Two weeks later, Copa Libertadores set for finale in Madrid
MADRID (AP) — Two weeks ago, River Plate fan Gigi Gibson traveled more than 10,000 kilometers to watch the Copa Libertadores final in Argentina.
On Sunday, she will travel less than 10 kilometers from her home to attend the final in Madrid.
Gibson was among 70,000 spectators who waited in vain for hours at River’s Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires for the second leg of the much-hyped “final of all finals” that didn’t happen. Outside the stadium, River fans attacked the Boca team bus with rocks, wood and bottles and injured players.
The match was postponed twice then controversially transferred for security reasons to Spain, where Gibson suddenly found herself getting ready to watch it in her “backyard.”
“I live two train stations from the Bernabeu,” Gibson told The Associated Press. “I can’t believe they decided to play this match here.”
Neither can many others.
Yet, the 80,000-seat Santiago Bernabeu Stadium is expected to be packed on Sunday to complete a final four weeks after the thrilling first leg at Boca’s La Bombonera Stadium finished 2-2.
Lionel Messi is expected to be there, and there was a chance Cristiano Ronaldo would be, too, along with a multitude of soccer dignitaries from across the globe. Spain Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he intended to attened the game.
“I couldn’t just watch this final on TV,” said Gibson, who has been living in Madrid since 2015 and is the president of a River fan group in the Spanish capital. “I wanted to go through this experience with my family and my friends back home. I arrived on the day of the (first leg) and went straight to the stadium after traveling 20 hours to get there. This match should have been played in Buenos Aires.”
After South American soccer body CONMEBOL decided to shift the second leg out of the continent, Madrid was picked from several bidding cities to stage it in part because it has one of the largest Argentine populations outside of Argentina.
River fan Gustavo Garcia-Mansilla, who has lived in Spain for nearly two decades, wouldn’t be able to watch the final if it was played in Buenos Aires as originally planned. He called it a “miracle” it was moved to Madrid.
“Watching a River vs. Boca is something everyone needs to do at least once in life,” he said. “It’s like visiting the Eiffel Tower or the Sistine Chapel. And to watch a match of this importance in a venue like the Bernabeu, nothing can be compared to that.”
But the backlash for taking the game away from South America still reverberates in Spain.
“It’s a weird feeling to play the final of the Copa Libertadores in the Bernabeu,” veteran Boca Juniors forward Carlos Tevez said. “It’s sad we can’t play this match in our own country. I don’t think it should have been played here.”
Real Madrid coach Santiago Solari, a former Argentina midfielder who played for River Plate, also didn’t like the game coming to Spain.
“To me, this match has lost some of its importance,” Solari said.
Fans from both clubs will be at the game, contrary to what would have happened in Buenos Aires, where only home fans were lawfully permitted out of security concerns. Each club was granted 25,000 tickets for Sunday’s final.
Spanish authorities have been on high alert as tens of thousands of fans, including some from known violent groups, try to make it to Madrid for the Argentine superclasico. Security measures stricter than those in place for the clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid will be implemented.
“We don’t have words to help ease the pain for all these fans (who lost the chance of watching this match in Argentina),” River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio said. “What we can do is try to help them by winning.”
A River victory would cap a wild ride for Gibson, from the frustrated trip home to the surprising news of the match in Madrid to the extra work getting her fan group ready.
But even for Gibson, who caught the huge break to watch the final in Madrid, winning or losing won’t feel the same this time.
“In 50 years or so they will look at this Copa Libertadores and sort of make fun of it,” she said. “We all talked about how it was supposed to be the greatest final ever, but that’s not going to happen.”