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Copa Libertadores: Boca Juniors and River Plate face off in final for first time

COPA90: The Superclásico - River Plate v Boca

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Later this month Argentine clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate will face off in the final of the Copa Libertadores — South America’s most prestigious club competition — for the first time in history. Games between the two teams are known as Argentina’s Superclasico.

Both sides advanced from their respective semifinals in dramatic fashion, with Uruguayan referee Andres Cunha needing protection from riot police after controversy in Tuesday’s tie.

River narrowly edged out defending champion Gremio thanks to a late penalty, awarded by Cunha after a nine-minute VAR consultation.

The Brazilian club’s players were further incensed by Cunha’s decision to send off defender Matheus Bressan for the debatable handball which led to the decision.

Gonzalo Martinez stepped up to slot home the penalty nervelessly in front of a partizan 55,000 sellout crowd in Porto Alegre, sending River through on away goals.

Matheus Bressan confronts referee Andres Cunha after receiving a red card.

Wednesday’s semifinal was less controversial but no less dramatic, as Boca — defending a 2-0 first-leg lead earned in Buenos Aires — traveled to Sao Paulo to face Palmeiras.

Boca took an early lead to seemingly put the tie to bed, but two early second-half goals from the home side turned the game on its head.

But prolific striker Dario Benedetto, so often Boca’s man for the big occasion, struck low into the bottom corner with unerring accuracy to set up the mostly hotly anticipated tie on the continent.

Boca Junior players celebrate after defeating Palmeiras.

Bitter rivals

The fixture has a colorful — and violent — past and has come to be regarded as one of the biggest rivalries in world football.

Since the first official match in 1913 — which River won 2-1 — the two clubs have gone on to become the dominant forces in Argentina. Diego Maradona played for Boca in the early 1980s before signing for Spanish club Barcelona.

Boca's La Bombonera, the chocolate box, nicknamed for its layers piled on top of one another.

The sides have been hard to separate in the 105 years since, with Boca narrowly edging River 88-81 in victories. However River have won 36 national league titles to Boca’s 33.

What started out as a small local rivalry in the working class La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires gradually grew to be the biggest in the country, with River gaining a reputation as the club for the rich and Boca as the working man’s team.

The darkest hour in River’s sporting history came in 2011 when the club was relegated for the first time in its history, something Boca fans will never let them forget.

River's El Monumental stadium, the largest in the country.

Following the relegation, fans had to wait 530 days for the next Superclasico to which Boca fans brought wreaths to mourn the death of River and sung “that stain will never be erased.”

Violence has come to mar several clashes in the past — as it has throughout the country’s football fixtures — and in 2015 the Superclasico was suspended early after four River players were sprayed with tear gas by a Boca fan as they emerged from the tunnel for the second half.

All four were taken to hospital and River were later awarded the victory and passage through to the Libertadores quarterfinals, eventually going on to win that year’s competition.

Two years earlier, another fixture at La Bombonera was halted for 15 minutes after riot police were brought in to deal with fighting in the stands.

Since 2013, there have been no away fans allowed in stadiums across Argentina after a Lanus fan was shot and killed by a policemen before an away match at Estudiantes.

La Bombonera always provides a stunning backdrop for a Superclasico.

The ban has been at least partially overturned for the first time since, with the country introducing a new “Fan ID” system in an attempt to make stadiums safe for away fans again — though none of the “Big Five” — Boca, Independiente, Racing, River and San Lorenzo — will take part.

It’s rare for two teams from the same country to play each other in the Copa Libertadores final, much less two teams from the same city.

Whichever side wins the final, played across two legs in November, will provide the bragging rights for one set of fans for decades to come.