Bill’s Sports Maps returns to Pitch Invasion, with all the details you could possibly want on Argentina’s Primera División for the 2012 Clausura. Bill was assisted by our old friend Sam Kelly of Hasta El Gol Siempre, so you know the details should be spot-on. Click on the map for the full-size version!
Fans of Club Atlético Excursionistas, located in the Belgrano area of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Club Atlético Excursionistas play in Primera C, the fourth division in Argentina. The supporters pictured are known as “La banda del nevado”.
Argentina’s officially designated national sport is not soccer, despite all cultural and economic appearances to the contrary: it’s pato, Spanish for duck, a game that’s something of a hybrid between basketball and polo and is nowhere near as popular as soccer. It’s called pato because a live duck was once used instead of a ball, as Argentina Travel Planet helpfully explains:
Though nobody knows exactly when the game began, there are written accounts of it from as early as 1610. In the original game, a live duck was sewn into a leather skin, making a ball, but with its head left hanging out. The way the leather was sewn, handles were left to tug on, and the game began with two of the strongest players tugging on the handles, until one gained control of the ball.
A Wall Street Journal article a couple of days looked in some detail at the challenge to pato’s status as the national sport in Argentina, one that seems to have stemmed from marketing impetus rather than any actual popular interest in what sport is officially anything:
Now, all at once, pato’s privileged place in Argentina’s athletic hierarchy is under siege by soccer-loving corporate and political interests posing the question, “Why a duck?” (Argentina’s soccer team beat South Korea 4-1 Thursday in World Cup play.)
In April, a sportswear company called Topper held a splashy event featuring TV stars and models to launch a petition drive calling for futbol‘s designation as a national sport on a par with pato. Already, more than 140,000 people have signed on. Shortly after the kickoff of the petition, Sen. Emilio Alberto Rached opened up a political front, introducing a bill in Congress seeking national sport status for soccer and relegating pato to the rank of “national traditional sport.”
Soccer advocates argue that tens of millions of Argentines are fans, with goal posts sprouting up on seemingly every vacant lot and kids booting around bottles or bundled-up-rags if they can’t afford a ball. In contrast, they say, pato enthusiasts number in the thousands, and are relatively affluent and confined to pockets of the countryside. Soccer is “working class [and] inclusive,” while pato is “exclusive and costly,” the Rached bill asserts. In an interview, Sen. Rached adds: “It’s clear that more than 90% of Argentines have never seen a game of pato.”
Pato’s defenders point out that pato is a game that has developed over centuries of play in Argentina, and not an import from the informal empire of the English, as soccer of course was in the late nineteenth century.
The main defense of pato enthusiasts is that their sport is 100% Argentine—a claim that can’t be made for soccer. Modern-day soccer is considered to have started with the founding of the English Football Association in 1863.
“What sense does it make for Argentina to have a national sport that came from England?” asks Gustavo Jure, a pato player who is now a referee. “We’ve had some differences with the English, you know.” Nearly three decades after Britain defeated Argentina in a brief war for control of the Falkland Islands, anti-English resentment is still prevalent.
What the Wall Street Journal doesn’t mention is perhaps the most important fact about the development of soccer into Argentina’s most popular game: as Simon Kuper explained in the Guardian a few years ago, the whole point of how it became the people’s game in Argentina was the transformation in the sport’s style and a takeover of it from the English elite who had introduced it to the country:
Argentina in the Victorian age was part of Britain’s “informal empire”. Second sons and black sheep shipped out from Southampton to make their fortunes in cattle and wheat. They built railways and introduced football, a game they played in a muscular, disciplined style. But in the early 1900s, men with Italian or Spanish surnames began playing with more individuality and skill. Their style – known as criollo – came to be seen as typically Latin, or Argentine, the opposite of the British game.
Many among the Argentine poor resented the wealthy British. Juan Peron, who first became president in 1946, exploited these feelings in both rhetoric and economic policy. When Argentina first beat England at football, in 1953, a politician exclaimed: “We nationalised the railways, and now we have nationalised football!”
Since then, of course, Argentina has had a few more opportunities to show the success of that reimagination of the game to England, usually to the latter’s disadvantage. The game as invented in England has become the global game partly because of histories like this.
I don’t usually comment on live action, but the moment leading up to Argentina’s fourth goal just now, with the South Korean defenders drawn like moths to Messi’s flame, reminded me of this classic Diego Maradona photo:
As we take a look at today’s newspaper front pages for our World Cup special daily feature, we find South Korea’s papers unsurprisingly focused on Diego Maradona past and present, with both The Chosun Ilbo and The Dong-a Ilbo visually juxtaposing the South Korean and Argentinian coaches. The JoongAng Ilbo, meanwhile, remembers the 1986 group stage match-up between the two countries, won 3-1 by Argentina with Maradona tormenting the Koreans. Images again courtesy of Newseum, and yeah, I have absolutely no idea what the headlines say. Anyone?
JoongAng Ilbo, published in Seoul, South Korea
The Dong-a Ilbo, published in Seoul, South Korea
The Chosun Ilbo, published in Seoul, South Korea
The obvious big story out of this week was Jose Mourinho’s transfer to Real Madrid immediately following Inter Milan’s Champions League win. Not one for subtlety, perhaps the most memorable image was that of Mourinho exiting his car to weepily embrace defender Marco Materazzi, presumably on his way to a similarly weepy exit interview with Massimo Moratti.
In the midst of all the tears and poorly-guarded transfer details, the Times‘ Oliver Kay cleverly reminded his followers what Real Madrid general manager Jorge Valdano said about “the Special One’s” managerial approach with Chelsea back in 2007:
Real Madrid’s Valdano “Mourinho/Benitez don’t believe in the talent of players or ability to improvise to win matches” (2007)
Valdano: “If football goes the way Chelsea/LFC are taking it, goodbye to expression of cleverness/talent we’ve enjoyed for 100 yrs” (2007)
Kay intended for Valdano to eat his three year-old words (“I found Valdano’s comments re Mourinho/Benitez disrespectful at the time. Interesting that Real have “sold out” though”), but he inadvertently underlined a massive change in the European footballing landscape.
