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The Copa Libertadores debacle is a story of Argentinian politics

Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, is famous – or infamous – for the frequency with which he interjects comments about football into his public appearances. To say this can befuddle his foreign interlocutors is putting it mildly, as the expression on Vladimir Putin’s face during a joint press conference in 2016 in which Macri held forth on Argentina’s World Cup chances vividly attests.

The fact that football often seems like Macri’s rhetorical default position shouldn’t be surprising. Macri’s formative experience in public life was not in electoral politics but as head of Argentina’s most storied football club, Boca Juniors.

The problem is that for all the greatness of its individual players, Argentinian football has increasingly become a metaphor for everything that is dysfunctional about Argentina. The hope that accompanied Macri’s victory over his Peronist predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, soon gave way to despair over his government’s seeming incapacity to stop the economy from sliding from bad to worse.

Inflation is close to 50% (it was in the 20s under the previous government), interest rates are close to 60%, and the value of the peso has declined from roughly 12 pesos to the US dollar when Macri took office to about 38 today. Argentina is not Venezuela, but its economic performance has been disastrous.

Of course, far from winning the World Cup, as Macri had predicted, Argentina’s performance in Russia was generally judged to have been a fiasco. But what has happened in the past month in Argentinian football has been exponentially worse. A club football final heralded as a way of turning the page on the national team’s dismal performance made that failure seem comparatively minor.

Once more, it had a promising beginning. For the first time since the Copa Libertadores was established in 1960 as South America’s premier football event, two Argentinian clubs, historic rivals Boca Juniors and River, had reached the final. The first leg, in Boca’s La Bombonera stadium ended in a 2-2 draw. But just before the second and deciding match at River’s home pitch, El Monumental, the team bus carrying Boca’s players was ambushed by River supporters hurling rocks. Several Boca players were injured, and still more were hurt by teargas fired by police.

That there was a security failure goes without saying. But given that Argentinian football is marred by hooliganism, much as English football was a generation ago, it seems impossible that the authorities did not know there was going to be trouble. The thugs who waited at the corner of Libertador Avenue and Lidoro Quintero Street to pelt the Boca bus with stones had evidently come prepared. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to believe that those stones had been prepositioned.

Some Argentinian observers put the policing failure down to rivalries inside Macri’s party, Cambiemos, most notably between the president himself and his interior minister, Patricia Bullrich, on one side, and Macri’s successor as mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, on the other. But while this may be part of the explanation, its deeper roots lie in the fact that in Argentina football is inseparable from politics, and the thugs supporting each club – the barrabrava – also have links to the clubs themselves, sometimes as beneficiaries, sometimes as predators, and by extension to the political figures connected to the clubs.

No political party or faction in Argentina is without such links. If Macri’s are obviously with Boca Juniors, Peronist leaders also have their own football fiefdoms. For example, the labour leader Hugo Moyano, has been implicated in a scandal concerning the Independiente football club. Moreover, the presidency of a club remains, as with Macri, aa potential stepping-stone to a political career. Boca’s president, Daniel Angelici, and his River counterpart, Rodolfo D’Onofrio, are believed to hold political aspirations.

The attack on the Boca bus and the subsequent decision to move the match to Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Spain has doubtless put a temporary halt to Angelici’s and D’Onofrio’s ambitions. But such a reverse, however dramatic in the short term, is unlikely to put a damper on either man’s prospects for long. In contrast, the real losers are River and Boca Juniors fans, most of whom have not the slightest chance of being able to afford a ticket to Spain to see the match. It appears that what Jorge Luis Borges said of Peronism – “it’s neither good or bad, it’s incorrigible” – also applies not just to Argentinian football, but to the country itself.

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