River Plate, Boca Juniors domination not as obvious as it once was

Jonathan Wilson analyzes the recent struggles of Argentine heavyweights Boca Juniors and River Plate.

Argentine giants River Plate are in position to win their first title since being relegated in 2011.

Jorge Blanco/LatinContent

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina --

River Plate went top of the Primera Division on Sunday with a 1-0 win over a Velez Sarsfield side whose minds have long since drifted on to the Copa Libertadores, in the Round of 16 of which it faces Nacional of Paraguay on Wednesday.

In itself it was hardly a game that would live long in the memory: there were occasional skeins of rapid-fire passing that threatened something but the only goal, scored by Colombian forward Teo Gutierrez after 31 minutes was the result of a laughably awful goal-kick taken by the Velez keeper Sebastian Sosa, the ball headed back into the box by Manuel Lanzini. But River is level with Gimnasia La Plata and a point clear of Estudiantes and Colon with four games of the torneo final season remaining: this could be River’s first title since it was relegated in 2011, it’s first since winning the Clausura in 2008.

There are two ways of interpreting that fact. On the one hand, there is the sense that it’s about time: six years without a title -- in a league that awards two championships per season -- is a very long time for a club of River’s stature and speaks of an astonishing level of mismanagement. But on the other, there is the sense that, despite it all, River and Boca will always be there, their innate strength as the two grandest of the grands meaning they will always bounce back despite the circumstance.

The two-championships per season system began in 1991-92. Between then and 2005-06, 18 of the 30 championships were won by Boca or River. Of the 15 championships since, only three have been won by one of the two giants. River have suffered a relegation in that time. Boca drifts on, over-reliant on the superannuated talents of Juan Roman Riquelme. A 1-0 win at Tigre on Sunday lifted Boca to tenth in the table. It’s kept four clean sheets in a row but nobody could pretend this is high-quality football.

The other three traditional "grandes" have suffered as well. Although San Lorenzo -- boosted, seemingly, by the support of the Pope -- is enjoying a rare moment in the sun, Independiente was relegated last season and Racing was eyeing the "promedio table" (relegation is calculated by average points over a three-year period) anxiously until Sunday’s victory at Argentinos Juniors. With Huracan, one of the other traditional clubs of Buenos Aires, already in Nacional B, there is talk -- yet again -- of restructuring the championship, perhaps to include as many as 28 or 40 clubs in a wholly revamped structure.

The mentality seems to be that if big clubs can’t stay in the top flight, rather than encouraging them to change, become more efficient and use their greater resources to return to the top naturally, the championship must change to accommodate them -- which is typical of the culture of short-termism that has blighted Argentinian football. Awarding two titles each season may be exciting -- even a minnow can dream of putting together a run of 19 reasonable games in a row -- but it doesn’t encourage coherent strategic planning.

Boca and River’s problems can be said to have begun with the financial crash that hit Argentina in 2002. For at least a couple of decades before that, Argentinian clubs had been resigned to losing their best players to wealthier European predators (the process had been going on since Torino signed the forward Julio Libonatti from Newell’s Old Boys in 1927). Yet the crash exacerbated the financial gulf. That was the beginning of the so-called “talent doughnut" -- the gifted players in Argentina are either teenagers waiting for their move to Europe or thirty-somethings who have come home.

For a time, the hegemony of Boca and River continued simply because they remained comparatively wealthy in Argentinian terms, but then, in 2009, came Futbol Para Todos. With stricken clubs unable to pay them, players threatened to go on strike. The government, seemingly reasoning that without the opiate of football there could be serious social unrest, had to find a way of effectively subsidizing the clubs, so bought out the TV contract at an inflated price on the condition that every game was available on free-to-air. That has significantly leveled the playing field.

“The problem for Boca and River is that they're not the bridge club anymore,” said Joel Richards, whose history of River Plate, Black Palate, will be published later this year. “Whereas before a player would leave one of the smaller sides, move to Boca or River and only then go to Europe, now those players are leaving directly. Compare Lucho Gonzalez who went from Huracan to River in 2002 to Porto in 2005 with  Javier Pastore, who made a name for himself at Huracan and was sold to Palermo in 2009 and then PSG in 2011: in the past he'd have gone to River or Boca and then to a European giant."

Whereas before a player would leave one of the smaller sides, move to Boca or River and only then go to Europe, now those players are leaving directly.

Joel Richards

Yet the tradition of River and Boca still gives them an advantage, and not just because they have an allure. “When you talk to scouts,” Richards said, “they tell you the best prepared are still young players from Boca and River because they have the mentality. They can cope with the pressure of high-level football better."

And of course Boca and River still have far more fans than any other club: it would take something seismic for them not to remain the dominant forces. The economic climate, though, means this is a time of great flux: as soon as a team wins the titles, its best players are whisked off to Europe (or Brazil, or China). Nobody ever gets the chance to establish a dynasty. Since 2006, there have been 10 different champions in Argentina. Next month, River could become only the fifth side -- Boca being one of the others -- to have won more than one title in that period.

The domination of the grandes hasn’t gone away, though. It’s just not as obvious as it once was.

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