This past season was supposed to be all about Real Madrid. While spending millions upon millions of Euros on securing the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, and Karim Benzema in the summer of 2009 may have seemed preposterous in light of the success of the last generation of Galacticos, it followed a Madrista script that was written back in the mid 1950s: players are king at Real.
This was the ethos of the Yé-yé team that dominated the European Cup in the early days of the competition in the late 1950s, and it’s summed up best by Francisco Gento on the documentary, the History of Football, speaking of how Madrid beat AC Milan’s defense in the 1958 European Cup in Brussels: “we were Madrid, we broke down all systems.” No one remembers the names of the managers from that period; all that remains is Santiago Bernebeu’s collection of individual talents who worked together to overcome top-down tactical rigidity. This approach has marked Real Madrid’s player policy under president Florentino Perez.
It also sparked Valdano’s “shit on a stick” remarks back in 2007, which underlined his belief that talented players are still capable of winning games in the modern European game with cleverness, ingenuity, creativity. This was the ethos that led to a Madrid first team packed with wildly expensive footballing talent with the skilled but hardly world-beating Manuel Pelligrini at the helm. And it failed; Real didn’t win La Liga, and they yet again went out of the competition they first made famous, missing out on a Champions League final on their home ground. Real’s decision to acquire Mourinho is an admission of defeat. Player power is over; Mourinho’s Real Madrid signing caps the Age of the Manager.
Yet Valdano was wrong in 2007 to ascribe blame for the modern lack of individual creativity in football on Mourinho; he is a symbol (a fascinating one at that) how talented soccer players are molded in Europe in the 21st century. Hoovered up into academies or youth reserve teams at younger and younger ages, promising players aren’t given the space to improvise. They aren’t given the authority to make on-field decisions that will guide the team as a whole. They learn one or two on-field positions and are therefore incapable of variation. They play precisely to the manager’s wishes, or they are shunted off for good. Mourinho’s father-like embrace of Matrix on his exit from Inter Milan sums up the paternalistic philosophy of the modern manager.
This approach is also reflected in Mourinho’s remarks before the European Cup final last weekend that the Champions League is now bigger than the World Cup. This is a view increasingly held by journalists and managers alike, who reason that the motley collection of individually talented players thrown together every two years could not possibly be as good as the Europe’s big clubs, precisely because they have much less time playing under the national team manager.
Which is why the team to watch in the World Cup in South Africa will be Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Here is a manager with no discernible tactical approach but with a squad packed with some of the best players in the world, including Barcelona’s “Playstation player,” Lionel Messi. Maradona’s sincere belief in the talent of his squad—and his consistent lack of any and all managerial direction or authority—makes perfect sense considering his own individual footballing genius. Here is man who epitomizes Valdano’s football philosophy, using cleverness and ingenuity to give Argentina the World Cup in 1986. Their success in 2010 could be Player Power’s last stand. It will be fascinating to watch in any case.
It’s interesting that many still talk about 1986 as the last great FIFA tournament. It would too broad to blame the deterioration of the world’s most popular sporting tournament on the rise of the manager and the racehorse-breeding mentality of youth team coaches, but the two are probably not unrelated. Mourinho might be right: the Champions League could be the better competition, and the managers more than players are now the “Special Ones.” That other football philosopher, Eduardo Galeano, put it best:
In the old days there was the trainer and nobody paid him much heed. He died without a word when the game stopped being a game and professional soccer required a technocracy to keep people in line. Then the manager was born. His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom and maximize the productivity of the players, who were now obliged to become disciplined athletes.
A long time ago in a continent not so far away, I was basking in youthful rebellion and wandering the streets of Buenos Aires with a fistful of American dollars and the cocky gait to match. The pretext for my musings was a semester abroad, but the real motive was a “cultural exchange.” The economy had recently tanked, and with a favorable exchange rate, I wanted to cash in on a weak peso and an abundance of milanesa. Oh, and I also loved soccer.
My host-family father or “viejo” was named Oscar and religiously followed Independiente. He spoke painfully of the lost years, the decades of Diablos Rojos dominance when they were the toast of the town. But a young, ugly-as-sin Argentinian had caught my eye – Carlitos Tevez. Riquelme had recently left to warm the Barcelona bench, but at Boca the talent abounded and the stadium shook. What was not to love?
When River and Boca crossed swords in the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, I pinched myself just to be sure. A group of expat friends and I awoke at 3am to head the line at the Bombonera, but we were in for a rude awakening – only “socios” could purchase tickets. And these socios would have photo id cards (carnets). Despite the waving of dollar bills, no tickets were sold. And we were crestfallen.
Boca won the initial match 1-0, but in most unusual circumstances – the AFA had banned opposing fans in an effort to crack down on violence. When the second leg tickets went on sale to the general public at the Monumental stadium, I faced a dilemma – I liked Boca, but how could I see them play live in a crowd of gallinas?
It was so simple – camouflage.
None of my expat friends cared to accompany me for fear of death, injury, hurt feelings, etc. And my Argentine friends? Olvidatelo! Still, I found a scalped ticket on mercadolibre, bought a cheap River jersey, and the night of the match headed towards Belgrano for the ultimate soccer spiritual encounter.
The flares, the flags, the songs…you’ve seen it on youtube before. I lost my voice from uttering so many pre-match Argentina Spanish pejoratives, attempting to fit in. I could only afford a seat in the upper level popular, a standing room only pen where there is only the law of the jungle. And this is not the jungle of Disney Junglebook fame. I followed the waves of running, jumping, and avoiding getting trampled, at times wishing I’d spent my time on the safe streets of Pamplona instead.
