At Boca-River Superclasico, fans take center stage

SAO PAULO/BUENOS AIRES, Nov 22 (Reuters) - They call it the greatest rivalry in football and the people who watch it the greatest fans in the world. And this weekend, they are calling the meeting of Argentina's Boca Juniors and River Plate the greatest final ever.

While Europe has the Champions League with money, glamour, and organization, the Copa Libertadores played in South America is all about grit, passion and unpredictability.

Saturday's match between Argentina's two biggest clubs - known as the Superclasico - is almost as much about the fans as the players. The threat of chaos, both on and off the field, is omnipresent.

The two teams drew the first leg 2-2 at Boca's hallowed Bombonera ground in Buenos Aires on Nov. 11. The decisive second leg takes place this Saturday at River Plate's Monumental stadium on the other side of town.

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Fans take center stage in Argentina football rivalry
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Fans take center stage in Argentina football rivalry

A young soccer fan of Boca Junior sits on a t-shirt his father hung on the safety fencing, to watch the match between Boca Juniors and Patronato, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 17, 2018.

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A man kisses a crucifix alongside other fans of Boca Juniors ahead of the first leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 11, 2018.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

A soccer fan pays Silvia, 58, the owner of Matias Parrilla, who cooks for soccer fans of Boca Juniors next to La Bombonera stadium in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 15, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

Ticiano, 6, wears a t-shirt of Boca Juniors team as he plays in front of his mother Belen, 24, holding her baby, grandmother Carmen, 59, and his aunt at the entrance of their house, inside a Coventillo in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 15, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

Residents play soccer in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 13, 2018. The writing reads "Republic of Boca". 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A cat sits underneath a poster of Boca Juniors team from the year 1998/99 inside Ribera Sur bar in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 14, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

River Plate fan Vicente Zucala, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in Escobar, Argentina, November 17, 2018. "This is a very important match, we cannot lose," said Zucala, a 29-year old blind fan of River Plate. "If we lose, we're done, it will all be over." For the first time in Copa Libertadores's 58-year history Argentina's two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, are meeting in the final.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

Virulaso, 60, a former soccer hooligan and a fan of Boca Juniors, wears the team's t-shirt and cap as he sits inside his home in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 14, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

Sofia Deketele, who was covered with paint and eggs because she just became a doctor, holds a sign with the River Plate flag that reads "Doctor Deketele" as she celebrates with friends in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 20, 2018. For the first time in Copa Libertadores's 58-year history Argentina's two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, are meeting in the final.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

La Bombonera stadium is seen in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 16, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

Soccer fans of Boca Juniors climb the fence as they cheer for their team before the first leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 11, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

An image of Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona is seen on a timber sheet inside a Coventillo in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 14, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

Victor, 80, poses inside the pharmacy he used to own in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 15, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

A Ford Falcon car decorated with the colours of soccer team River Plate is seen outside the home of River Plate fan Miguel Aguirre in Lanus, Argentina, November 20, 2018. For the first time in Copa Libertadores's 58-year history Argentina's two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, are meeting in the final.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

River Plate fan Emanuel Torri walks in the rain showing his tattoo that reads "River Plate" with a symbol of the team as he waits for the bus with the team to leave River Plate's Monumental stadium for the Copa Libertadores first leg final match in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 10, 2018. For the first time in Copa Libertadores's 58-year history Argentina's two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, are meeting in the final.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

Miguel Aguirre sits outside his home which is covered with the colours of River Plate, during an interview with Reuters in Lanus, Argentina, November 20, 2018. For the first time in Copa Libertadores's 58-year history Argentina's two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, are meeting in the final.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

Members of the Ituzaingo official River Plate supporters club fall over their leader Mauro Lezama as they gather at a club in Merlo, Argentina, November 19, 2018. For the first time in Copa Libertadores's 58-year history Argentina's two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, are meeting in the final.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

River Plate fans take selfies outside the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 17, 2018. For the first time in Copa Libertadores's 58-year history Argentina's two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, are meeting in the final. (REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

Soccer fans of Boca Juniors eat meat on a street in the La Boca neighbourhood, before the match between Boca Juniors and Patronato, ahead of the second leg final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

Residents drink beer amongst Boca Juniors memorabilia inside Ribera Sur bar in the La Boca neighbourhood, ahead of the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between local rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 13, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

River Plate fans cheer as they wait for the River Plate team bus to leave River Plate's Monumental stadium for the Copa Libertadores first leg final match in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 10, 2018. For the first time in Copa Libertadores's 58-year history Argentina's two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, are meeting in the final.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

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For the most passionate of followings, it is all or nothing.

"This is a very important match, we cannot lose," said Vicente Zucala, a 29-year old blind fan of River Plate. "If we lose, we're done, it will all be over."

Boca have won the Libertadores six times and River have won it three, but this is the first time in the competition's 58-year they have met in the final.

Both matches were sold out, with people coming from all over the world just to soak up the atmosphere.

"River Plate for me is my life, my passion," said Byron Stuardo Alquijay, a 33-year old who came from Guatemala. "I had to sell my car to come here. I might buy another car in the future but this match will never be repeated."

Unlike in the past, when rival fans could occupy either end of the stadium praying for a chance to taunt their opponents, only home fans have tickets for the final's two matches.

Away fans have been banned from Argentine derby matches because of recurring trouble between competing sets of barras bravas, the name given to the organized fan groups who roar their support from the terraces.

"The Superclasico between Boca and River is so important because the fans are so passionate," said Cayetano Milon, a 51-year old Boca fan who runs a shop next to the Bombonera.

That rawness is what appeals to many old-school fans and what makes the Libertadores so different from the Champions League and European football in general.

FOOTBALL UNREFINED

On the field it is unpredictable - 18 different sides have made it to the last 10 Libertadores finals, compared to just 10 in the Champions League.

Off the field, there is a different level of commitment, even for those used to Kop at Liverpool, the Yellow Wall at Borussia Dortmund, or fireworks and fervor in the Balkans.

Grounds such as La Bombonera are steeped in history, even though many are ramshackle and run down and often lacking proper seats, proper cover and even proper toilets.

Many of the stadiums are part of the community and remain in the same place they were built decades ago, still hemmed in by houses and shops.

The fans are separated from the players by moats, running tracks or chain-link fences. Sometimes the corners are fitted with perspex to stop drinks and bodily fluids raining down on opposition players.

In the Libertadores, pitches are not always pristine, tackles from behind are common, and it is normal to see the matches end with officials surrounded by riot police, their shields protecting them from fans and players.

The South American Football Confederation wants to make the competition more like the Champions League - a tough task given their prize money is only one-tenth of their European counterparts.

One of the big changes is to end the home-and-away format for the final and make it a one-off event in a neutral venue.

The change will take effect next year and has infuriated fans who say the distances and costs involved will rob ordinary supporters of the chance to see their team in the biggest match of the season, and perhaps of their lives.

It also means this Boca-River showdown is the last of its kind. This weekend therefore carries a special poignancy for fans of both teams.

"Personally, I don't like the River-Boca matches," said River fan Maria Fe Diaz, whose father once had a heart attack during a derby match. "They are too stressful for me. I didn't want this match to happen. I don't know how I'm going to make it until Saturday."

(Reporting by Andrew Downie Editing by Daniel Flynn and Angus MacSwan)

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