WHEN FIFA FINALLY MADE THE DECISION to recognise the winners of the old Intercontinental Cup as legitimate World Club champions earlier this year, many were delighted. The move has had a profound effect on all football purists, including this writer, who had been accustomed to watching the annual encounter held in Tokyo since 1980 between the winners of the European Cup and Copa Libertadores.
It’s amazing to see clubs from the two continents bringing their brand of football to a foreign land. Europe has always prided itself in organised and structural football styles, while in South America it is essential that football is played with elegance and flamboyance. There is also an unspoken truth as to how the Japanese have learned a great deal from these cultures. This was the catalyst which led them to launch their own professional football competition – the J League – in the early 1990s, and at the same time invent a football culture that is uniquely their own.
This wasn’t some pre-season training or money-making summer tour turned anti-sentiment movement involving clubs from outside of Asia. This was the real deal. So often, it was the South American sides that seemed to have extra motivation to win the trophy compared to their European counterparts. Nevertheless, with reputations at stake, it tended to throw up some fearsome encounters between great sides from both sides of the Atlantic.
While it was commendable that FIFA decided to expand their horizons with the introduction of the annual Club World Cup competition, the Intercontinental Cup has seen more enchanting football moments throughout its history. One classic example was when Boca Juniors took on Real Madrid on 28 November 2000.
Having won the Champions League for a record eighth time a few months earlier, Madrid embarked on a new chapter under the leadership of their newly-elected president Florentino Pérez. During that summer, he managed to sign Luís Figo from arch-rivals Barcelona for a world-record fee, fulfilling part of his election manifesto. The policy of bringing in one big name – or Galáctico – over each of the next few years was still in its infancy at the club.
Boca Juniors, too, were opening a new chapter following the arrival of businessman and future Argentine president Mauricio Macri as the club’s chairman in 1996. He was adamant about turning around the club’s financial woes but his first few years had proven unsuccessful. It wasn’t until the arrival of Carlos Bianchi in 1998 that things started to happen for Boca, as they won both the Apertura undefeated and the Clausura title the following season.
Bianchi had many great memories of Japan. In 1994, his unfancied Vélez Sarsfield stunned AC Milan with a 2-0 win to take the trophy. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Milan’s owner Silvio Berlusconi, who compared the Vélez side to a third division outfit. Such arrogance from the Old Continent is the reason why there is always added motivation from South American clubs, as it gives them all the bragging rights over their financially-superior counterparts in Europe.
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Real arrived in Japan with the aim of emulating their greatest side from the 1950s and 60s, but Pérez also had another agenda on his mind. Despite all the success, Real were still lagging behind in terms of commercial value in Asia where English football sides reign supreme. This was a monopoly he envied and was keen to break.
All eyes were on Figo, the world’s most expensive footballer. The Madrid side, now managed by Vicente Del Bosque, were much more than that, though. In attack they had Raúl and Fernando Morientes, supported by Figo, Guti and Steve McManaman, with Claude Makélélé and Iván Helguera adding steel in the middle. Holding strong was a stable defence with the ever-present Fernando Hierro, Aitor Karanka, Míchel Salgado and Roberto Carlos.
Iker Casillas, back then only 19 years old, was now the number one custodian after his heroic performance in the Champions League final. On the bench, Del Bosque could call upon the likes of Pedro Munitis, Sávio, Flávio Conceição, Santiago Solari, Iván Campo or Geremi to beef up the side whenever needed. By the time they’d arrived in Japan, Real were cruising domestically and looking good to defend their title in Europe.
But what about Boca Juniors? Back in South America, they’d proven to be a formidable side thanks to the pragmatic Bianchi. He built the team around the combination of Juan Román Riquelme and Martín Palermo. After clinching the Libertadores title against Palmeiras in 2000, Boca were on course to win the Apertura that year, but now the focus had shifted towards the task in Tokyo.
Riquelme, the magical playmaker, was undoubtedly the heart and soul of this Boca side. By now he was regarded as one of the hottest properties in world football. Palermo was arguably the best striker to come out of Argentina at the time, though his reputation had taken a dip following his hat-trick of penalty misses during the 1999 Copa América.
