Down River

wsc300 One of Argentina’s big clubs is adjusting to life in the second division after their first ever relegation. Sam Kelly reports

Anyone seeking to gain a sense of perspective before claiming their side are in crisis should look to Argentina, where December brought to a close what has been the worst year in the history of one of the country’s biggest clubs. For a change, that phrase is employed without any hyperbole.

River Plate were promoted to the top flight on December 27, 1908. The country’s most successful side in terms of league titles, they were relegated for the first time in their history in June 2011, and have now reached the halfway point of their first professional-era season in Argentina’s second division. While talk of Arsenal being in crisis seems never-ending, and Real Madrid fans profess to be disappointed at finishing runners-up to Barcelona twice in Spain, that cannot be compared to the genuine disbelief, despair and rioting that followed River Plate’s loss in a two-legged play-off against second division Belgrano de Córdoba.

In many ways, this relegation was exactly what River needed. It provided the impetus for the club to clear out some dead wood in the playing staff and finally forced the board to readjust to more realistic targets on the pitch. It also might well breathe some confidence back into a team who looked terrified of the pressure they were under for a lot of last season.

Argentina’s relegation system uses an average of points-per-game over the previous three seasons. Teams that have been in the division for only one or two terms have their points totals divided over fewer matches. This meant that River were relegated in June despite finishing sixth in the 2010-11 season. The pressure really told during the last couple of months of that time.

Since then, the side has been considerably improved in what had been its weakest area, with the returns of Fernando Cavenaghi and Alejandro Domínguez to the club’s attack. Both had decent if not spectacular records in European top flight football, so needless to say they have looked head and shoulders above the defences in Argentina’s second division so far. Cavenaghi failed to score in the first three games, but has since managed 11 goals in 15 matches.

The addition of David Trezeguet – who is part Argentine and grew up in Buenos Aires as a River fan but has never played for them before – in January may not be necessary, but even if he continues to struggle for full fitness, it is unlikely to hurt the side at this level.

What has proved more troublesome is the continuing media pressure, which sees every dropped point as another sign that River are sliding back into crisis. Never mind that they are the division’s top scorers and sit second, in an automatic promotion place, only two points behind leaders Instituto de Córdoba. Nor that they have sold more tickets for home matches so far than any other club in the country, regardless of division, and that their away following wherever they have gone has been enormous. Their three defeats – and especially the most recent one, away to Boca Unidos of Corrientes province, who are no relation at all to the rather more famous side of a similar name who are River’s deadliest rivals – have all been greeted as tragedies in their own right.

The coverage from a media saturated with stories about River Plate and their bitter rivals has not been helped, from a River fan’s perspective, by the fact that in the first of 2011-12’s two short championships in the top flight (below the Primera, Argentina uses a season-long league system more similar to the ones used in Europe), Boca Juniors have won the Torneo Apertura title. What is more, they have done so without losing a game.

River are in a no-win situation this season. If they gain promotion right away then they will only have done what everyone expected. If they fail to get out of the second division, the consequences from angry fans and the press hardly bear thinking about.

Nonetheless, the side have adapted well to a very competitive division, and are playing without fear for the first time in what seems like years. The second half of the campaign will be crucial. As Fernando Cavenaghi told the TV cameras after River’s last game of the year: “We’ll work hard over the summer and we have to work hard to make sure 2012 is a better year than 2011 for the club.” It is looking good so far, but the pressure will be higher than ever going into the second half of the season.

From WSC 300 February 2012