The first half ended 0-0. As the second half grew on, self-belief diminished and anger flourished. When River scored deep into the half, the crowd erupted in a pandemonium usually reserved for recently deposed despots. But then came my moment truth, the exact second when I realized I was at heart a true Boca Jrs. fan. And an idiot.
Boca launched an innocuous counter-attack but Carlos Tevez took on and beat two defenders, rifling a shot to the upper angle. Instinctively, I stood up and raised my hands in excitement and adoration. Boca was tied but winning! Boca was going to the final! Instantly, I saw my own death at the hands of a ravenous horde.
That split-second lasted an eternity. I thought of the flags and drums crushing my skulls, the thousands of hands tearing my jersey to threads. By the grace of God, I caught myself before shouting. Still, hundreds of eyes glued themselves to my face. It was as if I had been listening to a Mana song while at a funeral, and abruptly stood up to sing the chrous.
And then, in a moment of death-inspired-brilliance, I unleashed the longest, filthiest, and ludest string of Spanish words to ever grace the ear of man. I became a method actor – and my motivation was salvation. To my relief, others popped up besides me and echoed my feigned sentiments. Soon I led a chorus of boos and hisses, the conducting music man with a briefcase full of money, no trombones, and a worsening nervous tick.
Things finally settled down and, to everyone else’s delight, River scored an equalizer in injury time. After extra-time, the game went to the lottery of penalties. This time, though, I exercised extreme jaw control when Boca advanced after some key Abbondanzieri saves. Watching the thousands of River fans exit the stadium in dead silence created conflicting emotions of pity, contempt, and interest.
No cabs dared patrol the city that late at night after such a big game. I was left to trek the mazey city blocks of Buenos Aires by myself all the way to Scalabrini Ortiz & Corrientes. Still, I pulled my jacket over the jersey and whistled along the way. I was just happy to be alive.
Read more from Elliott at Futfanatico
Photo credit: Joelr on Flickr, via the Pitch Invasion Photo Pool.
Uruguay were once the greatest force in world football, revolutionising the way the sport was played, and putting South America on the map in the 1920s and 1930s. They remain the smallest country to ever win the World Cup, with a population under four million.
I have a long-held desire to visit the crumbling but historic Estadio Centenario, the stadium in Montevideo that played host to the first ever World Cup final in 1930, in the 100th year of Uruguayan independence, as Uruguay defeated Argentina 4-2, sparking off days of wild celebration.
And the now rather decrepit Estadio Centenario is where tonight 60,000 will pack in for the visit of Argentina in a winner-takes-a-ticket-to-the-World-Cup contest. 3,000 Argentinian fans will cross the sliver of the River Plate separating the two countries, from a nation with ten times the population and one which in the decades since their famous early footballing clashes has come to dominate football in South America, Brazil aside, as Uruguay have fallen off the map.
But even Brazil have won only twice in twenty-odd games at the Estadio Centenario and Uruguay have won four Copa Americas finals at the stadium over the decades since 1930. I for one hope this proud football nation and historic venue has one more glory night in it, and sends Diego and the mess he’s made of Argentina packing to the playoffs.
- Given the amount of money in top-flight English football, and the further benefits to the profile of the game and elite infrastructure a successful World Cup by England would bring, doesn’t it seem awfully greedy for the World Cup Bid Committee to be complaining the British government is only giving them £2.5m towards the bid, instead of the £5m they had apparently been promised? Surely private finance could fund the entire bid. Meanwhile, the Bid Committee seems to think adding diversity is as simple as employing a pornographer’s long-time right-hand woman (who was also last year arrested for fraud, but later cleared): Karren Brady hitches on board.
- The terrible news of US forward Charlie Davies’ injuries from a car crash yesterday was weird in many ways. For those of us who follow a number of US-based soccer friends on Twitter, the flood of instant news, sorrowful updates, rumours, and links was almost overwhelming throughout the day — even before blogs, let alone mainstream media, had time to comment (indeed, reporters broke the news first via tweets). 99.99% reflected genuine concern and a touching feeling of community over the tragedy. Perhaps most strange, though, were the brief, sad updates from Davies’ friends on Twitter — players hearing the same news at the same time and reflecting their shock. An odd experience, and I felt I was intruding on something at times following along.
- Turns out the rumour that Sven was set to manage North Korea at the 2010 World Cup is not going to happen. Still, the news stayed alive long enough for the Telegraph to put together its list of the top ten weirdest appointments of all time.
- The U-20 World Cup on Friday looks set to be a cracker, with the tournament’s most exciting teams, Ghana and Brazil, making the final. 101 Great Goals has an excellent preview.
- How high can MLS ticket prices go, asks Fake Sigi, given the need for the league to raise revenue without scaring everyone away? Good question, but considering a scary proportion of the attendees at most MLS games are comps anyway, perhaps the key is to start selling more tickets at some price rather than raising prices, meaning those who are already paying aren’t always subsidising the entire event for others.
The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.
There was something for pretty much everyone yesterday, an all-day footballing extravaganza that began with Germany overcoming her many doubters by beating Hiddink’s tactically astute Russia in the Luzhniki Stadium, and ended with the United States overcoming a lethargic start and a forty-seventh minute goal by beating Honduras 3-2 in front of a hostile crowd of forty thousand at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano.
The game, which saw the US go up 3-1 only to have brace-scorer Julio Cesar De Leon make it 3-2, followed by a miraculous penalty miss by Honduran oldster Carlos Pavon in the eighty-seventh minute, was, amazingly, not the only epic spectacle of the day (more on the others below).
Yet it meant the USA qualified by beating Honduras on the road, which hadn’t been done in the Hexagonal. While political turmoil within the Central American country initially put this fixture in doubt, and despite a few notable pre-game shenanigans (Grant Wahl getting robbed at gun point, for example), the game was played out in a great spirit.
