A River Runs Through It – How Relegation Reignited River Plate’s Fire

The date of June 27th 2011 is firmly etched into the memories of all River Plate fans but for the wrong reason. On that day, River Plate who are widely considered as one of South America’s greatest clubs faced its darkest hour – riddled with debt, facing and uncertain future and now relegated from the Argentine Primera Division for the first time in their history. The disappointment of that day was apparent as fans burst onto the pitch and rioted. The players distraught at their epic failure scrambled into the safety of the dressing room as the chaos outside escalated. The manager responsible for the drop immediately resigned whilst his team which included a young Erik Lamela faced an uncertain future in the lower tiers of Argentinean football.

River-Plate-relegated

Lamela sinks to the ground after River are relegated (Image from AFP)

That summer River regrouped under new manager and former player Matias Almeyda who immediately set about putting the heart back into River Plate. He knew that to restore River to its rightful place in the Prmieria Division, he needed to bring in players who would do anything for the club. In came the experienced trio of Fernando Cavenaghi, Alejandro Dominguez and David Trezeguet. All three players are die hard River Plate fans so agreed to come and play for the club in their darkest hour for whatever wages the club could afford. The end result was that River bounced back immediately after only one season in the Argentine second tier – B Nacional. But there was a noticeable difference in the team – gone was the swagger that Rover had adopted in the years before relegation when they believed that they were too good to go down. That season in the lower leagues had restarted the River fire and made them a stronger team who battled for every point. Over the next two seasons, River would continue to grow and improve until they were eventually rewarded with a stunning cup treble including the league title and Sudamerica Cup in 2014 and the Copa Liberatordes in 2015.

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River Plate lift the Copa Libertadores in 2015 (Image from EPA)

By this time Almeyda was long gone, having only managed River for that fateful season in the lower leagues. His replacement was Ramon Diaz who continued what Almeyda had started over the next two seasons before eventually being replaced by Marcelo Gallardo. It was under the River Plate and Argentine legend Gallardo that success began to come back to the club. With the help of Reserve team boss and fellow legend Ariel Ortega and new Sporting Director Enzo Francescoli, Gallardo built a side capable of challenging on all fronts, beautifully mixing a growing crop of talented youngsters with a handful of experienced heads. The current batch boasts some of the worlds most highly promising youngsters including the ever impressive centre backs Eder Alvarez Balanta and Emanuel Mammana (touted as the next Javier Mascherano), towering stopper Augusto Batalla, midfielder Augusto Solari (the cousin of Santi Solari who once played along side Gallardo for Argentina) and striker Sebastian Driussi. This youthful exuberance was pitted alongside Leonardo Ponzio, Jonathan Maidana and Teo Gutierrez  as River regained their title and cleaned up on route to winning the Copa last year and now this season next to Javier Saviola, Nicolas Bertolo and Lucho Gonzalez.

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One to Watch – Eder Alvarez Balanta (Image from Getty)

That victory has earned them a place in last years Club World Championship in Japan. Whilst not considered an important tournament in Europe, the prestige of playing in the tournament for South America teams cannot be understated with River viewing it as a must win event. Whilst the did reach the final, Barcelona proved too strong and brushed them aside to lift the cup. To win the tournament would have been a great way indication of exactly how far River have come in less than four years. There is still along way to go, with River still in debt believed to be in the region of $27.5m. They are paying that debt off by selling some of their highly rated players including recent sales of Gutierrez to Sporting Lisbon, Funes Mores to Everton and Matias Kranevitter to Atletico Madrid but there is still along way to go. River are on the right path though and have made incredible strides in recent years considering how far they fell. They may have missed out on winning the league this past year to Boca Juniors but the positive signs are there that River will be a force once again in Argentine football for the years ahead.

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The Messy Abomination That Is The Argentine Primera Division

The new look Primera Division (Image from Getty)Two months in and so far no problems have arisen for the heavily restructured Argentinean Primera Division. The new colossal league which now has 30 teams competing in it, making it one of the largest leagues in the world, takes time and patience to fully understand but the logic behind it is still baffling. Unfortunately for all of us, that logic will never be known as it died with its creator Julio Grondona, the former President of the Argentine Football Association who passed away this past summer. Grondona had for a long time wanted to change the league structure away from its tired two Championship format – Apertura and Clausura (similar to most other Latin America leagues) to a super league system much like the European ones. When his original idea of creating a 42 team league was squashed, he returned to the drawing board to devise a plan that could not be denied as the right way to go. Unfortunately for Argentina, what he came up with was the baffling mess that they now have to live with. So what is wrong with the new format? Let us explain.

