River Return to Glory

It’s been a little while since I last wrote for Pitch Invasion, and for that I apologise, because there are one or two things we need to catch up on. Principally, though, there are three things to discuss, one of which can’t really be ignored, and the other two of which are actually rather interesting. So let’s begin.

River Plate

First, the unavoidable: River Plate have been crowned champions of Argentina for the first time in four years. A 2-1 win at home to Olimpo de Bahía Blanca on Sunday, combined with Estudiantes’ simultaneous goalless draw against relegation strugglers Colón, was enough to hand the Millonarios the title with a match to spare. Hot young forward Diego Buonanotte was the man-of-the-match, scoring both goals for the hosts (and both very good ones at that), and has in fact been widely hailed, alongside a revitalised Ariel Ortega, as the side’s most important player of the campaign – top scorer, despite not playing as the main striker, and without a doubt the player who’s shown the most improvement under Diego Simeone in the ex-Estudiantes boss’s first six months in charge at River.

The fact that this title has come in Simeone’s first campaign in charge, six months after River were a dismal 14th in the Apertura under Daniel Passarella, is one of the more interesting points regarding the end to their trophy drought. A six-month turnaround like that would be impressive enough on its own (in fact it mirrors the transformation Ramón Díaz, River’s most successful ever manager, made with San Lorenzo this time last year), but it’s also Simeone’s second league title as a manager – a career he only embarked on two-and-a-half years ago. Having proven that the 2006 Apertura he claimed with Estudiantes was no fluke, he’ll now set about getting River to play the way he wants them to, because in spite of winning the title, he’s still not arrived at his ideal set-up yet. Expect to see the selección‘s second most capped player ever managing in Europe before long.

Getting the title race wrapped up at this stage, one match before the end of the season, could actually have prevented a bit of an anti-climax, because there’s a two-week gap between the most recent round of matches and the final weekend, thanks to the South American qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup taking place this week; Argentina playing Ecuador and Brazil. Whilst the final weekend won’t be too exciting at the top of the table when the club game reconvenes, though, the relegation struggle could scarcely be any tighter.

In the round of matches just passed, both of the title-effecting matches also had a bearing on the other end of the table. Olimpo’s defeat and Colón’s failure to win (after referee Héctor Baldassi failed to award a clear penalty in their favour with five minutes remaining) combined with Racing’s second win of the Clausura, 1-0 over Huracán, to leave the troubled Avellaneda giants safe at last from direct relegation. They’ve got a chance on the last day to avoid even the relegation playoffs. Colón are currently safe, and stand one point above Racing. Colón host Racing on the final day. It’s fair to say a dull encounter isn’t likely.

Racing are also the subject of the third, and perhaps most interesting point of this article. It’s certainly the point which comes closest to the original Pitch Invasion ethos of fan culture. The weekend before last, on the 31st May, saw Independiente ‘host’ Racing (the match was played in Vélez Sársfield’s ground due to Independiente’s current groundshare with Racing whilst their own stadium is redeveloped) in the clásico de Avellaneda, the country’s second biggest derby behind the super. The match was a fairly uneventful 0-0, but off the pitch something interesting, if under-reported, was going on.

The match saw an experiment with stadium security which could prove either inspired, or the most stupid thing imaginable. After one trial run, nothing can be said for certain. But sit down before you read the next sentence. In the home end, Independiente’s barra brava provided the official security in the stand behind the goal. The product of talks between the Independiente hierarchy and an NGO, the plan saw 65 barras deployed as private security officers, with identifying jackets and walkie-talkies, for the match.

There are advantages: the barras, being recognised by their peers and perhaps feared by other fans, occupy areas of the stands the police simply aren’t safe going into, and they’re a lot cheaper than hiring professional security forces. The move also seems to be further confirmation that Pablo ‘Bebote‘ Alvarez, the capo of the Independiente barra, is indeed going through a process of personal reinvention as a more socially conscientious individual.

The part-time lawkeepers didn’t encounter any problems from other fans and were paid AR$150 (around US$50) for their services for the match, and observers from the authorities of the City of Buenos Aires were reportedly impressed by how the experiment went. But for the Olé article linked to above, it passed almost unremarked in the print press, and may well go no further. If the system gets used again, though, it could either prove a turning-point in Latin America’s struggle against football violence, or just authorise the barras to keep on doing whatever the hell they want. Interesting though the experiment was, one shudders to think what might have happened had it been tried with a more active set of barras such as those of River, Boca or Newell’s…

A title win, a relegation struggle to the wire and a fascinating new take on sporting security in the last week-and-a-half, then. There are still places in the Copas Libertadores and Sudamericana to play for, as well as deciding those relegation slots (Olimpo and Gimnasia de Jujuy to decide whether they go down automatically or go into the playoffs, Racing and Colón’s head-to-head to decide the battle for 16th spot in the Promedio). For the country’s most domestically successful club, though, the party’s started already. Four years might not be a long gap between title for many sides, but for River Plate, it’s been an eternity. A promising young manager and yet another potential young Argentine attacking phenomenon have helped them to put that right at last.

Finally, be sure to vote in the Hasta El Gol Siempre Award for Best Argentine Footballer in a Foreign League.

Photo credit: juze1980, via the Hasta El Gol Siempre Flickr pool

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