Too bad then many Americans had to scramble to find a bar that would show the game, as rights were sold to Spanish outlet Mediapro by the Honduran federation, relegating the match to CCTV. Perhaps after missing out on what might turn out to be an historic classic, the USSF will ensure games of this import in future are shown on channels people might legally watch.
- Speaking of epic matches, Maradona’s rain-soaked Argentina, while still far from the classic form we’ve come to expect from the South American powerhouse, a form we have yet to see under Diego, managed to beat Peru 2-1 at home to keep their World Cup qualification hopes alive. The game played out on a terribly soggy pitch and featuring a last minute equalizer and a last minute winner, could go down as an all-time classic, especially if it sees Argentina push on to the World Cup. Even more poetic was that the result came against that team.
- While Canadians may not have had much to cheer about in the WCQs (or MLS for that matter), we did have an all-Canadian first leg final between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact that made USL-1 look downright sexy despite ongoing front office turmoil. If you don’t take anything else away from this match, you should remember the name Marcus Haber, the twenty-year old who dragged Vancouver back into this fixture after equalizing in the second half.
- Would something as stupid as throwing flares on the Wembley pitch during yesterday’s WCQ 1-0 win by Ukraine over England (available exclusively online!) be enough to “embarrass” the 2012 European Championship co-hosts? The FA is banking that the answer is yes.
- Ireland and Italy draw 2-2 at Croke Park, meaning the Irish will have to endure FIFA’s seeding reversal, a decision insidious because of its timing according to Ian King.
- Sunday Mirror fail: rumours swirl around hidden Toure sibling, Carlos, who is looking to move to Manchester City.
Richard Whittall lives and writes A More Splendid Life.
As we look forward to an unexpected final between Brazil and the United States in the 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup we look at how the competition was established and developed. Has a tournament with a troubled history finally ‘made it’?
The Artemio Franchi Trophy and the King Fahd Cup
The precursors of the Confederations Cup as intercontinental international trophies were the Artemio Franchi Trophy and the King Fahd Cup. Neither managed to establish themselves as prominent fixtures in international consciousness, but both — along with the Afro-Asian Cup — did embed the idea of regular competition between continental champions.
The first Artemio Franchi Trophy, contested by the European and South American champions, was won by France (winners of Euro ’84), who beat Uruguay (winners of Copa America ’83) 2-1 in 1985 at Parc des Princes, Paris. It’s fair to say the trophy was not a resounding success, with just over 20,000 showing up in Paris, and a repeat affair not taking place for another eight years. In 1993, Argentina (Copa America ’91) beat Denmark (Euro ’92) on a penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 tie, in front of 34,683 in Argentina.
At the same time, the Afro-Asian Cup had been developing as a contest between the Asian and African champions. It was first held in 1978 between Iran and Ghana, though never completed as political problems in the former country led to cancellation of the second leg. It wouldn’t reappear until 1985, but was then played regularly until 1997, when a dispute between the two confederations led to a decade-long hiatus.
Competitions such as these showed some demand for intercontinental contests, but it was the King Fahd Cup, inaugurated in 1991, that first showcased intercontinental competition including more than two confederations (if we exclude the “Little World Cup” of 1980, a somewhat different one-off conception deserving of its own post).
The King Fahd Cup — or “Intercontinental Championship” — was first held in 1992, featuring Argentina (Copa America ’91), the United States (CONCACAF Gold Cup, ’91), the Ivory Coast (African Nations Cup, ’92) and the hosts, Saudi Arabia (Asian Cup ’88). The local crowd flocked to see Saudia Arabia’s two games, a 3-0 win over the U.S. in the “semi-final” (also the opening round!) and a 3-1 defeat to Argentina in the final in front of 75,000. There was less interest in the other semi-final, attended by 15,000 as Argentina crushed the Ivory Coast 4-0, or in the third place play-off, won by the U.S. in front of under 10,000 spectators.
The tournament was a minor success and, bankrolled again by King Fahd’s kingdom, it returned in 1995. It was expanded to six teams, to accommodate the European champions Denmark as well and to allow Saudi Arabia to enter as hosts, since Japan had won the previous Asian Cup. Also participating were African champions Nigeria and Gold Cup winners Mexico. Two groups of three gave the tournament added longevity, with Denmark and Argentina advancing to the final. In a half-full King Fahd II stadium, the Laudrups of Denmark led the Europeans to a 2-0 victory.
The FIFA Confederations Cup
Fifa sniffed a commercial prospect and took over the contest from 1997 on, though for the final time, it was played in Saudi Arabia that year, with the cumbersome double title of the FIFA/Confederations Cup for the King Fahd Trophy. For the first time, every Fifa Confederation was represented, with Oceania (represented by Australia) appearing for the first time. The tournament was expanded to eight teams, with the previous World Cup winner (Brazil) also invited along with the Asian Cup runners-up UAE (presumably because Asian Cup winners Saudi Arabia already had automatic entry as hosts). Brazil crushed Australia 6-0 in the final, the latter having somehow squeaked that far despite winning only one of their five games in regulation time.
The Fifa Confederations Cup (as it would from now on simply be known as) had been established on the international stage, but it still lacked a solid purpose, and the refusal of certain continental champions to participate undermined its legitimacy over the next decade (Germany opted out in ’97 and ’03 and France in ’99). The always shifting qualification procedures confused the public, such as Mexico’s entry into the ’03 tournament based on their win in the Confederations Cup two years earlier.
That 1999 tournament saw the Cup moved away from Saudi Arabia for the first time, and the switch to Mexico proved to be a rousing success: almost one million attended the matches, at an average of 60,625, almost triple the average of two years previously. A goalfeast – 3.44 goals per game, and stellar performances by Ronaldinho, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Saudi Marzouq Al-Otaibi with 6 goals each — certainly helped matters. Mexico’s epic 4-3 win over Brazil in the final was watched by 110,000 at the legendary Estadio Azteca.
