Alongside the asylum, on a bald patch of grass in Buenos Aires, a group of young blond men were kicking a ball about.
‘Who are they?’ asked a child.
‘Lunatics,’ replied the boy’s father, ‘English lunatics.’
In the 130 years or so since Juan José de Soiza Reilly asked his father about those ‘English lunatics’ kicking a ball about down by the docks in the blazing heat of the Argentine summer, his country’s attitude to the game has become a little less uncomprehending and a little more welcoming. In spite of its distance from England, the birthplace of the game, and in spite of the bemused expressions of early porteño spectators, football took hold on the banks of the Río de la Plata much earlier than it did almost anywhere else in the world, and down the years, the rioplatense game has had its effect on the world game at large.
The Argentine Association Football League (later renamed Asociación del Fútbol Argentino, either way abbreviated to AFA) was founded by British ex-pats in Buenos Aires in 1893 and is South America’s oldest football association—the oldest in the world outside the British Isles. Argentina’s rivalry with Uruguay is the longest-running international sporting fixture anywhere outside the Home Nations, and the league is similarly ancient.
Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, founded in 1887, are the oldest surviving football club on the continent, though Argentina’s first club, Buenos Aires Football Club, was founded in 1867. The culture of the early clubs’ founders is evident in the names of clubs that are still around, from Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario (founded by ex-pupils of an English school in the city) to Banfield (whose hometown of the same name is named, obviously, after an Englishman). Everyone knows about the rivalry between England and Argentina at international level, but the depth of ‘English-ness’ in Argentina’s footballing culture is more rarely commented on.
Argentine football can, broadly speaking, be divided into two eras: the amateur, and the professional. This distinction is largely self-imposed; most statisticians, even today, ignore the amateur era when counting up clubs’ league titles and even head-to-head records between clubs. The early amateur years of the championship, from 1893, were dominated by the British-run clubs set up by dockworkers, Anglo-Argentine schools, railway engineers and social clubs. Most famous among these sides were Alumni, who won ten of the twelve championships played between 1900 and 1911 inclusive (they were called English High School when they won the first, changing their name the following year).
Thereafter, a split occurred and Argentina operated, for a few years (1912-14 inclusive), with two rival associations. At this point, British sides lost their dominance and criollo, or ‘local’ Argentine clubs took over the championship. Racing were the first great club side, winning five consecutively from 1913 right through to a few years of a newly reuinified championship. Another split in 1919 saw the Asociación Argentina de Football and the Asociación Amateurs de Football (both, in spite of the latter’s name, were amateur leagues) operate side-by-side until 1926. Another reconciliation paved the way for the advent of the professional league in 1931.
The dawn of professional football in Argentina, then, coincided almost exactly with football’s realisation of itself as a truly world game, coming as it did just a year after the inaugural World Cup, held across the Río De La Plata estuary in Montevideo, Uruguay (pub quiz answer: since all the 1930 matches were played in one city, Montevideo is the only single city to host an entire football World Cup). Argentina had lost the final of that tournament to the hosts 4-2, but by this point had already played their part in the international game’s development, after effectively inaugurating the Copa América with an invitational tournament held in Buenos Aires in 1916 to celebrate the country’s centenary of independence (also won by Uruguay, the party-poopers).
The professional era saw the arrival in earnest of Argentina’s two most famous clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate. Boca were the only one of what would become the ‘Big Five’ (these two clubs plus Racing, Independiente and San Lorenzo) to play in the Asociación Argentina de Football, and in that less competitive league had already won a few titles in the amateur era, whilst River at this point had won only one championship—the 1920 Asociación Amateurs de Football title.
Boca claimed the first professional championship—and it should be stressed that, up until this point, the title was still almost exclusively a competition for clubs from the Greater Buenos Aires area—and went on to enjoy their most successful domestic spell, winning six titles between 1931 and ’44, with River claiming five in the same period. In the late 1940s River began to start putting together a team which would hit its peak in between 1952 and 1958, winning five out of those six championships and breaking goalscoring records all over the place. This was La Máquina (‘The Machine’), a side talked about in hushed tones by Argentine football writers even today, with a forward line that a young Alfredo Di Stéfano was unable to convincingly break into.