Mastermind - Julio Grondona  (Image from AFP)

Mastermind – Julio Grondona
(Image from AFP)

Poorer Quality of Football

One of the principle ideas behind expanding to a 30 team structure was to improve the quality of football in the league which has been declining steadily over the past decade. However with the addition of 10 teams from Primera B, the quality of football on show will hardly be improved. Unlike the English Championship where several of its teams could compete well in the Premiership, the standard between Argentina’s top two leagues is far greater mostly due to the lack of money being pumped into the second tier. With several poorer teams in the division, the race for the title will be likely determined by the games between the bigger clubs meaning that it will be harder for clubs like Banfield and Arsenal to win the league.

Banfield - Apertura Champions 2009  (Image from Getty)

Banfield – Apertura Champions 2009
(Image from Getty)

Lack of Money

Grondona’s main pitch to the clubs in order to secure the votes needed was that they would see more revenue coming in. The bulk of this would come from a principle betting sponsor and increased funds from the AFA. Unfortunately no sponsor was found and the season began with the clubs forced to split only the AFA funds of $140million per year. However with ten more teams in the league, each clubs share was dramatically reduced leaving many owners frustrated. With the government mandate of Football for All, every game is shown on TV for free meaning that TV revenues that help to largely fund most leagues across the world are nonexistent. Clubs will need to rely on revenue generated from ticket and merchandise sales as well as player sales to help bolster their coffers. However in the new league setup, transfers are restricted to the period between the start of the season up to the 1st July, with all transfers unable to buy or strengthen after this point.  With a majority of the clubs across Europe preferring to spend its cash in July and August, the Argentine league may have shot itself in the foot with this rule.

Football for All is a government run initiative that  means every match is free on TV (Image from Getty)

Football for All is a government run initiative that means every match is free on TV
(Image from Getty)

Unfair Advantage in Clumsy Fixture list

The standard fixture list across the world sees each team play all of their opponents at home and then away. This allows for home field advantage and makes the fixtures even. However in the Primera, the fixtures will be split, with each team playing half their opponents at home and the other half away. So if you are a minnow team looking to upset the apple cart by shocking Boca Juniors on your own turf you may not get the chance if that single fixture is due to be played at La Bombonera. There is no logic behind doing this except for the fact that if each team was to play both home and away, the league would be looking at a 58 game season, not including Copa Libertadores or Copa Sudamericana fixtures. So each team will play 29 regular games instead with the final 30th match to be a special fixture which pits historic rivals against each other for a second time. This money grabbing move strangely doesn’t benefit clubs like Boca and River who will have to play each other but does work in favour of clubs like Arsenal and Velez Sarsfield whose rivals are much weaker than them.

Intimidating atmosphere awaits at La Bombonera  (Image from Getty)

Intimidating atmosphere awaits at La Bombonera
(Image from Getty)

Relegation is a mess

Given the way that the fixture list was created, it’s hardly surprising that the relegation setup is designed to protect the larger clubs in the league. Based on an average system, which looks at a three season points average with the worst two relegated and the worst positioned team in that season also dropping down to the Primera B Nacional, the system helps to avoid the nightmare possibility of a club like River Plate or Boca Juniors ever being relegated. River were spectacularly relegated for the first time in their history back in 2011 despite Grondona’s desperate attempts to stop it from happening. Given the leagues stature across the world and the need for revenue to flow into it from foreign markets, it’s not hard to understand the effects of having one of Argentina’s biggest and most successful clubs not playing in it. But the average system is hardly fair on the smaller teams within the division. Teams could be relegated despite having a turnaround season which saw them finish well into the top half or even challenging for honours.

River Plate's relegation caused headaches for the AFA  (Image from Getty)

River Plate’s relegation caused headaches for the AFA
(Image from Getty)

Reduction back to 20

Finally in one of the most bizarre moves, the league will eventually revert back to a 20 team league thanks in part to another crazy rule. Over the next few years, three teams will be relegated with only one being promoted and so on until in 2019, the league will only have 20 teams in it.  So after four years of craziness with fixture chaos, poor quality football and bizarre relegation fights common sense will be restored with a new format. That is until the powers that be at the AFA decide to change it again.