However, Boca weren’t just about Riquelme and Palermo. Bianchi also had the likes of Marcelo Delgado, José Basualdo, Sebastián Battaglia, the Barros Schelotto twins, Hugo Ibarra, Christian Traverso and Daniel Fagiani together with the Colombian trio of Mauricio Serna, Jorge Bermúdez and Óscar Córdoba.
While Madrid’s superstars could have easily seduced the Japanese, they opted to keep themselves out of the public eyes, and instead it was Boca who captured the people’s hearts. Los Xeneizes had arrived in Japan several days earlier and captivated the locals with public appearances including autograph signings and photo sessions. This became a key factor in why many locals came out in the Azul y Oro colours for the match.
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Perhaps due to a sense of overconfidence, Del Bosque was willing to make some changes to his starting line-up for this match. Casillas kept his place in goal, while he still retained Fernando Hierro and Karanka in central defence with Roberto Carlos on the left, but opted for Geremi on the right instead of Salgado. Claude Makélélé resumed his role as the defensive midfielder alongside Helguera, but could also play further forward when needed. Figo alongside McManaman and Guti was the three-man attacking midfield that was expected to provide support for Raúl who started as the lone striker.
How Bianchi would try to leverage his Boca side to counter Madrid’s every threat remained a question. Under him, Boca was deemed less attractive in the Argentine psyche but nevertheless played to win. Riquelme, Palermo and the reliable goalkeeper Córdoba kept their places. Bianchi also maintained the partnership of Bermúdez and Treverso in central defence with Ibarra at right-back. On the left he opted to drop Fagiani, who had featured heavily that year, for Aníbal Matellán, whom he gave the task of marking Figo. Mauricio Serna would take the holding midfield role with the veteran Basualdo and versatile Battaglia supporting him. Riquelme was given the freedom to roam whilst up front Marcelo Delgado was chosen to partner Palermo.
The atmosphere inside the Tokyo National Stadium was sensational. It was transformed into a mini La Bombonera thanks to the noise generated from the thousands of Bosteros who had taken the 20-plus-hour flight to Tokyo.
Real Madrid kicked off but Boca began building up momentum by keeping possession from the back and waiting for the right opportunity. Los Merengues looked vulnerable with the presence of Geremi, and it didn’t take that long for the first goal of the night. The Cameroonian committed a costly mistake when he sent the ball into the path of Serna who slid it to José Basualdo. The 37-year-old made a spectacular pass towards Delgado who was making a run on the right.
The Real defence looked to have been caught off guard. Delgado took his time before crossing the ball into the penalty box towards Palermo, who was surging through between Karanka and Carlos. It was all too easy for El Loco, who just had to tap in to give Boca the lead. The first goal was a dream start for them, but it was the second which spawned complete ecstasy thanks to a moment of architectural genius.
Battaglia won the ball from Raúl before passing to Riquelme. He found Palermo, who was running forward despite being chased by Geremi, and delivered a sublime pass from 30 yards. Despite the pressure, Palermo managed to hold off Geremi and waited for the right moment to shoot past an indecisive Casillas.
The unthinkable was happening; Boca Juniors were two goals up within the first six minutes. Real needed to react quickly. Barely a minute later, they responded when Hierro hit a 40-yard pass to Roberto Carlos who by now was manning the left all by himself. He chested the ball perfectly and eluded three Boca defenders inside the penalty area before firing past Córdoba but against the post
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However, Madrid’s effort was swiftly rewarded in the 10th minute when Figo saw his cross headed clear by Ibarra, only for Roberto Carlos to pick up the rebound. This time his effort went straight into the right corner of Boca’s goal. Raúl nearly equalised several minutes later after playing a one-two with Guti. His trademark chip saw the ball ballooned way too high above the helpless Córdoba, but Madrid were beginning to grow into the game and were looking dangerous.
Boca hardly threatened until Riquelme, with his magical wizardry and sublime ball control, danced past the helpless Geremi who had no choice but to foul him just outside the penalty area. However, despite the free-kick curling beautifully on target, Riquelme’s effort was read well by Casillas who comfortably punched it out for a throw-in.
