It was on a chilly Wednesday night in May that one of the biggest matches in South American football history took place. Boca against River, the 2 biggest teams in Argentina, were battling for a place in the Copa Libertadores semifinal. The venue? The mythical Bombonera, a stadium that beats to the rhythm of the fans, a fortress were few teams come out with anything other than defeat.
River won the first leg 2-1, and their coach, 1978 World Cup winner Americo Gallego, claimed that if Palermo, record scorer in the Argentine league, who had been out for the last 6 months due to a serous knee injury, was on the bench he would have Francescoli on his, something he would regret saying later on. Most of the focus of that night was on Palermo and his return, but someone else was the one who really made the Bombonera move…
Juan Roman Riquelme was only 21 then, and although he had been a regular starter in the team for the last 2 years, this was the biggest game of his career. River came to the Bombonera looking to defend their 1 goal lead from the 1st leg. For the 1st half it paid off, Boca had possession for most of it, but couldn’t break down the River defense.
Slowly, building up pressure with their play and the crowd, Boca started to find gaps, and mid way through the 2nd half Riquelme made a cross field pass that only he could have done and left Delgado to just knock the ball into the net.
The game was level and the Bombonera erupted. River had no other choice now but to try and weather the storm and, pushed by the stadium, Boca kept going forward for the kill. Riquelme orchestrated everything that happened, the ball magnetically pulled to his feet where it would stay until he decided where it would go next. The River players looked lost, there was nothing they could do stop him and were starting to tire of chasing the ball.
With 5 minutes to go, Boca are awarded a penalty. A goal would put them through the next round. Step up Riquelme, who calmly slots the ball into the top corner, sending the keeper in the opposite direction. The Bombonera explodes, shaking the very foundations of this sacred venue, like it never had before, and Riquelme, prodigal son of the small town of Don Torcuato, the heir to the throne that Maradona had left in Boca, the number 10 shirt rightfully his. To top it all off, the nutmeg he does on Yepes is something to watch over and over again, what a piece of skill!
The evening was rounded off by more great play from our n10 ending up with Martin Palermo scoring the final goal of the night, subtly putting the ball into the bottom corner, hammering the final nail in the Gallinas’ coffin. Never has the Bombonera been as loud and as intense as that night, and it never will be. Thank you JR for this match, a match than any Xeneize that lived it in the stadium, or watched it on TV, or heard it on the radio will never forget.