Disillusionment greets Argentina’s Apertura

"You can’t come down here, señor," says the police officer, standing by a large blockade fencing off the street Viamonte in downtown Buenos Aires. At the other end of the block, another officer is explaining the same to those trying to pass. In between the two fences, standing in front of an empty building with all the blinds down (and filling the empty street) are scores of riot police. A tank soon rolls in for added support.

In hindsight, it was all slightly over the top. Only around 350 protesters turned up. But basing estimates on the virtual show on hands on social networking sites, around 40,000 irate football supporters were expected to voice their frustration outside the Argentine Football Association headquarters earlier this week.

The aftermath of Argentina’s Copa America performance led to the ouster of Sergio Batista and increased anger with AFA. (Photo: ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)

Evidently, it is easier and far more comfortable to click on ‘like’ during a coffee break than make the effort to go in person to voice your dissatisfaction. But the fact that a mass-protest was organized in the first place, and became a talking point for supporters around the country, points to the tension surrounding Argentine football as the new season kicks off this weekend.

In the aftermath of the Copa America, when clubs met to decide on the future of national team coach Sergio Batista, they also voted in a new league format to take effect as of the 2012/13 season, in one year’s time from now.

The idea was to merge the first and second division, create a tournament with 38 teams that, via a convoluted system, would create a brand new competition.

In one fell swoop, went one argument, 20 clubs were promoted. Another argument went that 20 clubs were in fact relegated. Another said it was to save River Plate, relegated to the second division, the B Nacional, for the first time ever. With pressures of their own, another argument said it was to save Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo and Racing Club from a possible future relegation.

It was an eccentric plan, at best, and the cracks in the idea soon appeared. One club president said the idea came from the national government, which holds the TV rights for league football in Argentina. AFA vehemently denied this. An AFA spokesperson said none of this would have happened if River Plate had not been relegated. AFA also denied this.

After fans voiced their anger at the idea, rumors ran that there would be a press conference to announce the plans were to be scrapped. There was no such press conference, and AFA president Julio Grondona went on local radio to ratify the decision.

River Plate’s relegation to the B Nacional was seen as motivating AFA’s proposal to combine the country’s first and second divisions. (Photo: ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images)

The following week the plans were then ditched as the FA backed down, Grondona confirming the new decision again on local radio.

The dizzying chopping and changing has entirely overshadowed the preseason, which had already compressed into just a couple of weeks build up after the Copa America ended. Supporters were angry at the new league format, and although it has supposedly been jettisoned for good, many believe that once the dust has well and truly settled then clubs and AFA may revisit the idea.

In the meantime, while on the surface things get up and running again, the whole charade has conveniently relegated the inquest into the Copa America failings to the shadows.

Sergio Batista wrote an open and sincere column in one a local newspaper to reaffirm his desire to continue and his acceptance that he made mistakes at the Copa America. As we now know, it didn’t swing the opinion of those who held his fate in their hands.

The former Estudiantes coach Alejandro Sabella has been confirmed as the man to take over from Sergio Batista, but while we look at what to expect from him, other questions have not yet been answered. What can really be done to improve the results that such a gifted group of players ought to be achieving? Changing the coach is of course one option, but the feeling is that the entire national team structure requires a make-over, with a coordinated effort that sees teams playing the same system at under-17, under-20 and full national team level to help the new generation of players adapt quickly as they move up the ranks. Just look at Uruguay’s current success. And as if the neighbors getting things right wasn’t enough, Oscar Tabárez said he was in fact copying a system that Argentina used to employ – under José Pekerman not so many years ago.

Sabella has proved himself to be pragmatic, intelligent and successful in his short career as first team coach. He won the Copa Libertadores and the Argentine league in two years at Estudiantes. He has a long experience in the dugout, having been Daniel Passarella’s assistant until the former World Cup winning captain chose to run for River Plate presidency.

But he has only been a first team coach in his own right for two years. As always happens when the Argentina job is available, the Carlos Bianchi lobby was as vocal as ever.

Personal differences with the board are said to have done in between the former Vélez and Boca coach’s chances of ever taking over the national team. Whatever the reasons, Sabella certainly has consensus amongst fans as a suitable replacement for Batista, and he has the challenge, and incentive, of guiding Argentina to the World Cup – in Brazil. The opportunity to emulate Uruguay’s 1950 upset in Brazil is one that Sabella will relish.

But while the national team starts afresh, attention turns to the local game. The shadow of the proposed league format change will hang long over this season, until the threat of its reincarnation vanishes for good. In the meantime, the new order of Argentine football also begins to take shape. River Plate are in the second division. Fellow ‘Big Five’ clubs Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo and Racing Club have serious relegation concerns with poor points average in the three-year table that decides who drops down a division in Argentina. Poor starts this season could see one of those three join the likes of River, Huracán, Gimnasia and Rosario Central as prestigious participants in the second tier.

As round one kicks off, the panorama is worrying. The boardroom battles continue, and with AFA presidency elections in October the Realpolitik will feature heavily. The barra brava are as strong as ever. Once again supporters have to get used to now watching their favorite players on TV, now turning out for Roma, for Inter, for Benfica or for Napoli. And of course, the gift-wrapped opportunity for the Copa America to turn the mood around was missed. Perhaps there are more protests on the horizon…