Tuesday, July 5, 2011

River Plate and the Copa America

A tough week for Argentine football was concluded Friday last with a lacklustre performance from the national team against Bolivia in the opening game of the Copa America, hosted this year by Argentina.

The game at El Estadio Unico de La Plata, which took place on a freezing night, followed the opening ceremony and saw Argentina luckily claw back from 1-0 down to draw the match.

But at least it was on the field problems which dominated the weekend headlines.

That was not the case when River Plate lost a decisive match on Sunday 26 June to be relegated to the second division for the first time in its 110 year history and off the field antics helped the event become international news as hard-core fans rioted to cause absolute mayhem.

What happened to River Plate?

The current relegation system in Argentine football definitively came into play in 1983.

During that championship River Plate was having a rotten time of it and was inevitably going to be relegated. To save the club, AFA (Argentine Football Association) decided to change the rules. It would no longer be the teams finishing bottom that would go down but rather the teams with the worst average during the previous four championships, known here as torneos, of which there are currently two per year.

With the system of the promedio each team gets an average by taking the number of points obtained during the previous four championships and dividing it by the number of games played. For example, if after two games the team has won one match (3 points) and drawn the other (1 point) their average is two.

The two teams with the lowest average at the end of each championship are automatically relegated and the next two teams enter a play-off with the third and forth placed teams from the Nacional B. The play-off is called la promoción and is a two legged game.

In 1983 River was saved from relegation based on the fact they’d had three not so bad championships before the awful one. And the system still does exactly what it says on the can; it protects the big clubs.

After winning the Torneo Clausura in 2008, the thirty-three time champions then finished dead bottom in the next championship. But despite finishing fourth in the 2010 Torneo Apertura and ninth in the 2011 Clausura their average of 1.236 left them having to play in the promotion play-offs to stay up. One two legged match they had to win or draw against Belgrano de Córdoba.

This is Argentina, better pay someone off than pay the consequences

Nobody here thought it would actually happen. Surely River Plate would pay a cheeky bribe to make sure they win was the general attitude. AFA also would want them to stay up. After all the football association would stand to lose plenty if River was not in top flight football. Yes, River would pay Belgrano off or AFA would fix the match, right?

Fans attack River's Adalberto Roman
Well River Plate has a AR$220 million debt and its President, 1978 World Cup winning captain Daniel Passarella, fell out with the President of AFA Julio Grondona a month or so before the big match.

So when River lost the away leg 2-0, which saw members of the Barra Brava (the club’s official hooligans) storm onto the field to confront the players with some pushing and shoving, it soon seemed a fix was not on the agenda. How un-Argentine you might say. Though that didn’t stop some of the hooligans, who were given entrance to the referee’s room at half time of the second leg at River's Monumental Stadium, from threatening to kill him unless he swung it their way.

That match was abandoned in the last minute with River set to go down. The Belgrano players were rushed off the field and the police turned the hoses on the crowd. All sorts of objects were lobbed as seats were torn up and many fans attempted to invade the pitch. River players, tearful and disappointed, were surrounded by a big circle of security men and escorted to the tunnel.

And then the live news coverage spent the next hour covering the violent scenes of disruption in and around the stadium as riot police let off tear gas and fired rubber bullets at those spectators who were throwing rocks, smashing windows, attacking police, robbing local shops, overturning cars and starting fires.

The police and security operation later faced much criticism and politicians were forced to defend the operation with Anibal Fernández, the Chief of Government supporting the decision to allow fans into the stadium for the match. Whatever the case, it was quite clear that the 2,200 policemen, five of whom ended up seriously injured, were not enough to deal with what was ridiculous and animal like behaviour from some of the River fans.

Will River Plate get back up?

Passarella is under pressure to go
The club, edging closer and closer to bankruptcy and in turmoil with thousands demanding the resignation of President Passarella, might get by with a little help from some friends. It is rumoured some of their ex-players, currently at clubs in Europe, have offered to return to River to get them out of the pickle they’re in.

But in the Nacional B division competition will be tough, especially now there is a handful of ex division one teams like Huracán, Rosario Central and Gimnasia de La Plata, relegated three days after River for the first time in twenty-seven years, after which similar, though slightly less violent scenes erupted on the streets surrounding their stadium.

On top of that River will have to play in small stadiums like Merlo, whose crowd caters for only 7,500 and travel long distances to play in the likes of the northern province of Jujuy, where in Argentine fashion the local fans will no doubt make plenty of noise outside River's hotel all night before the next day's match to give their side a little advantage.

There is also the issue of their supporters, as currently away fans are banned from stadiums in division two matches due to a long history of violence. AFA President Julio Grondona announced today however that this will probably be overturned for River as cities throughout the country are full of River fans who will be able to access the stadiums regardless.

And what of the fans of River's arch rivals Boca Juniors? Of course there was the taunting in the offices throughout the country the day after the match but for now Boca fans are not rubbing it in too much as their team's own average is not so promising and they could find themselves in the same position very soon. However, that didn't stop Telefe channel 11 from cutting to a current advert in which Boca captain Roman Riquelme proclaims that 'he is happy' immediately after the channel's Monday night news coverage of River's relegation.  
As for the national team, for Argentine football's sake, a victory against Colombia Wednesday in the second match of the Copa America will be most welcome after what was really a disappointing start to the campaign. Vamos Argentina.


  1. Kari ReinikainenJuly 6, 2011 at 4:27 AM

    Well, these events did indeed make headlines in the UK too. Still, watching that footage suggests that it must have been really bad; recent violence in Athens comes to mind. Still, why is it that facing the truth can be so difficult? A loss is a loss is a loss!