After 1967, as Argentine football began to ‘federalise’, two championships were played each year: the Nacional, set up to allow provincial teams to take on the Buenos Aires sides, and the Metropolitano, a vestige of the former ‘city championship’. This state of affairs continued right up until 1985, with clubs today counting both leagues among their tallies of ‘first division championships’ (though the Nacional was more frequently played as group stages followed by a knockout championship).
1960 also saw the birth of South America’s premier club tournament, the Copa Libertadores de América, after a letter from then UEFA President Stanley Rous to his CONMEBOL counterpart, suggesting an annual ‘world championship’ fixture to be played between the club champions of Europe and South America (this idea of Rous’ became the Intercontinental Cup and has now been expanded to the World Club Cup). Independiente dominated in the early years of the Libertadores, claiming seven titles—still the all-time record, although Boca’s 2007 win took them to within one. Independiente couldn’t claim quite the same dominance at home, though, with San Lorenzo, Racing, Boca, Estudiantes and the two Rosario clubs, Newell’s and Central, all claiming titles.
During this period, only Uruguayan giants Peñarol (in 1966) and Nacional (in 1971), and Brazilian side Cruzeiro (1976) could break the Argentine monopoly on the Copa Libertadores, as Argentine clubs won 12 out of 15 editions of the tournament from 1964 to 1978. That fine run for the club sides culminated in ’78, when Argentina hosted and won their first World Cup, forty-eight years after that painful loss in the inaugural final.
When the side-by-side Nacional and Metropolitano were abolished and one truly national league created in 1985, there was a switch to a European-style season, from August to June, which of course ran through the excruciatingly hot Argentine summer (in December and January).
The crowd go wild at a River Plate match – photo © Kianoosh
The short championships (torneos cortos)
In 1991, partly to avoid having to play in such temperatures and partly, it would seem, to cram a bit more drama, Argentina switched to the ‘short championships’. The season was split into Apertura (‘Opening’) and Clausura (‘Closing’) championships, of 19 matches each. During one championship, everyone played everyone else once, with the return fixtures taking place in the Clausura. In some South American nations—notably Uruguay—the winners of the two championships play off against one another at the season’s end to decide the overall season champions. In Argentina this didn’t occur, though the 1990-91 season saw this system used to crown a single club as season champions, with Newell’s Old Boys beating Boca Juniors in the final.
The 21st century has brought further changes—in 2008 the second and third divisions reverted to one single, year-long championship. The idea was that by cutting down on dramatic championship run-ins, there should be less tension and, hopefully, less of the violence that has blighted Argentine football in recent years.
Below the top two divisions, Argentina’s league system is split into parallel ladders. The Primeras B, C and D are the ‘standard’ lower tiers, but running alongside them are Torneo Argentino A, B and the Torneo del Interior. The latter are for clubs who—for historical reasons owing to the geographical development of the country’s football—are not directly affiliated to the AFA (they’re instead affiliated to the association in their province, which is in turn affiliated to the AFA). Torneo Argentino A is parallel to Primera B, and each season one club from each goes straight up to the B Nacional (second divsion) from each of these two third divsions. A further side from each plays off for promotion. Of course, it’s the lowest-placed non-AFA-affiliated side who go down to Torneo Argentino A, and likewise to Primera B for the affiliated sides. Needless to say, this makes relegation a little awkward to work out, as do the ‘points’ used for it.
Relegation in all divisions is worked out from a separate table, known as the Promedio (‘Average’). The number of points that each side has won over their last three full seasons (six short championships) in their current division (or one or two seasons, if they’ve not been in the current division that long) is added up and then divided by the number of games played during that time. At the end of the season the teams with the lowest points-per-game percentage go down. Confused? Don’t worry. You’ll just have to trust me to work it all out for you when the end of the season comes. You’ll find both the championship table and the Promedio for the top flight on the HEGS Tables page.