Yet it still wasn’t entirely clear why the tournament was taking place when and where it was. Why was it held every two years, and where would it go next? In 2001, the eventual long-term solution was found, as South Korea and Japan co-hosted the Cup as a dry run for their role as World Cup hosts the next year. Crowds were down somewhat, with a 557,191 total attendance (34,824 per match), though most matches saw stadia close to capacity – helped by Japan’s surprising run to the final, where they were defeated by France.
Perhaps as reward for winning the ’01 tournament, France were chosen as hosts for the ’03 event. This tournament, though, would mark the low point in the history of the event, as Cameroon’s Marc-Vivien Foé died on the pitch of heart failure during their semi-final with Colombia. His death sparked a debate about the demands the international calendar placed on top players, and the value of the Confederations Cup. Sepp Blatter hardly helped matters by immediately stating the final would go ahead three days later with many questioning whether Cameroon should play at all. Though Fifa initially promised to consider renaming the event after Foé, nothing came of that (there will be a brief ceremony before tomorrow’s final remembering the Cameroonian).
The Confederations Cup did return two years later, once again as World Cup dress rehearsal, this time in Germany. A pretty impressive turnout — 603,106 (37,694 per match) — saw a run to the semis by the hosts, who were beaten by eventual champions Brazil, who in turn defeated Argentina in the final 4-1.
For the first time, the Confederations Cup was not held two years later, and Fifa announced it had settled on a definitive formula: the Cup would be held every four years by the next World Cup hosts. All six confederation champions, the host nation and the reigning World Cup winner would be the entrants — though for the South American and European champion only, participation remains optional.
It seems this formula, along with Fifa’s smart decision to package the rights to the Confederations Cup with the World Cup, has finally established the tournament as a serious proposition. The opportunity for nations to compete at the next World Cup’s venue and for the host themselves to get a meaningful warmup and operational dress rehearsal gives it practical purpose. And it’s a fine carrot for the less prestigious continental championships to offer their winners.
Perhaps most importantly, there is finally a sense that the world cares and is watching. As U.S. forward Charlie Davies posted on his Twitter account today ahead of the final, “off too [sic] training, We gotta do it big tomorrow on ESPN!!!! Shock the world part II”.
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.
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.
The super, in the end, wasn’t so super as a match. That’s not really anything unusual for a fixture in which the pressure and the intensity of the rivalry often produces foul-laden, fairly poor matches, but in recent years River Plate and Boca Juniors have given us some absolute crackers, so we were probably due a dud. That it’s also the first superclásico in ages at the point of which both sides have had genuine title aspirations is probably not a coincidence.
The match, a week-and-a-half ago now, came in the middle of the lowest week of River’s season so far. After a 2-1 loss in the first leg of their Copa Libertadores last sixteen tie with San Lorenzo, they lost 1-0 in La Bombonera, Sebastián Battaglia scoring the only goal of the game for Boca. The contest improved a fair bit after half time, but was still never up to much, with River’s attacks looking increasingly desperate as the minutes ticked down. Desperation didn’t seem to be on the agenda a few nights later, though, when they took on San Lorenzo in the second leg of the Copa tie.
The away goal gave River a lifeline, and after an hour, as Sebastián Abreu slotted home a penalty, they were completely in control. Ahead on aggregate, 2-0 up on the night and San Lorenzo, to boot, had had two men sent off. With 30 minutes left, the visitors’ challenge looked as dead in the water as Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic US Presidential nomination. But Ramón Díaz’s men, like Clinton, never quite know when they’re beaten in this Copa, and Gonzalo Bergessio scored twice in five minutes for San Lorenzo, who then hung on for a 2-2 draw on the night and an incredible 4-3 aggregate win. If there was such a thing as a superdelegate in the Copa, it would surely be San Lorenzo boss Ramón Díaz, whose side who could meet Boca in the semi-final, if both sides advance from their quarters, and are dreaming of finally claiming their first Copa.
This weekend just gone, though, saw things get dramatically better for River and the other Argentine side to be eliminated in the last sixteen of the Copa, Estudiantes. Both were still joint leaders of the Torneo Clausura table going into the last round of matches, and Estudiantes beat Boca to open up a gap at the top again – Boca’s win over River the previous week had taken them just a point from the summit. A couple of hours after that match in La Plata, River hosted Estudiantes’ cross-city rivals, Gimnasia. Playing poorly in the first half, they trailed 2-1 at half time, but blew their opponents away in the second period to run out 4-2 winners and return to the top of the table. River and Estudiantes now have 30 points each, Vélez Sársfield and San Lorenzo 27, Independiente and Boca 26. Five matches remain. Are you reading, Mr. Scudamore?
On Sunday, River have another clásico, this time away to fellow high-fliers Independiente, whilst Estudiantes ‘visit’ Gimnasia (they share a stadium at present) in the La Plata clásico. And as if there weren’t enough rivalries to be going on with for a weekend, Boca host Racing – who desperately need points from somewhere, anywhere, to avoid a relegation playoff – and Huracán play San Lorenzo in yet another derby. The super may be the headline-getter, but it’s far from Argentina’s only rivalry.
One of the sides involved in the upcoming ‘weekend of hate’ have been making themselves look a little stupid this week already, though. Regular readers, see if you can guess who. It’ll come as a surprise to no-one who remembers my previous Pitch Invasion columns to hear that the ones being pointed and laughed at by their peers are Racing. Yes, them again. They’ve slipped well and truly into the relegation zone and are now behind Rosario Central in the Promedio, occupying a relegation playoff place. Last weekend they were absolutely pathetic in the second half of their 1-1 draw against Argentinos Juniors, and were met on Monday by a group of unhappy fans at their training session.