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There’s Only Two Claudio Caniggias

Wait a second? Even the mascot didnt believe it was Caniggia as Cordone tries to pull a fast one (Image from Reuters)The unmistakable figure of Claudio Caniggia stood motionless in the tunnel, waiting for the call to take the field for Sunday’s friendly veteran’s game between Argentina and Brazil. The match in Natal, Brazil was billed as a clash of the greats with 1986 World Cup winning Argentina centre-back Oscar Ruggeri, Argentine midfielder Ariel Ortega and Brazilian duo Junior Baiano and Adilio all on show. But arguably one of the star attractions was Caniggia, a pacey winger turned striker that in his day excited crowds wherever he played. As the teams took to the field, Caniggia’s name was read out over the loud speaker and his photo flashed on the big screen to a barrage of applause and cheers. Wearing the number 7 shirt, Caniggia looked good for his 47 years with his famous long blond locks blowing in the wind. But in closer inspection, something just wasn’t right. Caniggia appeared to have gotten a tattoo on his right forearm, which did not look like a recent addition. Added into this, his style of play was slightly different and his passing somewhat off. As the game began fans began to wonder if the player on the field was in fact Claudio or instead an imposter?

Caniggia and Maradona embrace during another veterans match in Georgia earlier this year  (Image from REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Caniggia and Maradona embrace during another veterans match in Georgia earlier this year
(Image from REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

They were right to question this as it was in fact not Caniggia but instead former Newcastle and Velez Sarsfield striker Daniel Cordone who was on the pitch. The former Magpie striker was pretending to be Caniggia who it was later revealed had missed his flight. Cordone, who was deemed a flop on Tyneside played the full ninety minutes before quickly scurrying off the field into the dressing room ignoring the waiting media. This caused suspicions to arise in the press core as Caniggia was usually more than willing to speak to reporters, especially given his status in Argentina as a legend. Unlike Cordone who never represented his country, Caniggia appeared over 50 times, scoring 16 goals during a 15 year international career. He played in two World Cups (selected for three but didn’t take the field during the 2002 World Cup) helping Argentina to the final in 1990 but his finest hour was leading Argentina to Copa America success in 1991. His dynamic play and gritted determination to own the ball during that tournament steered Argentina to its first Copa win in over 30 years. Caniggia is also fondly remembered for his club career and the many teams that he turned out for. After starting his career in Argentina with River Plate, he moved to Italy where he would play for Verona, Atalanta and Roma before moving to Portugal with Benfica. After a single season, he returned to Argentina with Boca Juniors before being persuaded three years later to return to Atalanta for a final swansong. Caniggia was happy to escape his homeland after a troubled three years which including losing his mother who commited suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of her apartment building. The event affected Caniggia deeply who considered retiring after spending almost a year out of the game in mourning but when the offer from Atalanta came in, he decided to give it one last shot. It was a move that would eventually see him move to Britain but strangely not to one of England’s big clubs who had been chasing him his entire career but instead to Dundee in the Scottish Premiership. In Scotland he regained his passion for the game and after a fantastic debut season, he secured a lucrative move to Glasgow giants Rangers where he would gain cult status with the fans over a two year stay. He would eventually leave Scotland for a single season in the money laden Qatar league but in truth Caniggia had by then called it a day. Now retired from the game and in an effort to maintain his fitness, he takes part in exhibition matches like this one, but for reasons unconfirmed was not in Natal come Sunday.

Caniggia became a cult hero at Rangers thanks to a goal in the Old Firm derby  (Image from PA)

Caniggia became a cult hero at Rangers thanks to a goal in the Old Firm derby
(Image from PA)

An investigation has been launched into why the organizers would allow Cordone to play in place of Caniggia and more importantly lie to the fans about it. The event organizers, Phoenix Sports insisted when questioned that there was nothing to hide and that it was Caniggia who took to the field on Sunday. ‘This is the Caniggia, the real Caniggia. There is no other Caniggia,’ insisted Andre de Paula, promoter of Phoenix Sports after the game.  But he quickly retracted this remark later on and admitted that Caniggia had failed to turn up so they were forced to field Cordone.  In the end the result of the match was not important, with it finishing in a 3-3 draw. But for the fans it was a bitterly disappointing day as some had paid good money to come and see Caniggia play in particular. Several fans left in disgust before the match had finished after working out that it wasn’t Caniggia on the field, with many more feeling angry about being lied to. There has been no word yet about whether further action will be taken against the promoter or against Cordone himself for his part in this fraud. Caniggia has yet to reveal his side of the story and has remained silent as the controversy over why this happened continues.

