Sunday afternoon was bright and sunny in Buenos Aires, but there’s a metaphorical black cloud hanging over the Estadio Monumental as, against what everyone expected back at the start of the Apertura, the unthinkable has actually come to pass: River Plate, the most successful club in the history of Argentina’s domestic league, are relegated. They’ll play in the second division during 2011-12, for the first time in over a century since they won promotion in December 1908. The goals are right here, as well as my initial thoughts as a River fan.
Primera División/Nacional B Promoción 2011, second leg: River Plate 1 – 1 Belgrano de Córdoba (Belgrano win 3-1 on aggregate)
The very first thing to say is that as I type, a lot of utter goons masquerading as River fans are tearing up the streets around the Monumental. One River fans is being reported as having died inside the stadium after the match due to heart complications (the same thing happened after the 2-1 loss to Lanús a week ago). I’m very glad I wasn’t able to get to the game in the end.
Now, to the football. River’s problem throughout the season has been a lack of goals. Asking them to score twice in today’s match was always going to be too much, as I tweeted in the days before the second leg. Mariano Pavone got a cracker very early on to give them hope (and Belgrano’s even earlier goal was correctly disallowed for offside, in case the picture in the video above isn’t clear enough), but once Belgrano got an equaliser to leave River needing two more in the final 25 minutes, River were down.
2011-12 is an unknown now, in no small part due to River’s parlous financial state. How many of the squad stay with the side is anyone’s guess. Mariano Pavone is already gone, of course, but Daniel Passarella’s decision to hold Benfica to ransom for Rogelio Funes Mori (turning down an offer of €15 million in January) now looks very silly. Has a player’s value ever dropped so sharply in the space of a few months? Erik Lamela is bound to be off to Europe, as he surely would have been anyway – but having been relegated, will the fee be as much as it might have been?
Most of River’s squad are very young, of course. That in my opinion is a major part of why the pressure got to them in the end – after an impressive season which in any other league (that is, one with a proper relegation system) would have seen them saved long ago, the pressure of fighting the three-year points-averaging system (see text below the second table down here for an explanation if you’re unfamiliar with it) got too much, and the side slid into the playoffs thanks to just three points from their last seven regular season matches.
I’m guessing at this, but I would think Matías Almeyda will stay with the club, and aim to lead a young side out of Nacional B at the first attempt. River’s football was nice for most of the 2010 Apertura and 2011 Clausura, and if they can just find a striker who’s capable of scoring regularly – will Funes Mori find his level in the B? – they might just end up steamrollering the division, especially if this is taken as a chance to clear out the dead wood both in the squad and institutionally. A young side could gain a lot of confidence if they spend a season winning games. Insitutionally (if not from a short-term footballing point of view), this could be the best thing that could have happened to River. Financially, however, it may well cripple them. How severely remains to be seen, because the AFA being happy to see River go down is one thing, but they surely won’t want them to be bankrupted by it. Don’t be surprised if the government end up stepping in to help River out with some of their debt.
Above all, of course, is the historic nature of this day. River were promoted to the Primera División on the 27th December 1908. In the one-hundred-and-two-and-a-half years since (almost to the day!), they’ve not been below the top flight for a single season. Boca Juniors and Independiente are now the only two remaining sides to have not played a single season in the second division since Argentina turned professional in 1931. And given that the promedio system of relegation was reintroduced in 1983 specifically to save River from relegation, there were many who never believed they’d see this day – never believed River would be allowed to be sent down.
18 years on, having not finished in a bottom four place in any of the last three season-long tables, it’s the promedio system that has condemned River. So call it karma. They might well come straight back up. Next season might prove to be the making of a young side whose youth academy has shown signs in the last couple of years of flickering into life again. But tonight, no-one is thinking about that. Tonight, for the first time in over a century, football fans in Argentina are trying to get their heads around a few simple words: River es de la B.
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Photo taken from ole.clarin.com