Madrid came close again to drawing level when Raúl saw his header fly slightly wide from a Figo corner. Later, Delgado burst through past several Real players but his effort went straight into the hands of an onrushing Casillas, before a cross of his was met by a Palermo header that missed by inches. Riquelme had another free-kick which went straight into Casillas’ hands.
The first half ended with Boca leading Real 2-1. After the interval, Boca had another chance to restore their two-goal lead but yet another perfectly-taken Riquelme free-kick was pushed away by Casillas. The resulting corner saw Palermo a whisker away from heading into an empty net as Real somehow escaped. By now, Boca were playing with almost seven at the back. Battaglia had moved to the right to help Ibarra contain Roberto Carlos as the ineffective McManaman was pushed into the middle.
Once again Real came close to equalising when a corner from Figo found Guti, whose header to Raúl only had to be nodded in with Córdoba stranded, but his effort went wide. Shortly after, having received the ball from Figo’s cross, Geremi saw a goal disallowed as he was caught out by a perfectly-executed offside trap from Bianchi’s defence.
Boca weren’t prepared to sit back. Every time when they won possession, regardless of whether they were on the back foot or pressing forward, they looked towards their inspirational number 10 for calmness and composure. On this night, when the ball was at his feet, Riquelme demonstrated that he was the ultimate dictator on the field.
With Madrid looking desperate, Del Bosque made the first call from the bench as Sávio was brought on for McManaman. The first instruction for him was to shackle Ibarra, and it proved to be effective when he drew a foul on his way past the defender. Figo’s resulting set-piece nearly caught Córdoba out, but the goalkeeper tipped the ball over.
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Then, with 10 minutes to go, another change came from Madrid. This time Makélélé had to be the sacrificial lamb for Fernando Morientes as Real looked to add another target man in the box. Bianchi’s seven-man military defence held firm, but the absence of Makélélé meant Real were beginning to look vulnerable at the back, as every Boca counter could have easily killed off the game. Delgado’s profligacy was the only saving grace for the European champions.
Two minutes before stoppage time, it was Bianchi’s turn to make his move as Delgado made way for Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s fresh legs to assist Boca’s counter. As the fourth official signalled three added minutes, Nicolás Burdisso replaced Battaglia to help in defence, and although Real had one last chance, Raúl failed to control a cross from Geremi. Then it was all over.
The entire Boca bench leapt to their feet and swarmed the pitch in celebration the instant the referee blew the final whistle. Bosteros all the over the world were on cloud nine; they knew their club was the best in Argentina, but after beating Real Madrid, they had earned the right to say that they were now the best in the world.
Bianchi had once again masterminded a South American victory over a European giant, and it wasn’t going to be the last. He repeated the trick with Boca in 2003.
In 2005, the trophy was scrapped as FIFA decided to expand the competition to include other confederations, thus giving birth to the Club World Cup. Though the concept was great, the new, expanded tournament seems to lack much of the gloss that the Intercontinental Cup once had. Football at the dawn of the new millennium was reaching a crossroads where the big European clubs were about to stretch their financial muscle beyond anyone’s imagination. It was impossible for South American clubs to hold on to their brightest talent.
However, Bianchi’s Boca Juniors from 2000 remind us of a time when not even a handsome paycheque could prise away their most precious assets, even at the peak of their careers. Palermo may be remembered for his unfortunate penalty record, but in his time wearing a Boca shirt, he showed everyone that he knew how to put the ball in the net. Riquelme’s stature as the world’s greatest pass master and artist continued to grow. It was football commentator Ray Hudson who once said it was Bianchi’s Boca who knew how to reap the rewards Román’s magical displays.
Both players would eventually leave for Europe, but they never left Boca in their hearts. After rollercoaster experiences, they were reunited in 2007 when Riquelme returned home. Instantly, their chemistry clicked as they inspired Boca to another Libertadores triumph against Gremio that year.
It is fair to say that their legacy whilst wearing the blue and gold shirt will always be intact, the pinnacle of which was cemented that night in Tokyo. Interestingly enough, it remains the last time Real Madrid lost a cross-continental final. Perhaps that’s the reason why after 17 years this match is still so vividly remembered.