So far, so usual for a side who’ve been woeful for a few years now. But this Monday was a little different. One fan, Mauro Paidón, voiced his disgust at the players’ performance more volubly than others. After an exchange of views with a couple of the squad, he returned to his car, Upon which two Lucozade bottles landed close by him having been thrown over the fence from the training pitch. ‘My back was turned, so I didn’t see which players threw them,’ he told the press. It’s a thoroughly embarrassing incident for the Avellaneda club, but it’s also entirely in keeping with the way their season’s going now. One Racing-supporting friend tells me most weeks in emails that the current side are the worst he can ever remember the club having, and that there’s no reason a decent B Nacional side wouldn’t be able to beat them in a promotion playoff if they can’t get out of this mess. With Boca coming up this weekend and the Avellaneda derby against Independiente also still on the agenda, it’s hard to see a way out for La Academia now.
The quarter-finals of the Copa Libertadores are next up, then. Boca take on Atlas on Wednesday evening in Vélez Sársfield’s stadium for the home leg. La Bombonera is closed for the quarters and the semis after a linesman was hit by an ice cube thrown from the VIP section at the tail end of their first leg 2-1 win over Cruzeiro in the last sixteen. San Lorenzo take on LDU Quito, Estudiantes’ second round conquerors, on Thursday evening, and will be looking for a big win in the first – home – leg to give them some cushion before travelling to play at altitude in the Ecuadorian capital. The vanquished parties, River and Estudiantes, now have only the league to concentrate on – but it’s those two who are in the driving seat where that campaign is concerned.
This Sunday, in a city at the centre of a large slice of the world’s footballing history, two sides will come together for one of the most legendary fixtures in the calendar. Both have been champions of their continent, both have provided players who became legends of the game locally and globally. Both, at this stage of the season, are fighting for the title.
‘The Milan derby,’ I hear you say, ‘with both sides fighting for the title?’ Well, no, because although the folk who sell Serie A’s TV rights would love you to think otherwise, the derby della Madonnina will not, in fact, be the fiercest footballing rivalry to take place on Sunday afternoon. Because a couple of hours later, in the docklands of Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors host River Plate.
Italy has its own colourfully-named derbies, and across the Spanish-speaking world there are various clásicos and, in Spain, even el gran clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Only Argentines, though, with their country’s supporters divided roughly one-third to Boca, one-third River, and one-third the rest, have enough nerve (or simply endearing lack of modesty) to label their own great clash the superclásico [Editor's note: MLS has the cheek to do so as well nowadays, as the Galaxy play Chivas USA in the Honda sponsored Super Clasico!].
The 2008 superclásico
This year’s clashes – this weekend’s is the first competitive meeting between the sides in 2008 – will be given a little added historical significance because the super is one-hundred years old in August. Not that any extra spice is needed – over the last century the fixture has seen more than its fair share of action, as well as the worst stadium disaster in the history of Argentine football. After a dreary 0-0 at the Monumental in June 1968, Boca fans began to leave the ground but found their way blocked. Either the doors of Gate 12 were left locked, or the police refused to allow the fans to leave right away, or a combination of the two – to this day the situation’s not entirely clear. Whatever the cause, the result was a mass crush which left 71 people dead. ‘The Tragedy of Gate 12′ has still never been officially investigated.
The darkest point in the history of the super, then, isn’t in dispute, but the story’s not all so dreary. Both sides were founded in the dockside district of La Boca at the turn of the twentieth century, River a few years before Boca. In the face of the rapid urbanisation Buenos Aires was undergoing at the time, playing space became hard to come by, and the two local clubs played a match to decide which club would stay in the area and which had to move on. That’s the urban legend at least – River did indeed move on after losing the match 2-1, and now play in the northern barrio of Núñez, whilst Boca are still based in the barrio they take their name from today, but the reasons for ‘betting’ the teritory on the match are murky.
With the sides playing in separate leagues for much of the following few years, the first officially-recorded super took place in Racing’s stadium in 1913, with River winning by the same scoreline as their defeat of five years previously.
These days, the two are established as by far the biggest clubs in Argentina, and the match between them gets far and away the most international exposure of any domestic game in the Americas. It’s been good fun for River lately – they’ve not lost to Boca in a competitive match since the 2005 Apertura, although the same time period hasn’t been quite so good trophy-wise; their last title came in the 2004 Clausura, four years ago. To that end, this Sunday’s super is going to feel a little different. River go to La Bombonera joint top of the table with Estudiantes, whilst Boca, in fourth, are four points back. A draw wouldn’t be a disaster for either side but the chances of them playing for that are zero, even with the match sandwiched as it is between the two legs of the Copa Libertadores first knockout round. A win for River would all but end Boca’s league hopes, with five matches left, whilst a home win would get them right back in the hunt.
It’s a sign of just how massive the super is that Argentine papers are already discussing team selection and preparation for it in spite of the fact that both sides have those Libertadores first legs to play first, in midweek. River travel to San Lorenzo in an all-Buenos Aires clash whilst Boca host Brazilian side Cruzeiro in a tie that would seem a lot trickier were it not for the fact that Brazilian clubs universally seem to fear Boca regardless of current form or indeed their own abilities. As well as these big matches, this weekend is also showtime at the bottom of the Argentine first division.
There Are Other Games
Last time I wrote for Pitch Invasion, Racing were having a dire time, but a few weeks ago, to the astonishment of their fans and the joy even of some supporters of the other four of Argentina’s ‘Big Five’, they claimed their first win of 2008, 1-0 against Arsenal de Sarandí. That was the second of what’s now four straight matches without defeat, although the other three have been draws. The run hasn’t yet got Racing out of the relegation zone, although Saturday could help – they visit Rosario Central, with whom they’re currently dead level in the relegation points average table, in what might be termed a six-pointer, if the Argentine league operated a normal relegation system. San Martín also host Olimpo in what’s likely to be a slightly less intense affair; both sides, newly promoted, look doomed, although if the hosts win they can drag Gimnasia de Jujuy into the automatic relegation spots and replace them in the relegation playoff places, at least for the moment.
Whatever else happens, there’s a season-defining week ahead for more than just the most famous two of Argentina’s clubs. Some things will look much clearer in ten days’ time – and on Sunday in La Bombonera, the fireworks will be the least of the entertainment.
