As the quiet man doing the sensible things in central midfield, Sebastian Battaglia won a host of titles with Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors. But the title he won with the club as a coach on Sunday may well have a special place in his heart. Boca won the Copa de la Liga – the championship of Argentine football in the first half of the year – with a 3-0 triumph over Tigre. And even for a club where there is an expectation that nothing ever comes easy, the coach had to sweat his way to this victory.
First Battaglia has had to deal – and will continue to have to deal – with things that are far more important than the outcome of a football match. Boca’s image as an institution needs careful handling. In recent games against Corinthians of Brazil, Boca fans were seen performing racist gestures. The Brazilians have protested. Moreover, three Boca players have been caught up in accusations of domestic violence, including the estranged wife of Eduardo Salvio filing a police complaint accusing him of hitting her with a car he was driving. These issues are not going to go away.
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In sporting terms, the pressures on Battaglia will be eased after Sunday’s win – but perhaps only until Thursday, when the team defines its fate in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. But the coach can now go into the crunch game against Colombia’s Deportivo Cali from a position of strength. A month or so ago it seemed that every match was a referendum on his job security. The relationship with Boca’s director of football, club legend Juan Roman Riquelme, seemed strained. It appeared that Riquelme was in favor of throwing in the young players, while Battaglia was keener on keeping an experienced core.
There is nothing like a major title to bring harmony to a football club, and Boca have got their hands on the silverware.
Sunday’s final was played on neutral ground in the city of Cordoba, but Boca turned it blue and yellow. Tigre are a much smaller team, essentially a neighborhood outfit from the north of greater Buenos Aires. Their big day came in 2019, when they beat Boca 2-0 to win the first version of this competition, but it was a bittersweet moment. Although they were champions, they were also relegated – Argentine regulations calculate relegation on an average of points over three years, and Tigre fell foul of a couple of bad previous campaigns. But they fought their way back to the first division. Under Diego Martinez, yet another promising young coach, they competently carry out a simple method – a willing center-forward is flanked by two quick wingers, who funnel back to join a midfield anchored by a wise old head who, much like Battaglia in his playing days, takes sensible decisions. Their triumph in this campaign was the shock quarterfinal elimination of River Plate, in River’s own stage, giving them the faith to believe in another upset.
But River’s expansive style was made for the Tigre counterattack. Against Boca, things were inevitably going to be tighter. As a dreary first half drew to a close it was hard to see where a goal was going to come from. And then, in the last action before the whistle, Boca had a corner from the right. Sebastian Villa took it, forms Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo won the header, but keeper Gonzalo Marinelli appeared to have it covered. The star of the penalty shootout in the semifinal chose the wrong moment for a blunder. Marinelli fumbled the ball behind him, and by the time he recovered to claw it away it had clearly crossed the line.
Tigre, then, had to come out after the break and force the issue. They did what they could. Center-forward Mateo Retegui, on loan from Boca, twice came close. But Boca put the issue beyond doubt half way through the second half. They worked the ball from right to left and experienced Colombian full-back Frank Fabra unleashed a magnificent shot that flew in off the angle. Two Marinellis would not have been able to keep it out, and the remaining minutes turned into a victory parade. There was time for a third goal – Villa’s free kick headed home by substitute striker Luis Vasquezone of Boca’s young generation who can expect to be given more opportunities in the near future.
Perhaps the most impressive dose of youth in the season, though, has come on the touchline. Battaglia and Martinez almost appear as veterans alongside 36-year-old Fernando Gago, coach of Racing, the best team in the tournament. Racing bowed out unbeaten after losing a penalty shootout to Boca in the semifinals, in a game where Racing had all the chances. Battaglia’s Boca were heavily criticized after that game. But now their coach can defend himself, in his own quiet, undemonstrative way, simply by pointing at the trophy.