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Fans returning for River Plate vs. Boca Juniors a big boost for Argentina

After 18-and-a-half months, fans finally return to club football in Argentina this weekend for the round of the league that pits Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors against each other.

The Superclasico is a powerful reason for the return of supporters to the grounds like River’s Estadio Monumental, which can be filled to 50% capacity. But it is not the only reason. Last month the government did badly in mid-term elections. Football is a powerful affair of the state in Argentina. Permitting the return of fans is an obvious political response. It is a signal that the COVID-19 pandemic is closer to the end than the beginning, and a boost to the morale of the population.

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It is also a very necessary boost to the morale of Argentine football. The country has been forced to watch at a distance as South America’s two continental club competitions reach their climax. Both the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana finals will be contested by Brazilian teams. Worse, there was not even a single representative from Argentina in the semifinals.

It is only three years since River and Boca played out the final of the Libertadores, the continent’s Champions League. And now, for the second consecutive season, the final is an all-Brazilian affair. The change has happened at extraordinary speed, and from an Argentine point of view, the most worrying aspect is that there would seem to be little that they can do about it.

The switch in hegemony has less to do with Argentina than it does with Brazil. True, Argentine football has suffered from the rise of Major League Soccer, which has scouted the country with considerable success. A major exporter of talent has found yet another destination for its promising talent. There are huge underlying problems for an industry that pays many of its contracts in U.S. dollars but receives in Argentine pesos.

But the crux of the story has been the rise, both economically and tactically, of the Brazilian superclubs. Back in 2018 the Brazilians already had a significant financial advantage, but they were trapped in an overcautious mindset. One by one, they were eliminated because they did not want to play — a dunderheaded strategy for rich clubs with deep squads.

The switch was flicked in 2019 when Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus took charge at Flamengo and built a team that was based around attack. With the confidence of success, and having done the financial hard work behind the scenes, the club have made plenty of signings. Argentina has watched aghast in the recent transfer window while Flamengo brought in David Luiz, Andreas Pereira and Kenedy from the Premier League, adding to a squad which is already full of options. Atletico MIneiro have brought in Diego Costa to operate alongside Hulk, another recent signing. Behind them are Nacho Fernandez, an excellent playmaker and versatile midfielder Mathias Zaracho, both from Argentina. Even Corinthians, for whom paying for the new stadium has been a problem, have strengthened their line up with a number of high profile veterans, spearheaded by former Premier League winger Willian.

How can Argentina compete with this? The recent run of River Plate makes the difficulties clear. Libertadores winners in 2018, they were minutes away from retaining their title before caving in to Flamengo in 2019. In 2020 they came very close to the final before going down to eventual winners Palmeiras. And this year they were dumped out at the quarterfinal stage, losing 4-0 to an Atletico Mineiro side for whom Zaracho scored twice and River old boy Fernandez once. Year by year, the task of taking on the Brazilians has become more difficult.

If Argentine football is able to launch a comeback, it is hard to see anyone other than River or Boca having the clout to do it. Both have reacted reasonably well to their Libertadores exits. River Plate, under the command of Marcelo Gallardo for more than seven years, have put together a good run of results. With the Argentine league entering round 13 of 25 River are second, two points behind surprise leaders Talleres of Cordoba.

Boca have gone through a more traumatic process, with Miguel Angel Russo replaced as coach by Sebastian Battaglia, a club legend as a central midfielder. He has started well. Boca lie sixth, eight points off the lead but with time to play catch-up. And so, as a stepping stone towards the quest to regain continental prominence, there is local prestige at stake when the sides meet on Sunday.

There is an obvious contrast between the teams, and not just because Gallardo is surely moving towards the end of his time in charge and Battaglia is just getting started. River are much more pleasing on the eye, with Julian Alvarez maturing into a young striker of genuine class. Boca are a tighter defensive unit, with former Manchester United centre-back Marcos Rojo settling in well.

The ingredients have been prepared for an appetising instalment of the Superclasico. Not least because, after more than a year-and-a-half, the fans are back. Even if Argentine clubs prove unable to compete with the big Brazilians, the atmosphere created by their supporters is hard to beat.

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