You can find the Argentine tables – league, goalscorers and relegation – on this page, whilst all the superclásico buildup, reports and aftermath, as well of course as coverage of Argentina’s Copa Libertadores and relegation struggles, gets top billing on Hasta El Gol Siempre.
Photos by Sam Kelly on Flickr.
It wasn’t a bad weekend on the pitch in Argentina for the sixth round of the 2008 Torneo Clausura. There was a thrilling late fightback from Banfield, who scored twice in the last five minutes to draw 3-3 with visiting Tigre. Independiente rediscovered their form in impressive fashion, beating Gimnasia 3-1, whilst relegation-threatened Newell’s somehow pulled a 4-1 win over Copa Sudamericana holders Arsenal de Sarandí out of the bag.
But none of that made the headlines in Argentina. Instead, Olé’s front page on Monday morning read: ‘Collective Bad Conscience’. Friday evening saw the start of it, with a lower division derby in the country’s Andean northwest between Gimnasia y Tiro and Central Norte, both in the city of Salta. The match went ahead (Central Norte won 2-0), but had a tragic prefix when a 17-year-old girl walking to the stadium with her boyfriend was shot in the head on a street corner. There was a late-night medical centre on the same corner, whose staff tried to help, but they could do nothing to prevent her death. The bullet was fired by another minor walking with the pair, but reports are confused as to the circumstances – a tragic accident seems most likely.
In Argentina, whose media, like its football, is dominated by the ‘giant’s head on a dwarf’s body’ of Buenos Aires, the news barely registered, until, on Saturday afternoon, another fan was killed. Emanuel Alvarez was on a coach carrying fans of his team, Vélez Sársfield, to their match at San Lorenzo. The convoy was passing close to the stadium of San Lorenzo’s local rivals Huracán when a gun was let off which went directly into the 21-year-old’s heart.
Again, the circumstances were confusing, not least because of the location – which Vélez’s chief of security later said wasn’t significant.’[The bullet] didn’t come from La Quemita [Huracán's social complex],’ Eduardo Capucheti told reporters, contrary to initial reports that the coach had been ambushed by a gang linked to Huracán. ‘It was an extraordinary piece of bad luck.’ Some fans in the coach convoy disagreed with the ‘bad luck’ part of this version of events, but one thing that’s clear is that a gun was used, and another is that – like the incident in Salta the previous night – this wasn’t a clash between barras.
The match was called off, as was the Gimnasia de Jujuy vs. Lanús clash. That second, mercifully, was for non-football related matters linked with an ongoing industrial action by workers in the state government, which used up police resources for the afternoon. On Sunday afternoon, though, violence was back in the headlines thanks to – and those who’ve only heard of two Argentine sides before coming across this article will be on firmer ground here – Boca Juniors.
We’ve looked before at the ‘civil war’ going on inside River Plate’s barra brava, but on Sunday there was the first major fight in a while between two factions of Boca’s gang, La Doce [open to a few interpretations, this title, but it's normally translated as 'The Twelfth Man']. The gang’s hierarchy were sentenced to varying jail sentences last March, and now a struggle is brewing to see who will take control in the interim – and possibly beyond.
As Boca’s fans gathered to board the coaches which would take them to Huracán’s stadium a fight broke out and the police, it seems, were slow to react. When the backup forces arrived they were approached by a 40-year-old man, still unnamed in the press, with a deep knife wound in his abdomen. He was rushed to hospital and pronounced ‘out of danger’ before the match had even got underway, but in total there were 183 arrests. I’ll repeat that: one hundred and eighty-three arrests. This wasn’t some small school playground scrap (although worryingly, nine of the detained were minors).
The occurences are likely to re-open a few debates in the coming weeks. First, there’s the question of whether matches in the Primera A should take place from now on without away fans present, as has happened since the start of this season in the lower divisions. This doesn’t seem ideal from the point of view of the majority of fans who are innocent, of course, but if it could have prevented Emanuel Alvarez’s death, it would surely have been worthwhile.
Secondly, to my mind, it should also raise questions as to how much longer the Government of the City of Buenos Aires can retain control over matchday security within the bounds of Buenos Aires’ Capital Federal region. The central areas of the city are marked off as an autonomous area of Argentina, subject to certain different laws, and included in these are issues of football security. In the Province of Buenos Aires, the awkwardly-monikered CoProSeDe (Comisión Provincial de Seguridad Deportiva, or Provincial Commission of Sporting Security) are in charge of match-day operations. They’re clamped down in a major way in the last couple of seasons, and the result has been notably fewer headlines regarding the barras of clubs like Racing and Independiente (not that I want to leave anyone under the illusion that these clubs are squeaky clean), whose stadia are outside Capital Federal and thus under the jurisdiction of the province’s force.
For those clubs inside Capital Federal, though – which includes Vélez, Huracán, San Lorenzo, Boca and River, as well as clubs notorious for their barra bravas such as Chacarita Juniors (currently in Primera B Nacional) – the story is different. CoProSeDe has no power in the autonomous district, and security is laxer. It’s a point that much of the Argentine press – again, it bears repeating, based exclusively in the central districts of Buenos Aires – don’t seem to be talking about much. But surely, a unified security operation for the whole of the Province and the Capital district would make sense, given that this would cover all of the six most-supported clubs in the country as well as the two La Plata sides, Estudiantes and Gimnasia.
That’s not going to happen, though. And pipe dreams on the author’s part about streamlined security measures aside, the sad fact remains that another weekend of largely entertaining football has been overshadowed in Argentina by the actions of an idiot minority. And however much Argentines – and those of us who love the country and its football so dearly – cry ‘¡Basta!‘, it’s unlikely to be the last time.
