo D’Onofrio, began. This one would quickly turn into one of the most heated clásicos in Argentine football. Casually, the two clubs have met on plenty of occasions recently, which meant we got to see the two clubs in some of their healthiest conditions in history go face-to-face more than once. On the pitch, there has been a clear winner. Away from it, from the grass, the sweat, the insults and friction, the winner stays the same. Because it is also true that in the dimension of our sports which takes place off the pitch, at events inside fancy hotels, courts and offices, where men and women dress smart and not a single word of stadium slang is ever heard, River Plate’s leadership has also beaten Boca’s age-worn model.
River was lifted from the dirt after the surreal experience that was getting relegated in 2011. Alternating between a paternal figure and a ruthless decision-maker, D’Onofrio employs several leadership styles to carry his club forward while everyone feels part of a big project they can be proud of. The first indications of this aptitude for politics came in 2014 when, immediately after the pepper spray incident at La Bombonera during the Sudamericana semi-final, D’Onofrio entered the pitch as if it was his own patio. After that cringe-worthy action, he got on a plane and rushed to CONMEBOL’s headquarters in Paraguay. Days later, Boca got disqualified and River went through that round without ever playing the second half of that game. The outcome of that semi-final was never under discussion, at least not by me. It was not them who deserved to access the final, but Boca who deserved to be punished accordingly. River’s quick reaction proved key that time.
Almost a month ago, there was a very similar incident and the same procedures and responses were expected. However, despite its people behaved in the most shameful way in front of the world, River came out on top and the show went on. The show seems to always go on when it comes to River Plate, no matter what happens.
Daniel Angelici is the mind behind a remarkable period of financial administration, yet a person who has succumbed the most against D’Onofrio’s lobby skills and is hated by his own people because of episodes like this and his more than evident corruption scandals. The 2014 Sudamericana set a precedent and the pressure brought by this defeat developed into a snowball neither Angelici nor his team could stop. His opponent in this sort of cold war, a man who is his friend or his foe, depending on the day, turned into a specialist. He is simply unrivalled when it comes to always being a step ahead. Some examples include last year’s “high guard”, an attitude that was best considering how much Boca were benefitted by refereeing, according to them. The message seemed to increase paranoia exponentially. The same happened before that, after the incidents, when he, in front of the cameras, said he had asked his friend Angelici to use “his contacts in power” to make sure River did not get its stadium suspended. If you ask me, leaving someone offside like that when your people almost just started a civil war outside the stadium is genius. Also, two weeks ago, in front of the cameras, the historic “Come to play already!”, during Boca’s many appeals with the intentions of not playing the final after our players were injured during the attack. That’s right come to play. I know we almost killed you with stones in Biblical fashion, in what could have been a tragedy had a member of the staff not grabbed the wheel after the driver got hit and passed out. Come to play, don’t ask for us to be disqualified like I did four years ago.
These demagogic moves of populist nature have not only turned River into the eternal victim of football’s injustice but have also prevented everyone from questioning how irregular their behaviour has been in recent years. Only days before the second Libertadores final three weeks ago, the police raided one of River’s most important barras’ residency and confiscated hundreds of tickets destined for reselling – something many believe was the main reason behind the subsequent incidents. As of today, D’Onofrio still has not provided answers on that matter, as he probably does not know what strange things happen at his club because he is only a victim of football’s dark arts. Some might get mad at me considering this sort of strategies should be the norm. I am not saying that but ignoring that our reality is special and that politics matter more in football than in the rest of the world would be naïve. It is also through these actions that you build a respectable entity, something Boca Juniors can only dream of these days.
Thus, this became the norm and Boca never responded, neither with football nor with lawyers. We ended up losing a cup final to a club that, only in the last two years, has failed doping tests, registered a suspended player in seven CONMEBOL matches, had its manager ignore sanctions repeatedly and turned the final into a chaos after they could not control their own people, who hurt players and turned this final, the pride of an entire continent, into a laughing stock. They are a day away from their Club World Cup debut, we are here grieving. It is quite clear who has been capable of defending his club’s interests more efficiently in this context.
There lies the difference between Boca Juniors and River Plate lately. It is not because the former’s manager is an incompetent and the latter’s is some sort of out-of-this-world thinker. During recent times, in which both clubs’ fates have been in each other’s hands on repeated occasions, better and more representative leadership might not have meant victory every time, but it would have surely prevented this inhibiting effect the rival has on our entire club. Since this approach to defending our interests was left unattended for so long, we have now lost one of the most important matches in our modern history.
It is difficult, then, to not blame the people that rule an institution for its lack of success, especially after how evidently incapable they have been of defending our club before adversity, which is also a part of the game. It has been seven years since Daniel Angelici became Boca Juniors president, and our club has become unrecognisable since then. From the corruption scandals to pink third uniforms, stopping at not solving the issue with our stadium, relegating our academy because of the club’s financial muscle to buy other academies’ products, closing the doors to idols and, most importantly, losing countless times, both on and off the pitch, tactically and legally, to the project of the eternal rival. After so many years, more than one manager and countless market-breaking signings, it is safe to say Boca’s attitude problem lies deep within the roots of the club, which have been infected by this senseless administration, who are responsible for the failure of this enterprise, once known as Boca Juniors, a sports club by and for its loyal people.
Aunque ganes o pierdas
Of course, this is not exclusive to the presidency, there have been other issues. A president cannot control what substitutions the manager makes in a final. However, had his approach been different, perhaps we could be in a better position today.
After this devastating defeat, it can be difficult to avoid thinking of an end of history. However, we would be silly if we stopped here, because Boca is much bigger than a final, and certainly much bigger than a presidential stint. Boca should not blame itself for losing a final, because luckily that is the only problem this club can have. It is all the rest that should be questioned.
The best thing to do is hoping for a rematch, something football can either give or deny you. Should it come, we must be ready. More prepared, and especially humbler. This club has lost its humility, our defining source of identity. In order to imagine a better future for our institution, one certainly distanced from the stereotype of the almighty, influential, untouchable most powerful club, we must start somewhere, and I believe the moment is after this final, the final straw. We fell asleep on River’s tragic episode, while we forgot to increase our myth. Now it is time to pay for that irresponsibility.
Let’s hope this is the beginning of something new, fresh and positive. Elections will be held at our club in months’ time, when the future of this glorious institution will be decided for the following four years. We should capitalise on the recent defeats and learn from them, because that is the reason for their existence. It is time to move on and aguante Boca.