This relegation system was brought in to protect big clubs, but in spite of that fact, Racing and San Lorenzo were both relegated during the 1980s. More recently it’s been the turn of other big boys—River Plate were relegated for the first time in their history in 2011, after over a century uninterrupted in the top flight (a stronger side than given credit for, having not finished in the bottom three in any of the three individual seasons that went towards their average points standings, they came straight back up), and in 2013 Independiente suffered the drop for the first time as well after a woeful 2012-13 season.
Taking into account the ‘parallel divisions’ mentioned above, then, as well as the confusingly-named Primera B Nacional (second division) and Primera División B (third division), the Argentine league system currently looks as follows, with AFA-affiliated divisions on the left, and non-affiliated ones on the right:
Primera División (normally called ‘Primera A‘)
Primera B Nacional (‘B Nacional’ or ‘La B’)
Primera División B (‘B Metropolitana‘) ——- Torneo Argentino A
Primera División C ————————– Torneo Argentino B
Primera División D ————————– Torneo del Interior
The current/upcoming changes
For the 2012-13 season, the Apertura and Clausura were renamed the torneos Inicial and Final; apart from that, nothing changed, but the AFA did organise a final at the end of the season, to decide the season-long championship, as they had in 1990-91. Confusingly, the rules were slightly different this time round; both the 2013 Inicial winners (Vélez Sarsfield) and the 2014 Final winners (Newell’s) were crowned champions, as in the previous short championship era (but unlike in 1990-91), but Vélez’s win in the Superfinal was also awarded as a separate league championship, even though they had to win just one match to attain it. For 2013-14 the structure remained the same, but after the fuss this ridiculous ruling had caused the previous year the AFA repealed the ‘extra’ title available to the Superfinal winners. San Lorenzo claimed that season’s Inicial, with River winning the 2014 Final—their 35th top flight title overall—and the subsequent Superfinal, putting them into the 2014 Copa Sudamericana, and achieving some closure three years on from their historic relegation.
In the Argentine winter (northern hemisphere summer) of 2014, the AFA voted to radically change the structure of the Primera and of the B Nacional. During the second half of 2014, from August to December, a championship will be played in the top flight that will resemble the short championships we’re used to at present. At the same time, the B Nacional will be split into two groups of 11 sides; at the end of the short campaign, the top five from each group will be promoted to the new-look Primera, with no relegations. This will take the top flight to a mammoth thirty teams. The B Nacional will end up effectively cannibalised between the Primera above it and the Primera B below it.
The new championship will begin in February of 2015, and will feature 30 teams in the top flight who will play each other once each—apart from clásico rivalries which will be played twice (sides without a clásico in the top flight will have an opponent drawn either at random or for TV exposure for the ‘extra’ fixture), to make a total of thirty rounds of matches, each with fifteen fixtures. The exact structure—whether we’ll have one table, or two groups followed by a knockout stage of some sort, or something else—hasn’t yet been voted on. Once it’s been announced, I’ll update this page accordingly.
Further reading in English
There’s not a lot of decent English-language literature about Argentine football history at present, but that is set to change in the next little while. Already available is the short e-book Superclásico, by my good friend Joel Richards, which as the title suggests is a history of the rivalry between River Plate and Boca Juniors. It was published in April 2013, and is available from Amazon; here’s the US link, and here’s the UK one.
Towards the end of 2014, Joel has another book out, which is being published by the team behind The Blizzard. That one is going to be a history of River Plate, and is to draw on material gathered from personal interviews Joel’s made with just about everyone who’s still alive and has ever had anything to do with River.
Also towards the end of 2014, Jonathan Wilson should have his next book published, which is a history of Argentine football. As with Joel’s book, I’ve seen some of the work John’s put into it, and it should be a cracker.
If you’re looking for a guide to travelling and taking in football in Buenos Aires, or if you have any unanswered questions after all this, please drop me a line. And in case you missed it near the top of the page, you can follow me on Twitter; here’s my profile.
The italicised extract at the top of the page is taken from Eduardo Galeano’s El Fútbol A Sol Y Sombra (Football In Sun And Shadow), and the translation was done by me.