The first leg of the 2012 Copa Libertadores final took place in Buenos Aires last night as two of Brazil and Argentina’s footballing giants went head to head.
Being on holiday is great for several things. One of them is being able to stay up and watch football at 02.00am and that’s exactly what I did on Wednesday night. I wasn’t disappointed.
With its steep walls and seats not more than a few meters away from the pitch, the 60,000 capacity Bombonera Stadium is one of the cauldrons of world football. And when it’s full what an atmosphere the Boca Juniors fans create. When I lived in Argentina ten years ago I was a River Plate fan and season ticket holder. They are of course the sworn enemies but I visited the Bombonera several times and loved every visit. The best stadium I’ve been to. Fantastic club. As are Corinthians.
Although Corinthians are currently homeless there are several worthy comparison to be made between the two teams both in terms of sociology and in terms of playing style. They are the most popular teams in sprawling South American cities, home to several important football clubs. Both Corinthians and Boca have strong roots with the working class.
Corinthians fans’ outnumber their rivals in São Paulo and Boca Juniors claim to have la mitad mas un (half plus one fans) in Buenos Aires. Corinthians aren’t as dominant in Brazil as Boca are in Argentina but they are certainly one of Brazil’s biggest and most successful clubs. The only thing missing for Corinthians is the Copa Liberadores and that has become their obsession in recent years.
I don’t watch Argentinian football these days but after judging from last night’s game Boca Juniors haven’t changed their style much too when I was there ten years ago: they play a high intensity game with direct passing, a solid defence, three holding midfield players, one genius of a playmaker known as the enganche and two hard working forwards.
But what stands out for me about Boca Juniors is their mental strength and solidity. They grind out results and substitute style for substance. They always seem to cope under pressure, raise their game at the right time and that is exactly what I see in Corinthians. They have been developing this gritty style over the last few years and I was really impressed with them against Santos in the semi. They seem to have perfected their game of a solid defence, good mental strength and have enough quality to get them the goals when it matters.
Ten years ago Boca Juniors were Libertadores Champions with a certain Mr. Tevez in their ranks (and they went on to beat Milan in the World Club Cup). Rolando Schiavi, the giant centre back played last night and was in their team back then as was left back Clemente Rodrigues. Possibly even Roncaglia and Ledesma if my memory serves me correctly. Boca Juniors have created a strong identity and players tend to stick with the club or go back to the club. No bigger example of that than Maradona, a former Boca idol, who was at the game last night in his personal box.
Player loyalty is quite rare in Brazil. Corinthians have had it in the past with the likes of Sócrates and they could be on to something with the current group: the likes of Chicão, Alessandro and Jorge Henrique have been with Corinthians for several years now – been with them in the ups and downs. And that must count for something.
As for the game I wasn’t expecting a classic but very intrigued to see how the two styles played out against one another. I was also interested to see how Boca Juniors would make the running at home against a defensive Corinthians side. And of course it was a Brazil v Argentina too at the end of the day.
A look at the two line ups and over the two legs I put Corinthians down as favourites. The likes of Riquelme, Schiavi and Rodrigues are great players but past their best and Argentine football just can’t compete economically the same way that Brazilian football can at the moment.
The atmosphere at the game was electric as expected. As the players took to the field there was fireworks, smoke, massive banners, singing, shirt waving, confetti and toilet paper all over the place. This was a big stage and a venue truly worthy of a final.
Boca started on the attack and Schiavi headered over in the first minute from a free kick. Much like the game against Santos though Corinthians, although defending, were creating the better chances on the counter-attack: Paulinho fired in a fierce shot from 30 yards which forced the keeper into a good save and Danilo looked like he was through one on one with the keeper but the ball hit his heels and the chance was lost.
It started to become clear that Boca are not the best passing side around but their direct style of play, hard running and determination makes things happen. Work the ball wide, run it down the line, push your way past the defender, burst a gut to get there as the ball is rolling out, get in the cross at all costs. It doesn’t matter if you smash into the advertising boards and cameramen behind the goal in the process. Sweat and guts for the shirt.
