Don Julio Backs Down

A headline I never thought I would write.

Another shocker to this story, Julio Grondona did not blame the English or the English press (yet).  Despite the fact that the vast majority of the clubs supported the ridiculous plan to expand the Argentina Primera Division to a 38 team field, the Argentine Football Association (led by “elected” dictator-for-life Don Julio) appears to be backing down.  Pressure from fans, media, coaches, players, and club directors seems to have given Grondona and the AFA pause.

It was a ridiculous plan that was transparently intended to protect the Buenos Aires clubs (where the money is) from relegation, starting with the recently fallen River Plate.  Hopefully the end of this plan also signals the end of Don Julio’s reign, although I am too much a realist to believe that.  Jonathan Wilson explains it all, brilliantly of course.  I do take issue with his closing line.

It’s surely the right decision for Argentinian soccer, but it says little for democracy within AFA, and it raises serious questions about Grondona’s credibility.

I think Wilson may be understating the case somewhat, because if this is what finally raises serious questions about Don Julio’s credibility, then someone has not been watching Argentinian football for the past couple of decades.

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Don Julio Doesn’t Care What You Think, Yanqui

If you are interested in Argentinian football, you have to realize one thing–it is a dictatorship, utterly, incontrovertibly controlled by one person: Julio Humberto Grondona.  Like all proper dictators, he is corrupt as hell, and an anti-Semite to boot.  And he really hates the English, lord does he hate the English.  Have I mentioned that this man is a FIFA Vice President?  That would normally tell you all you need to know about FIFA, but let’s face it, in the annals of FIFA, a corrupt anti-Semitic dictator merits but a footnote.

Don Julio has seen it all, and more importantly lived through it all.  Dictatorship, democracy, liberal, conservative, it makes no difference to Don Julio.  He controls his personal fiefdom with an iron grip, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Don Julio is like the Pope, only Argentinians actually care about what Don Julio does.  He is as close to all-powerful as one gets in sports administration.

Or so we thought.  Two announcements came today in Argentina that show that perhaps Don Julio is bending a little to popular will.  The first, and sadly less surprising of the two announcements, is that Argentina will completely restructure its league so that all teams in the top two divisions will now comprise one much larger first division of 38 teams.  Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the current first division sides agreed to this change, no doubt afraid that of what would happen if they go down.

Coincidentally, River Plate is biggest beneficiary of this new rule.  Had the old format been maintained, River would have played in the second division for the first time ever.  Now River is back up without ever having gone back down.  What fortuitous timing!

No one is pretending this was not done to protect River.  This isn’t the first time that the system was changed to protect River from relegation.  Even the Argentine Football Association admits that this was done to prevent River from going down.  Which leads to a second thing you should know about Argentinian football: it is utterly dominated by clubs from Buenos Aires.  There is a big five from Buenos Aires, River, Boca Juniors, Racing, San Lorenzo, and Independiente, but the only two that really matter are River and Boca.  The matches between those two are among the most intense and storied in the world.  Despite the fact that both clubs have fallen onto hard times of late, the eyes of the world still turn to Argentina whenever those two legendary clubs play each other.  Even though under this new system they will be in separate divisions, River and Boca will still play one another.  So sayeth Don Julio.

Despite all the lip service about decentralizing Argentinian football so that other cities could develop (La Plata does not count), the Buenos Aires clubs, especially River and Boca must be protected at all cost.  Otherwise, the revenue would fall.  No club from Córdoba, Mendoza, San Juan or even Rosario can compete with the Buenos Aires clubs in terms of popularity and revenue.

Frankly, I’m surprised this change didn’t happen sooner.  It looked like it wasn’t going to happen at all.  I wonder if part of the reason why River is being protected now instead of earlier is because the Copa America was such a bust for Argentina.  The attendances looked fairly anemic, particularly in the northern cities (especially after Argentina were eliminated), and because the national team is in such disarray, Don Julio is being forced to go back to what works, a strong Buenos Aires rather than a decentralized football nation.  River fans were really pissed off when their club was relegated, and the Argentinian league needs their bodies in the stands and their money.  Without River, the first division would suffer.  If they stayed away entirely, there would be real problems.

On the other hand, so long as the Buenos Aires clubs are being protected, there is no need for them to reform, which is a shame because they desperately need reform.  Argentinians clubs, especially the big Buenos Aires clubs, are toxic; none more so than River, which suffered from years of rot.  Changing the league when the biggest teams were threatened with relegation used to happen in Brazil all the time (Brazil has its own fair share of corrupt and mismanaged clubs), but surprisingly, it has stopped.  Corinthians, Brazil’s second largest club went down a couple of years ago, and it came back up the next year.  It’s actually a better club now than it used to be; it even challenges for titles.

As long as Don Julio is in charge however, reform will never happen in Argentina.

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The more surprising of the two announcements to come out of Argentina today is that national team coach Sergio Batista was sacked.  Although the federation claims that “he wasn’t fired,” I’m not exactly sure what else you could call it.  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck….

In any other country, this would have been called firing your coach.  It can’t be called that in Argentina though because Don Julio prides himself on never having fired a coach.  In fact, this is the first time I recall Argentina actually firing a coach.  Argentina doesn’t renew contracts, but firing?  Never.  I cannot wait to hear Tim Vickery’s take on this because it goes against everything we know about Argentina.  I sense that these two announcements coming near the same time are connected, and I also suspect that Don Julio is facing real resistance from the public for the first time in a long time, and needed to do something to shore up support.  Hence fire Batista and ensure River Plate stays in the first division.

