20 May ~ The old woman sitting huddled behind me leant over and kissed me swiftly on the cheek. Under her shawl she had on her red and white Argentinos Juniors strip. It was a memorable day for the small Buenos Aires club. In the penultimate game of the season they had come from 3-1 down at home to Independiente – one of Argentina's big five – to win 4-3 with the decisive goal in the 93rd minute. That result took them top by a point as first-placed Estudiantes could only draw. A week later Argentinos comfortably beat mid-table Huracan 2-1 to win their first Primera Division title in 25 years. The victory belongs to Claudio Borghi, a manager now living up to the hype which surrounded him as a young player.
Argentinos' success has come as a surprise in Argentina, even to the club itself. Only in April, mid-way through Argentina's half-length season, did they appear to be one of five contenders and only after their marvellous fightback against Independiente did it seem likely that they could finish ahead of a slicker, more accomplished Estudiantes team. Since their foundation in 1904 by an association of socialists from La Paternal, a small working-class area of central Buenos Aires, Argentinos have won few trophies. Their support is moderate in size – outside La Paternal, attitudes vary from indifference to gentle mockery. They may have attracted more fans this season, however, playing swift, attacking football, conceding goals but scoring more. At the base of their excellent forward play, their two battling defensive midfielders – Juan Mercier and Néstor Ortigoza – have been outstanding at winning and keeping possession. Both have been named in provisional World Cup squads, though Ortigoza is more likely to play for Paraguay in South Africa than Mercier is to represent Argentina.
Though their competitive achievements have been sparse, Argentinos Juniors do have a renowned ability to produce fantastic players. Alumni like Juan Román Riquleme, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Pablo Sorín, and Fernando Redondo have given the club the nickname El Semillero, the nursery. The greatest of them however, and the one which makes La Paternal most proud, is Diego Maradona. Before leaving for Boca at 20, Maradona lit up La Paternal in what is now the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium. "All you need to know about Argentinos," says the guy selling flags, "is Maradona."
That's not true. This season's victory has come thanks to another graduate of El Semillero. Claudio Borghi is the first man to have won a national championship for Argentinos as both player and manager. Borghi burst into the first team two years after Maradona left for Boca. With a similar style to Maradona, he was predictably compared to him. With Borghi, Argentinos won league titles in 1984 and 1985, as well as the 1985 Copa Libertadores. A dazzling performance against Juventus in the Intercontinental Cup caught the attention of Europe, and he signed for AC Milan in 1987. Borghi never broke through at Milan, though, and after a spell in Switzerland he returned to South America, destined to be a very good player rather than a great one. In management, however, Borghi is excelling. His first professional role was with Colo Colo of Chile, where he won four successive league titles, made the final of the 2006 Copa Libertadores and was named the 2006 South American manager of the year. He rejoined Argentinos a gruff, unassuming manager in June 2009. The transformation from generic lower-half team to exciting, hard-working champions has been his doing. In La Paternal they sing that "with the hand of Borghi we will win".
Borghi now has the opportunity to become the first to win the Copa Libertadores for Argentinos as player and manager. Even if he succeeds he will not supplant Maradona as the club's greatest harvest. But the two are different. Yesterday the Argentinos squad danced hand in hand in a circle around their trophy, wearing red and white foam top-hats covered in glitter. They ran from terrace to terrace sliding on their bellies or doing forward rolls. And at the side, as if unable to leave the technical area, stood Borghi; hatless, a fag in one hand, the other hand in his pocket, smiling wryly. If Argentina happen to go far in this World Cup – and any success will come despite their manager – expect nothing as dignified from Maradona. The Diego Armando Maradona Stadium will never be renamed in Borghi's honour and el Diego will continue to be the centre-piece of Argentinos' museum. The club's motto, however, mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), seems more Claudio Borghi than Diego Maradona. Liam Docherty