The Copa Libertadores Scandal Is The Latest Battle In The Long War For Soccer's Soul

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The 2018 Copa Libertadores final could’ve been the greatest one in the competition’s storied history. In the world’s most popular sport, the world’s most fanatically soccer-crazed continent’s most coveted title was to be contested by the two clubs that make up the world’s most passionate rivalry. But what was ostensibly a pair of rivalry matches of unprecedented importance between Argentine clubs River Plate and Boca Juniors has become something much bigger than that. This Copa final really has come to represent a struggle between the forces currently vying for control of soccer’s soul: brutish violence and nihilistic greed.

It should never be lost on anyone that beneath the glitz and glamour; the state-of-the-art mega stadiums; the tens of thousands of attendees in the stands, many of whom are fans of the teams at play or the sport itself at a remove from their cultural and linguistic contexts; the unnaturally verdant pitches; the high definition TV cameras broadcasting the action to every corner of the globe; the internationally famous millionaire athletes; and the names of the billion-dollar corporations plastered onto the bodies of those athletes, lies a dark, thumping, primitive heart that craves the atavistic thrill of violence. You could say something similar of most every human endeavor, and it is mankind’s great achievement to have mostly succeeded in sublimating base desires into less literal, more intellectual pursuits. Sports are maybe the most lightly veiled of these civilization-sustaining sublimations. Writing about soccer, George Orwell described sports as “war minus the shooting”; writing about this very Copa Libertadores debacle, Brian Phillips had this to say about the role violence plays in sports:

Of course violence has a place in soccer. It has a place—a deep, foundational, ineradicable place—in every sport. Proximity to the roots of violence is not the only thing sports offers us, but it’s such an essential part of the enterprise that without it, I’m not sure what we’d be left to watch, or whether we’d want to.


As clear as violence’s inextricable ties to soccer are, it’s just as evident that the sport itself has, for a long time, attempted to distance itself from outward manifestations of violence, both on and off the pitch. Hard tackles that were once seen as perfectly unobjectionable now elicit quick red cards. The sort of hooliganism that was once ever-present within the stadiums has been nearly eradicated from the highest levels of the sport. Then there’s the globalization of fandom itself, which has distended notions of local rivalries to the point of pure abstraction.

The visceral, communal, primitive urge for violence is no longer positioned as soccer’s animating force. Instead, the logical, global, modern drive for profit maximization has emerged as the central principle guiding the sport’s direction. Part of the reason the hard tackle now wins an automatic red card is that goals sell tickets; the loud and truculent working-class locals who were in large part the architects of live soccer’s intoxicatingly charged atmospheres have been either banned outright or priced out of the stadium to make the experience more amenable to well-monied families and neutrals and foreigners; the social and political nuances and complexities that made cross-town rivalries mean something are coated over in favor of a plasticky simulacrum that preserves the rivalry’s basic form but none of its character, so as to make it easier to brand and sell a club’s image globally.


Modern, money-minded soccer can’t stuff every hole into which humanity’s violent tendencies creep in or else soccer, as Phillips noted, would cease being the beloved spectacle it is—and the taming and universalizing of the sport has made the game better in many respects. But the struggle between the sport’s violent foundation and the genteel facade the powers-that-be are building on top of it in order to generate as much money as possible is real and ongoing, and these forces exist largely in opposition to, and are defined by, one another.

Modernization might spread quickly, but it doesn’t spread evenly. This is why an enormous competition like the Copa Libertadores, and a soccer culture of a country the size of Argentina’s, can remain so heavily tilted toward the violence. Argentine soccer is both huge and influential but also relatively obscure in the Anglo- and Eurocentric mainstream. Many more people have heard of the Superclásico between River and Boca than have actually watched one with their own eyes, and many more people are familiar with Argentina’s famously passionate and violent soccer culture than have actually seen or felt it firsthand. And because the Anglo- and Eurocentric world dominates the soccer discourse, Argentine soccer has been able to exist and grow mostly outside of the sterilizing influence of the game’s modernization movement.


It’s no coincidence that it took for the biggest Copa Libertadores final ever, with the most international interest, for the Copa and Argentine soccer to confront these dueling forces directly. Bus attacks similar to the one that delayed the Copa’s second leg and got it moved to Madrid, as was officially announced yesterday, aren’t at all unfamiliar in the sport, even in the intensely controlled English game. What made the attack so scandalous was when and where it happened, that the whole world’s eyes were watching when it went down, and in the way it fit into the broader, more nefarious nature of Argentine soccer culture. Outside eyes, accustomed to a version of the game that produces and is produced by this era’s epochal flood of money, got a glimpse at an antediluvian soccer culture. Its violence, and the acceptance of that violence, was shocking.

The ascendent forces of modernization couldn’t abide the old violence’s revanchist attack on the game, and so had to come up with the most modern, greedy solutions to the problem imaginable. This is why a South American tournament’s crowning match—one between two Argentine clubs, that was supposed to be contested in a specific context of blood-thirsty passion—has been moved halfway around the globe to one of Europe’s most sanitized capitals, Madrid.


The decision to move the game to Madrid is the clearest possible distillation of the absurd and ahistorical outcomes that can arise from modern soccer’s greed-based decision-making. The Copa Libertadores is so named in honor of the leaders of South America’s independence movements. Much like America’s own Founding Fathers, these libertadores were mostly well-to-do descendants of European colonialists who were born in South America and decided to side with the countries of their births in the fight against colonial oppressors. The chief colonial force in this area, and the specific one in Argentina, was of course Spain itself. If not for our familiarity with the absurd ironies of the dollar-worshipping hellscape we currently find ourselves in, the biggest final of a soccer tournament named after anti-Spanish independence fighters being taken from the South American and Argentine fans to whom it belongs and plopped down in Spain would be too much to stomach.

As deplorable as the violent state of Argentine soccer was revealed to be, the decision to move the game to Madrid for the sake of maximizing the profits that would’ve been lost thanks to the purportedly “primitive” Argentines is at least an equal attack on the sport. A sporting culture’s failure to adequately sublimate its violent proclivities to the point where actual violence breaks out is unquestionably a problem. (Indeed, my preferred solution to the whole ordeal would’ve been to cancel the entire Copa Libertadores final, declare no winner, and ban Argentine clubs from the tournament for a few years a la England after Heysel.) This is the sort of problem that is familiar and can be solved, but ripping the Copa Libertadores out of the culture that created it and attempting to sanitize it through entry into the Eurocentric soccer marketplace is not the right way to go about doing so.


Calibrating the ideal distance between sublimated violence and actual violence has always been the work of sports. As we’ve seen in most cultures, it’s possible to find a happy medium that pleases the vast majority of fans and maintains the sport’s integrity and visceral impact. But modernization’s push to treat profit maximization as the only goal worthy of pursuit while the game’s increasingly corporate stewards seek to separate the game further and further from its core traditions in order to make it palatable to the largest number of hypothetical consumer and brand interests carries the real threat of erasing the very things that make soccer what it is.

Argentine soccer is far too violent, too results-obsessed, and too important in the lives of everyday citizens who have neither the economic nor political support to put a sporting event and the social ties sports engender in healthy perspective. It is too antiquated. But if the choice is between a too-violent soccer of and for the people and an antiseptic one whose messiness and specificity has been wiped away so that advertisers and TV broadcasters and soccer confederations can suck more money out of deeper pockets of foreigners and the handful of rich locals who can afford to travel with their involuntarily adopted game, then I’ll take the busted-up buses every time.