Editorial: The year of the underdog

Twelve short months ago, all was looking rosy in Argentina and South American competition for those who like to see big clubs winning things. There was enough interest for the unexpected sides to shake it up a bit – Pachuca were about to beat Colo Colo in the Copa Sudamericana final to become the first Mexican side to win a CONMEBOL competition – but by and large, big was best. Boca Juniors, with just one point required from their final two matches, were on their way to making a little bit of club history. They were about to become the first Boca side ever to win a third consecutive national title.

And then it all went pear-shaped in the most spectacular fashion ever seen in the Argentine championship. Boca failed to pick up that point, losing both of their last two matches, and Estudiantes won theirs to force a title-deciding playoff – which they then won, coming (appropriately) from behind in the second half to claim only their fourth ever title. And it gets better – Diego Simeone had become a manager all of ten months previously, and had endured a disastrous start to his career with Racing. Less than a year into his managerial career, he was a champion.

The Clausura saw a similarly unheralded side crowned champions. San Lorenzo may be one of Argentina’s ‘Big Five’, but they’d been pathetic in the Apertura, conceding twelve goals in their two matches against River and Boca, and giving no indications of what was to follow in the second half of the season. And then along came Ramón Díaz. The former River legend got the team into shape, started cautiously but by the end of the season they were coming into their own and won the title at a canter with a match to spare.

There was time for an underdog act in the Copa Libertadores as well. Colombia’s Deportivo Cúcuta may not have gone all the way but for a little while it looked like they were set to reach the final at their first attempt – until Boca (and the fog in La Bombonera) administered a dose of reality, on their way to winning the title.

Back to domestic action at the end of the winter, though, and it was back to the day of the little men. Alright, so Independiente led the way for a long time in the Apertura, but now, with three matches remaining, it’s Lanús, who’ve never won a championship before, who are in the driving seat. Having got their best-ever finish of second in the 2006 Clausura, Lanús have maintained the good form and steady progress since, and avoiding defeat in La Bombonera in the penultimate round could be enough to tip the balance their way.

Wednesday night’s Copa Sudamericana semi-final second leg has only heightened the sense that right now in Argentina, small could be the new big. Arsenal had competed in one season of continental competition before – last season, to be precise – whereas River had already been in the final of this competition, despite the Sudamericana only having been inaugurated five years ago. And River, with their home form imperious for most of the season, were heavy favourites to progress even with the lack of away goals from the first leg. Arsenal may have important connections – AFA chief executive Julio Grondona founded the club, his nephew is their current president, and they’re subject along with River and Boca to investiagations of refereeing favouritism in domestic competition – but they’re hardly a big club, and this still goes down as a major shock.

As an aside, given the lack of success enjoyed by Boca and particularly River in the last twelve months, it’s tempting to ask how they’ve managed it in spite of the alleged refereeing decisions in their favour. Although perhaps a more pertinent question would be why such allegations appear to have only been raised during such a fallow twelve months for the two sides (as the allegations involve the domestic league, I am of course leaving Boca’s Copa Libertadores win out of the picture)?

As if this weren’t enough, the league has another group of contenders who are also going through their club’s best moments. Lanús may have been steadily moving forward for a little while now, but the appearance of Tigre in third position of the Apertura table is even more of an eye-opener. When they came up, with the spectre of a fan killed by Chicago’s rioting barras hanging over the club, no-one would have predicted this. The squad have pulled together and, thanks to the goalscoring feats of Leandro Lázzaro, are set to better their best-ever finish in the top flight – a club record that was set in 1954. And in the average points table, Tigre are second, behind only Boca and ahead of River. Their place in the top division for next season is all but assured already.

If Boca and Lanús slip up in these remaining matches, Tigre will be very well placed to take advantage. OK, so that may be taking the success of the underdog just a little bit further than is really possible. But the way Argentina’s domestic scene has gone in the last twelve months, would anyone bet against it?

To read the last editorial, click here.

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