Editorial: An uneven field

Since the closure of Voice Of Football at the start of this month, my weekly opinion piece will be relocating to HLGS for the moment, and masquerading as an editorial. There was none last week due to the relatively busy midweek match schedule (River vs. Godoy Cruz on the Monday, Argentina vs. Algeria on Wednesday and Boca vs. Cúcuta on Thursday), so here’s the first, which looks at some official injustice.

San Lorenzo deserve congratulations for winning the championship this weekend, of course. They haven’t always been pretty (at times they have), but they’ve ground out wins in tough places to visit, and looked nothing like the side who did so pitifully in the Apertura.

But the weekend’s most important story, in some ways, came in Mataderos. Nueva Chicago, needing a win to retain their slim hopes of survival, hosted River, who despite their dreadful (by their standards) campaigns this season needed just a point to secure qualification for next year’s Copa Libertadores. Never ones to lie down and take what it how their opponents would like them to, Chicago ruffled the visitors’ feathers and, unbelievably, were leading 2-1 as injury time began. Salvation was almost upon them.

But they’d reckoned without the referee. In the first minute of stoppage time, Marco Ruben was on the ball just outside the Chicago area, and was fouled by Eduardo Méndez and Nicolás Sánchez. That much, at least, was not in dispute. And no-one seemed put out at the idea of a free kick at all, except that the referee didn’t indicate a free kick outside the box, but a penalty.

After much understandable protest from Chicago’s players and directors, and even pleas in his direction to put it wide or roll it straight at the goalkeeper, Victor Zapata took it – and hit the crossbar. Indirect justice? No. César Carranza, a Chicago player who’d been substituted and then joined in the 14-minute-long protestations, was on the pitch at the time, over by the halfway line. A retake was ordered. Zapata scored. 2-2, game over, and Chicago have to fight it out in the playoffs (if they don’t go straight down).

Now, clearly the referee, poorly positioned as a result of having read the play badly, should have done better, should have cleared all doubt whatsoever from his and his linesman’s head about the location of the foul before pointing to the spot. One bad decision is forgiveable. And yet the history of such decisions suggests that, had the foul taken place at the other end of the pitch, with River clinging to a lead, Chicago wouldn’t have got the penalty. The playing field is skewed in favour of the big sides.

It’s a pretty open secret in Argentina, as reported in a recent edition of the UK’s World Soccer, that officials are told by the AFA to go easy on the ‘big’ sides (River, Boca, Independiente, Racing and San Lorenzo), as well as Arsenal, whose founding president was current AFA head Julio Grondona (his son is the current incumbent).

Big sides get lighter punishments for violence on the terraces, for instance – River are currently serving their second stadium ban of the year, it’s true, but Newell’s became the first side in Argentine football history to have points docked after trouble at their match with River back in March.  Chicago striker Federico Higuaín, big brother of Gonzalo and whose registration is actually owned by River, said on Sunday that, ‘Nothing has ever happened to me like this. It feels like you’ve been raped by them.’

During River’s match against Godoy Cruz last Monday, in the 17th round of games, a fan fell to his death in the carpark, from the back of one of the stands – apparently after trying to climb part of a scoreboard to get a better view. Little was written about it at the time and as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, River haven’t been threatened with further sanctions in any way. Whether this is due to their being too big to touch, or (and in this case I suspect what follows is more likely) to a pathetic justice system, something should have been done.

It speaks volumes for the spirit this season at both Estudiantes and San Lorenzo – who may be one of the ‘Big Five’, but are some way behind Boca and River in influence –  that those two clubs have claimed the two championships. The truth is that this is a league in which any side can beat any other, on their day, and unexpected sides can still win the championship. That’s a huge part of its attraction. Yet the entrenched attitude of officialdom often seems to be, why not give bigger sides a helping hand?

Cúcuta shocked many on their way to the semis of the Libertadores this year. They gave Boca a real scare in the first leg and, had main striker Blas Pérez not been called away by Panama for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, might even have finished the job in La Bombonera. But there will be some who suspect that a tiny provincial club from Colombia (less powerful, football-politics-wise, than Argentina or Brazil) would not have been allowed to progress all the way to the final. That’s got to be weighed against the fact that Once Caldas, also from Colombia and also a small club, actually won the trophy, beating Boca in the final in 2004, but it’s still a point – the fog during the second leg of the Cúcuta tie was phenomenal, the referee talked about calling the match off two or three times during the second half, yet it was continued. To help the bigger club? It’s a suspicion that’s hard to shift, because even if it’s not true, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising in such a climate.

I am not a northern European trying to pass judgement. The English game is far from perfect or squeaky clean, and I fully expect our own FA, for instance, to do nothing at all about the bungs inquiry that’s currently being undertaken. But something must surely be done to address the bias towards the more powerful clubs in Argentina. If Chicago are relegated due to not being good enough to stay up, that’s one thing. If they go down in part due to having played a big team at a time when that team needed an official ‘favour’, it’s quite another.

One thought on “Editorial: An uneven field

  1. First off ..thanks for getting the Apertura in on the web..I scoured everywhere for that…literally..anyway..your comments seem to me to be pretty much dead on target..I,m also N. European….Now LA area..and spend time in BA every year..and take in Boca games as one of their fans..but having been robbed twice there in 2 weeks ..along with significant other,……. and two Germans in group…safety for fans and others should be a priority…along with fan behaviour..But money talks and BIG clubs RULE…having said that..ciao

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