In the same week that saw South American legends Santos and Peñarol renew their glorious ancient Copa Libertadores rivalry, another of the continent’s giants suffered arguably the worst misfortune in its history. River Plate of Buenos Aires was relegated for the first time in its 110 year history, leaving Independiente and archenemies Boca Juniors as the only clubs to have never been relegated. Belgrano de Córdoba was the beneficiary, beating River in a two-legged playoff. As expected, River fans acted with the grace and charm we’ve come to expect from Argentina football hooligans (or any hooligans.)
River may very well qualify for the Primera División again next year. All the club needs to do for automatic promotion is finish in the top two of the Primera B Nacional. It’s not unheard of. When Newcastle United was relegated two seasons ago, they won the Championship handily and moved right back up to the EPL. When Juventus was forcibly relegated due to Calciopoli, they too came right back up. Corinthians of Brazil went down and right back up a few years ago. Last season Corinthians almost won the league. It can be done.
But in the end, that is not the point. Nor is River’s remarkable history success the point, although the club won 33 league titles (a record) and 2 Copa Libertadores. What matters is that River is an institution of Argentinian and world football. It is one of the most famous clubs in the sport. For all of its very tangible problems, the River has moved into the realm of mythology. Everything about River is larger than life, including the famed rivalry with Boca Juniors, easily the equal of the Old Firm or El Clásico. Next season will be the first in ages not to feature a meeting between the two sides, and Argentinian football will be both financially and spiritually worse for it.
The teams and players that the River produced truly captured the imagination of the world. In the 1940’s, River’s famous front line of Muñoz, Moreno, Pedernera, Labruna, and Lousteau, called La Máquina [the Machine], was the avatar of La Nuestra, Argentina’s glorious style of attacking play.** La Máquina were a side so talented that a young Di Stéfano could not find a place. Of course Di Stéfano was the greatest player to come out of River Plate, but he was by no means the only one. After Di Stéfano there were other legends including Sivori and Passarella, though none ever came close to Di Stéfano. The club’s youth system has produced such talent as Crespo, Saviola, Higuaín, and Mascherano. Yet because of the change in South American football, as European clubs vacuum up players earlier and earlier, River could not maintain a strong team. River too is at fault for this; the club has been run into the ground over several years. Save for the young Erik Lamela, who no doubt will be gone soon, River no longer produces the talent it needs to succeed.
River’s decline over the past several years has been well documented. Tim Vickery has written and spoken a number of times about River’s years-long crisis. Mismanagement, corruption, administration, and the organized thugs who are allowed free hand by the club have taken their toll. It is ironic that monetary problems would do in a club nicknamed Los Millonarios. Passarella, now the club president, tried to blame Argentinian Football Association head (and resident caudillo) Julio Grondona, but the truth is that the problems lay within. Who knows when River Plate will be back, and if they will ever be the same again. Juventus has never reached its pre-Calciopoli heights.
In another twist of irony, River was done in by a relegation scheme designed to protect them. In 1983, River would have been relegated, but the complicated system of three-year averages was put into place to prevent that, or the potential relegation of the other Big Five clubs (Boca, Independiente, Racing, and San Lorenzo.)
Despite this, River found a way to fail in a system intended to be fail safe. I suspect that River will not be back up for some time, if ever again; the systemic problems are too deep and the piper must be paid. Yet, River’s relegation is not merely a trauma for Argentinian football, it is a trauma for world football. It is a reminder that even the greatest legends can falter and fade until all that is left is the mythology of the past. And now River has truly lived up to the other more poetic nickname given to La Máquina, Los Caballeros de la Angustia [The Knights of Anguish.] What else but anguish is left for River fans?
River’s fate is a chilling warning to the European clubs whose reckless spending may eventually imperil them in the same way, but no doubt the warning will go unheeded.
* I understand that an elegy is a poem, but this is not a eulogy, it’s a lament. Therefore calling it an elegy seems more appropriate somehow.
** Another side that was relegated along with River was Huracán also of Buenos Aires. During the amateur era of Argentinian football, Huracán won four titles playing a beautiful attacking game two decades before River’s Machine. Unlike River, Huracán never lived up to its early promise and is no stranger to relegation.