Argentinian Football: A Primer
Editor’s note: Continuing our series of primers on football around the world, we today look at Argentina with the help of Bill Turianski from Bill’s Sports Maps and Sam Kelly from Hasta El Gol Siempre. Bill’s map beautifully illustrates the history of the game, and Sam provides an introduction to put it all into context. Click on the map to view the full version.
The history of Argentine football has been dominated from the outset by the Buenos Aires clubs, as is obvious from the geographical layout of the championship winners on the map. Bill and I have attempted between us to address a couple of historical errors that have tended to creep into English-language writing about those clubs (explained later), but even allowing for that the place of the capital in the game’s development in Argentina is formidable.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there are a lot of current top flight sides in the Greater Buenos Aires area. This proportion isn’t confined by any means to the top division, and simple saying that BA has ‘a lot’ of clubs is an understatement in the extreme: Gran Buenos Aires has more football stadia than any other metropolitan conglomeration on earth, from couple-of-hundred-seater amateur league grounds to the 75,000-capacity Estadio Monumental, home of River Plate and the national team. For the football enthusiast, there are few better cities to visit, if any.
The reason for the dominance of the capital city in both club numbers and titles won is twofold. First, sheer size: of Argentina’s 38 million people, around 13 million live in and around the metropolis. The next biggest city, Rosario, has one-tenth of the population. Secondly, arising from both the size and the economic dominance of the port city at the end of the nineteenth century when football was introduced, the Argentine league was for its first few decades essentially a Greater Buenos Aires league (plus, after a while, La Plata). Due to the country’s vast size and the difficulty at the time of transportation between cities, a national league simply wasn’t viable. So for a long time, the Argentine football league was in essence played by clubs concentrated in just one or two cities.
The Argentine championship is one of the world’s oldest, and in the early years it was dominated by sides who no longer exist — most famously Lomas Athletic and Alumni, who between them won sixteen of the first twenty titles contested. The name under which Alumni won their first title, in 1900, sheds some light on the origins of these clubs: they were originally called English High School. Following the early dominance of the British clubs, however, local sides sprung up and began to become more competitive. In 1912, the colonial strangehold was broken as Quilmes (presently in the second division having been relegated from Primera A in 2007) became the first ‘local’ club to win the league title — the break was complete, and no side of sizeable British demographic won the title thereafter.
Racing Club of Avellaneda were the first dominant club in this new era, claiming seven consecutive titles between 1913 and 1919, at the end of which run the amateur league system in Argentina split into two competing associations with their own championships. In 1919, Boca Juniors won the Asociación Argentina de Football title, Racing having won the Asociación Amateurs de Football trophy, and the following year Racing’s title was taken by the other party in the capital’s world-famous rivalry, River Plate. The two-FAs system continued with its side-by-side championships until 1931, when one merged association was formed and the league turned professional.
From 1931 to 1966, the national championship was won by only five different clubs: River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing, Independiente (also of Avellaneda) and San Lorenzo de Almagro (who today actually play in Boedo). As a result of this dominance, these clubs became known as the ‘Five Big Clubs’, or ‘Big Five’, of Argentine football.
In 1967, when another system of joint championships was introduced – the Torneo Metropolitano and the Torneo Nacional, played by essentially the same clubs in different halves of the season – Estudiantes de La Plata became the first side from outside Buenos Aires to claim a pro title, and it would take until 1974, when Rosario duo Newell’s Old Boys and Central finished first and second respectively in the Metropolitano, before a club from outside Buenos Aires Province won a title.
Today, the championship is more geographically diverse than ever, having become truly national at last in 1985 with the abolition of the Metropolitano and Nacional, but is still inevitably dominated by the weight of fanbase, history and population present in Buenos Aires.
The map and the accompanying list of club title wins aims to correct a discrepancy which has long existed in English-language accounts of Argentine football. Whilst everyone across the world, regardless of language, is aware that River Plate have 32 league titles and Boca Juniors 22, it’s often claimed that (for example) Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, the oldest surviving club in the country and probably in all of South America, have never won a championship. In fact, they won one in 1929, before the league turned professional. Estudiantes, their city rivals, are often credited with four league titles, but also won one in the amateur era – yet bizarrely, the totals of 32 and 22 for River and Boca do include all of these two clubs’ amateur titles. This map includes all league titles, amateur and professional, in an effort to correct such errors.
A final note: Notable former champions not featuring on the map – which only includes clubs in the Primera División A during the 2007-2008 season – include Ferro Carril Oeste, winners of two championships in the mid-1980s and the only side in Gran Buenos Aires whose modern stadium is still on the same site as their original ground (just outside the boundary of the Capital Federal region, a little to the west of Vélez Sársfield’s stadium), and the first-ever ‘non British’ champions, Quilmes, who play in the district of Gran Buenos Aires from which they take their name, just to the south of Avellaneda.