The Copa Libertadores is madness. There is simultaneously no other way, and no better way to describe South America’s Champions League equivalent.
This is the competition that gave us pepper spray in the tunnel in 2015, a mad dash by a team bus through the streets of Quito in 2017, and a player celebrating in a car in 2018. And that’s only over the last 4 years.
But on Tuesday night, the Copa Libertadores might have outdone it all with a storyline so full of subplots it would surely take an entire soap opera season to cover them all.
Defending champions Grêmio had used a strong defensive performance and a timely set piece goal to take a 1×0 aggregate advantage over River Plate into their return leg in Porto Alegre. Though River Plate huffed and puffed in the opening half, it was Grêmio who took the lead, with fullback Leonardo half-volleying into the net to give the hosts a 2×0 lead on aggregate.
At halftime, with his team trailing 1×0 and in need of two goals, River Plate manager Marcelo Gallardo knew he would have to give quite the team talk to inspire his men. There was only one problem: Gallardo had been given a touchline ban by CONMEBOL for his side’s tardiness returning to the pitch after halftime in the team’s home leg against Grêmio, effectively banning him from having any contact with his side during the match.
Gallardo wouldn’t let that stop him. Donning a cap and a jacket with the collar pulled high, Gallardo left his suite at the top level of the stadium and descended to the dressing room:
— Diego Guichard (@diegoguichard) October 31, 2018
While no one knows exactly what happened in the dressing room, it is abundantly clear that Gallardo was present. The River Plate manager says so himself: “I thought that my team needed it… I broke a rule” Gallardo told journalists following the match’s dramatic conclusion.
Not only did Gallardo talk to his team at halftime, he spent the entirety of the match in communication with his assistant Matias Biscay through a radio that River didn’t even attempt to properly disguise:
5) Marcelo Gallardo ignores ban and admits to his radio contact and entering the changing room during game. pic.twitter.com/MNmFVSvp4i
— Peter Coates (@golazoargentino) October 31, 2018
Had Grêmio held on to their 1×0 advantage in the second half, this would be nothing more than a silly subplot to another chapter in the history of the Libertadores. But as you surely already know, they didn’t. First, a potentially controversial goal from Rafael Santos Borre got the visitors back into the tie:
Watching back Santos Borré’s first goal tonight for River Plate, looks like he may have handled it to direct it towards goal. Certainly should have at least been looked at by VAR: pic.twitter.com/EDd04P0QqN
— Austin Miller (@austin_james906) October 31, 2018
Then substitute defender Bressan was ruled to have handled the ball in the box after the official, Uruguayan Andrés Cunha, consulted VAR and River Plate’s Pity Martínez calmly struck the penalty home.
Grêmio were gutted. Their Libertadores dream, 15 minutes away from reaching a final chapter, was shattered. Said goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe: “We had the game in our hands.”
With Boca Juniors then prevailing the following night in São Paulo against Palmeiras, River’s win set up a mouth-watering first ever superclásico final in the Libertadores.
But seeing as this is the Libertadores, the story doesn’t, and shouldn’t, end there. In the immediate aftermath, Grêmio filed a protest to CONMEBOL alleging that Gallardo’s behavior should result in a 3×0 walkover being awarded to the Brazilian side.
Some important things to consider:
- Grêmio HAVE submitted their protest in the necessary 24-hour time window. As we saw earlier this year with the Bruno Zuculini case, when River’s midfielder failed to properly serve a Libertadores suspension dating from 2013, submission of the protest within the 24-hour time period is critical. The failure of River’s group stage opponents to do so allowed the Argentine giants to stay in the competition.
- Grêmio are NOT protesting either of the rulings made by VAR. While they believe VAR should have been consulted in the aftermath of River Plate’s first goal, they accept the decisions of the referee.
- CONMEBOL rules aren’t particularly clear about punishment for managers who violate a touchline ban. Though the rules prohibit ineligible players from being involved, there’s nothing on the books for how to handle a case where an ineligible manager is involved.
- Though there’s no CONMEBOL rules in place, there is precedent. As first pointed out by the Argentine daily Clarín, in 2017 Uruguayan club Sud América were handed a 3×0 walkover loss against Danubio after their manager failed to heed a touchline ban of his own. While this ruling was made by the Uruguayan FA and not CONMEBOL, it’s worth remembering as this case plays out.
So then, what are CONMEBOL to do? In this year in particular, when two clubs (Santos & Deportes Temuco) were handed 3×0 walkover losses in continental competition for inadvertently allowing an ineligible player to play, CONMEBOL should deliver the maximum possible punishment to Gallardo and River Plate for their flagrant disregard of the confederation’s rules.
Yes, you read that right.
Consider this: Gallardo not only broke CONMEBOL rules, he did so in a manner that was both premeditated and supported by his club. That is to say, Gallardo didn’t just go to the dressing room at halftime in a spur of the moment decision. He, with the assistance of his club, set up an illegal line of communication between himself and his assistant. Then had the audacity to admit to it afterwards.
Gallardo’s behavior was brazen. It reeked of a man and a club who view themselves as above the law. In other words, Gallardo, and crucially, River Plate, are practically challenging CONMEBOL to act. If they don’t, the confederation will give license to other clubs to act this way in the future, to say nothing of giving voice to the baseless conspiracy theories that allege the confederation favors Argentine clubs.
While CONMEBOL could simply levy a heavy fine against Gallardo himself, ban him from the touchline for the final (and perhaps beyond), that would be a punishment for only part of those involved. Because River Plate as a club didn’t just turn a blind eye to Gallardo’s flaunting of the rules, they assisted him in breaking them.
While such a decision would spoil the dream superclásico, that is not a matter that CONMEBOL should take into consideration. They should consider only the facts of the case, which are these: River Plate’s manager, with the assistance of his club, knowingly and willingly sought to have an effect on the match when he had been clearly banned by the confederation from doing so.
And that is worthy of a walkover.
Austin Miller is a South American football journalist based in the United States. He can be found on Twitter @Austin_James906