On 34 minutes one of the crosses almost worked. Mouche, played in by the magic wand of Riquelme’s right boot, crossed for Santiago Silva who produced a stunning acrobatic volley. Alessandro was in the right place at the right time and blocked. Until that point I thought that the Boca striker was something of a poor man’s Souza (ex-Corinthians). And Souza is himself something of a poor man’s Ricardo Fuller (Stoke City). I doubt he could have done that so perhaps my assessment was wrong. Perhaps a more accurate assessment would be a poor man’s Vin Diesel (B-rate Hollywood actor).
Boca were growing and coming into this and dominated territory and possession as the half went on.
The second half continued with Boca Juniors on top. Fans in Brazil can be fickle (England too!). When teams are expected to win at home and they don’t create the chances, don’t score the goals, the fans start to get impatient: the boos, sighs and groans start to get louder. No so in Argentina or at the Bombonera where fans sing for the entire 90 minutes win or lose. Boca were dominating without reward but you felt they would not panic, that didn’t enter into their heads. The fans weren’t bothered or at least they weren’t showing it. They would sing no matter what. As the second half wore on Boca kept going, turning the screw tighter and tighter. Would Corinthians crack?
Corinthians were visibly tiring (teams in Brazil don’t play with the same intensity that Boca do!) and that wily old genius Juan Román Riquelme was getting on the ball more and more often playing it left, playing it right, dragging the ball back under his feet, pulling out defenders and bringing his own players into play. The true conductor. Just like Andrea Pirlo for Italy only higher up the pitch.
Eventually it came. On 75 minutes. Not from Riquelme’s boot but an unlikely source. Mouche took the corner which was headered towards goal by Silva. Chicão blocked it on the line with his hand. The ball struck the post and Roncaglia, the right back, fired it into the roof of the net. Chicão lucky not to be sent off. Roncaglia though should have been sent off in the first half so Corinthians could justifiably been aggrieved. Maradona and the rest of the Boca Juniors fans didn’t care one bit.
Dale dale dale dale dale boooca…… oooooo….. dale dale dale.
The noise level rose. Boca were well and truly on top and were now knocking the ball around with pace and intention like Manchester United on a good day. Corinthians had to raise their game too. Could they afford to go back to São Paulo behind? Romarinho – which means little Romario – warmed up on the sidelines. Corinthians fans were not enjoying what they saw or the scoreline and decided to throw flares onto the pitch. Not sure why really but they did.
After warming up for more than ten minutes, Romarinho slipped onto the pitch almost unnoticed. I didn’t even see who he came on for (Danilo I later found out). His first act was to accelerate through a big gap in the Boca Juniors defence, second act take the ball in his stride , third act dink it over the keeper. What class! We hadn’t seen Corinthians as an attacking force for almost an hour. First chance and a stroke of Brazilian genius. 1-1. Sucker punch and the stuff of Champions.
Who is this guy with the funny hair called Romarinho? I’d only heard of him four days earlier when he played and scored two goals against Palmeiras in the league (the Corinthians reserve side beat Palmeiras 2-1 in the league on the previous weekend). This guy has literally come from nowhere to become a Corinthians legend overnight.
Cvitanich missed an incredible chance in injury time to restore Boca’s one goal advantage. Incredible. 1-1 it finished. Great game. Boca were dominant but Corinthians almost by sheer will finished the game on level terms. Two excellent teams evenly balanced and all to play for next week. I would have had Corinthians as huge favourites for the second leg until I learned that away goals do not count double in the event of a draw in the Libertadores final. Strange rule that. Can it really be true? In that case, still all to play for. Corinthians will have an onus to attack. Can they handle that pressure with the weight of expectation on their shoulders? Will the wily old foxes of Boca exploit that vulnerability if it is there? I can’t wait.
Boca Juniors: Orión, Roncaglia, Schiavi, Caruzzo, Clemente Rodríguez, Pablo Ledesma (Diego Rivero), Leandro Somoza, Walter Erviti, Riquelme, Mouche (Darío Cvitanich), Santiago Silva (Viatri)
Corinthians: Cássio, Alessandro, Chicão, Leandro Castán, Fábio Santos, Ralf, Paulinho, Danilo (Romarinho), Alex (Wallace), Jorge Henrique (Liedson), Emerson