“If we had played badly or hadn’t had a say in the game, I’d have known this was going to happen. But we’re improving little by little, this is a team which is being formed. I believe there are people who understand that… and another group who don’t.” So spoke Miguel Micó on Tuesday, in a soundbite that nicely encapsulated the thoroughly rotten way Racing Club’s season is continuing to go in Argentina.
Vélez Sársfield and Estudiantes share the summit after three matches of the Clausura, but it’s Racing, one of Argentina’s ‘Big Five’ and still as useless as they’ve been for a couple of seasons now, who were making the headlines. Micó, the manager, had to call off the post-match press conference after being confronted by a group of angry fans whilst on his way to deliver his piece into the microphones. Racing’s poor performance in the last few seasons has lead to a low points average, which in turn gives a low standing in the Promedio, the table – based on the previous three seasons’ results – used to work out relegation places in Argentina (it’s at the bottom).
Micó isn’t to blame for that – he only came in after Gustavo Costas left in December – and nor are most of his players. Aside from the return on loan of Maxi Moralez, who only left the club for Russia six months ago, Micó has had to bring a few other youngsters into the first team from the reserves and youth divisions, and doesn’t think they should have to bear the brunt of the previous teams’ mistakes in getting them into this mess.
“The idea is to find the [correct] team as soon as possible,” Micó said after being asked when Racing were finally going to win a match in 2008. So far they’ve drawn with relegation-bound Olimpo, lost to Banfield and, on Saturday, drew 0-0 with Gimnasia de Jujuy.
Racing to Oblivion
So why are Racing so useless? Institutional instability. As I wrote previously, Racing’s current ruling regime are seriously at odds with the fans. The club went bankrupt in 1998, and was taken over by holding company Blanquiceleste in 2001. During 2007, Blanquiceleste came under even more pressure than ever before to relinquish control of the club, with many fans suspicious of how much money the directors were making for themselves (the enterprise isn’t supposed to be profit-making), and angered at the lack of elections to decide the president.
Over the December-January summer break, things came to a head as seven first-team players left the club in a row over unpaid wages. Under pressure from fan protests and an unstable working environment, the previous lot hadn’t been doing very well – but the squad who’ve got to get through this Clausura have been thrown together at short notice and that’s not going to make it easy to perform.
One thing their fans might want to bear in mind, though, is that Racing have at least scored. Another of the ‘Big Five’, San Lorenzo, can’t even boast a goal yet in this year’s championship – or a point. A remarkable turnaround for a side who won the corresponding championship last year.
San Lorenzo’s Misery
Their season got worse after an already underwhelming start, when they travelled to the Monumental to take on River Plate in the year’s first big clásico (derby). It was a bit of a reunion day as well, since Los Santos’ manager Ramón Díaz and playmaker Andrés D’Alessandro, recently signed from Real Zaragoza of Spain, were both returning for the first time to their former club. It didn’t go well for either of them. D’Alessandro had to leave the field in the 23rd minute after suffering a muscle pain that will keep him out for a couple of weeks, and just minutes later River’s Colombian star striker Radamel Falcao García headed them into the lead. Matías Abelairas, the latest in their seemingly never-ending production line of really bloody good attacking-midfielder-cum-forwards, doubled the lead eight minutes into the second half and the hosts never looked back.
It’s two unexpected teams who are top, though, just ahead of River and fellow giants Boca Juniors, both on seven points. Estudiantes have started life under Roberto Sensini well, pouring forward at every opportunity, and whilst their Copa Libertadores opener might have gone better than a narrow loss in Cuenca, they’re starting to look devastating in the league, as Newell’s Old Boys will attest after the 5-2 pasting they found themselves on the wrong end of on Friday evening. Juan Sebastián Verón is pulling the strings like a man ten years younger in central midfield, but if you want one name to try and kid your friends you knew all about in a few years time, remember Pablo Piatti, a fast, 18-year-old wide-man who broke into the first team with a late winner in a crucial match of Estudiantes’ title-winning campaign in the 2006 Apertura and is now scoring and setting goals up regularly.
Vélez head the table nominally, though given their identical goals scored and conceded record with Estudiantes it’s presumably only so that the stat-counters can stick someone different up there now and then – even alphabetical order doesn’t hold much sway in Argentina. They saw off Banfield, who are themselves no slouches, 3-0 in Liniers on Saturday, and Sergio Sena, one of their goalscorers in that match, insists they’ve not yet hit their stride. Hugo Tocalli’s young side perhaps lack the bit of experience Verón lends to Estudiantes, but it’ll be interesting to see how far they can go, unencumbered by a Copa Libertadores challenge.
Finally, an honourable mention for Martín Palermo, who scored twice at the weekend. The Argentine press are now salivating over the fact that his next goal will draw him level with Francisco Varallo, and the one after that will make him Boca Juniors’ all-time highest goalscorer. It’s not actually true, as I explained on Hasta El Gol Siempre in September, but still, a headline’s a headline, so you can guarantee every news agency going will be telling you about it next week if he does score against Gimnasia on Sunday. And if Palermo decided to defect to San Lorenzo or Racing in the meantime, Ramón Díaz or Miguel Micó surely wouldn’t mind…
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.
Hasta El Gol Siempre’s Sam Kelly looks at a judgement that might finally mean Argentina’s battle against football violence is headed in the right direction.
Friday saw the culmination of a legal case that had been ongoing for exactly twenty-two months in Santa Fe, the capital city of the province of the same name in Argentina. For a change, in spite of the time taken to reach a conclusion, the final judgement just might be a step forward in the Argentine authorities’ battle against violence in the country’s stadia.
José Gastón Mendoza was convicted of the attempted murder of a fellow Colón fan during the buildup to his side’s 2-2 draw against River Plate on the 19th February, 2006, and sent down for six years. Before the match began, Mendoza, who was already wanted by police for questioning over a murder in the city days beforehand, moved through the stadium looking for a member of a rival faction of the club’s barra brava, and found him on the main terrace behind the home goal, which astonishingly was not, at that point in the afternoon, being policed by any officers.