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Football Mourns The Passing Of The Blond Arrow – Alfredo Di Stefano

Cheers to one of the games greatest players (Image from AP)

Spanish and Argentinian football were plunged into mourning yesterday with the death of the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano. The 88 year old former River Plate and Real Madrid front man suffered a heart attack at home on Saturday, one day after his birthday and never recovered. Di Stefano is widely regarded as one of the greatest players to have ever graced the game and will be sorely missed. Di Stefano was a fundamental part of the Real Madrid team that dominated European football during the mid to late 50’s. His partnership with Hungarian Ferenc Puskás struck fear into opposing defences who were unsure how to handle the deadly duo. Described by many as the most complete footballer in the history of the game, Di Stefano forged a reputation as a winner of the course of his career, guiding Real Madrid to five consecutive European Cup victories, a feat that has never been matched again to this day. His prowess in front of goal, especially in Europe 49 goals in 58 matches ensured that his place in football folklore was secured.

Unstoppable - Di Stefano and Puskas  (Image from Getty)

Unstoppable – Di Stefano and Puskas
(Image from Getty)

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1926, the young Argentine began life with a ball at his feet and it wasn’t long before he joined is home club of River Plate, aged 17. Over the next four years, D Stefano scored goals for fun, hitting 49 in 66 appearances as River Plate won 2 Primera División titles, before a strike in Argentina forced him to move to Colombia with Millonarios. Success followed him as Millionarios dominated Colombian football for the next four years, winning three titles along the way. It was Di Stefano’s continued form in front of goal for Millonarios (100 goals in 112 matches) that attracted suitors from Spain in the form or Barcelona. Whilst Di Stefano would eventually transfer to Real Madrid where he became an icon, things could have been very different if his proposed transfer to Barcelona had been recognized by the Spanish FA. They argued that the deal struck between Millonarios and Barcelona was invalid as River Plate needed to consent to the transfer, given they still had part ownership of the player. That mistake gave Real Madrid the window they needed who swooped in to steal Di Stefano away from their bitter rivals. It would turn out to be one of the best deals ever made by Real Madrid with Di Stefano going on to become the all time record goalscorer for the club, with 216 goals in 284 games. He would hold this record until 2003 when Raul finally overtook him. The Blond Arrow as he was affectionately known would lead Madrid to 8 Primeria Division titles as well as the European successes before departing from the club in 1964 for Espanyol.

Di Stefano with the five European Cups  (Image from Getty)

Di Stefano with the five European Cups
(Image from Getty)

Remarkably Di Stefano played for three different countries during his career – 6 times for Argentina, scoring 6 goals along the way, 2 appearances for Colombia that were never recognized by Fifa and 31 times for Spain, scoring 23 goals. Even more remarkable was that the world never managed to see Di Stefano at a World Cup. He missed out in 1950 and 1954 with Argentina who failed to participate and again in 1958 with Spain who despite a good qualifying campaign slipped up at the end and failed to make it. After retiring from playing in 1966, Di Stefano made the seamless switch into coaching taking the reins of a variety of clubs over the next twenty five years including three spells as manager of Valencia, two stints at Boca Juniors and returns to his beloved River Plate and Real Madrid. His time in Madrid was not quite as planned with his teams finishing runner up in every competition they entered, including a European Cup Winners Cup final defeat at the hands of Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. After bowing out of the job of manager, he became Real Madrid’s Honorary President, a role he held up until his death.

Ronaldo spent a lot of time with Di Stefano at Madrid  (Image from PA)

Ronaldo spent a lot of time with Di Stefano at Madrid
(Image from PA)

Tributes have poured in from across the footballing world with many expressing their deep emotional regret at his passing. Current Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo proclaimed that legends never die and that the maestro, Don Alfredo will never be forgotten. Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi echoed those words and added “Until forever, Don Alfredo. A legend and a great both on and off the pitch”. Sir Bobby Charlton, who played against Di Stefano, called him one of the best players he ever came across and an extremely intelligent footballer whilst Sir Alex Ferguson remembers being in awe watching Di Stefano single handedly rip apart Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden during the 1960 European Cup final. He stood in the terraces and watched as Di Stefano hit 5 goals in the 7-3 victory before embarking on a lap of honour. Brazilian legend Pele summed up what many were feeling with a poignant tweet:

“He was a trailblazer, and most of all, he was a legend of the game. God rest his soul”

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