Argentinian football is in real trouble.  I touched on the clubs (although there is far more to say about them), but the national side, Argentina’s pride and joy, has not won a senior title since 1993.  Not only has Brazil passed them by, but now their other continental arch-enemy Uruguay has too.  On top of that, as evidenced by this year’s  Copa American, the rest of the continent has finally caught up to the big boys.  Don Julio can no longer let in former players without tactical acuity take on a team that has World Cup championship ambitions.  The Argentinian public, which has been fairly docile toward him, will rise up, and it will not be pretty.

Batista is definitely to blame for his own misfortune, but not completely.  He was able to coach Argentina to the Olympic gold medal for what it’s worth, which is not much actually.  Batista’s mistake was in trying to replicate Barcelona, and he used a system ill-suited to his team far longer than he should have.  One could rightly say that the Copa America exposed him as a poor coach, but he was undermined from the beginning of the Copa America campaign.  He did not want Carlos Tevez.  Tevez did not fit into his plans, and he didn’t like Tevez on a personal level.  But unlike Messi, the Argentinian people love Tevez because, having grown up in the slums, they see him as one of them.  In contrast, when they are angry at Messi, he is a Catalan.  They demanded the inclusion of Tevez, and when Batista yielded (no doubt with some Don Julio persuasion), that was the beginning of the end.  Ironically, it was Tevez who cost Argentina, both with his horrible play and his missed penalty kick.

No doubt Maradona is anxiously awaiting a call from Don Julio that will never come.  Despite the chants for him to return, the Argentinians are crying out for a real coach, one with actual ability.  Maradona and Batista, two former players with little to no prior experience just couldn’t cut it.  Why Don Julio picked them is no great mystery.  Batista was his man from the word “go”, and making Maradona coach was the only way to defang his criticisms.  In the end choosing the coach was all about Don Julio.

But perhaps now too many things have gone wrong, and Don Julio’s reign is shakier than it was a month ago, or ever.  Perhaps now he will have to give up some of his power, bite the bullet, and appoint a real coach.  A poor result at one more World Cup, and perhaps the Argentinian public will finally rise up and end Don Julio’s reign.

Don’t Cry For Argentina

Argentina beat the Costa Rican elementary schoolers today 3-0.  I supposed I shouldn’t really make fun given that those same elementary schoolers beat Bolivia and only lost to Colombia 1-0.  In any case Argentina has made it to the quarterfinals so the Argentinians can stop worrying about their team.

They can also stop worrying about Messi.  Give the poor guy a break.  He terrorized the Costa Ricans.  He was usual brilliant self, which is a good indication that coach Sergio Batista’s plan to remake a Barcelona is a failure because it requires a Xavi and an Iniesta.  The problem was not Messi, it was everyone else.  The 4-3-3 that Barcelona play did not work for Argentina although Messi did his part, no one else did theirs, particularly Tevez and Lavezzi.  In a 4-2-3-1, the rest of the squad is more comfortable and can keep up with Messi.  Notably both Tevez and Lavezzi were left out of the starting line up.

This is not just an Argentina thing.  Spain does not play Barcelona’s 4-3-3, even with Xavi and Iniesta.  Barcelona’s system is very difficult.  It requires time and effort.  Most of the players have been playing that way since their childhood or early teens.  That’s why even David Villa had trouble adjusting at first and why Zlatan Ibrahimovic never could.

Argentina look like Argentina again.  So much so that their own fans whistled at them whenever, up by three goals, the team slowed down the pace and passed back to the defense.  That right there is an unrealistic burden of expectations.   In any case, although he didn’t score, Messi set up two of the goals, and a host of other chances.  He looks brilliant again, and I am glad.  Once Maradona and his clown show was gone, I felt I could safely cheer for Argentina and Messi.  One always wants to see the greats win titles.

Of course Costa Rica is not Brazil, Uruguay, or Chile.  But it is nice to see Argentina look like world beaters for the night.

What Is Going On At The Copa America?

Argentina 0-0 Colombia

Sit with that for a moment.  Argentina has now played two matches, drawn two, and scored all of one goal.  Needless to say, the Argentinian players were booed off the field.  They now have one match left against junior varsity high school team from Costa Rica who play Bolivia tomorrow.

This looks bad for Argentina, but the truth is that the entire Copa America has been absolutely insane.  Every match thus far that has pit two South American sides against each other has ended in a draw: Argentina 1-1 Bolivia; Brazil 0-0 Venezuela; Paraguay 0-0 Ecuador; Uruguay 1-1 Peru; Argentina 0-0 Colombia.

The two only matches that weren’t draws were the two that featured CONCACAF nations, both of whom sent in severely understrength sides, given that the Gold Cup was last month.  Unsurprisingly, the South Americans won, although not in particularly convincing fashion: Colombia 1-0 Costa Rica, and Chile 2-1 Mexico.

So I ask again.  What is going on at the Copa America?  Could it be that there is now a parity in South America that verges on the ridiculous?  A parity that threatens not just the Brazil/Argentina hegemony (and if we’re honest Argentina hasn’t won anything since 1993), but also the traditional established hierarchy of the continent?  Is it possible that come the 2014, the non-Brazil entries in the World Cup might include Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia, but not Argentina or Uruguay?  Ever since River Plate was relegated everything in South America has gone topsy-turvy.

Argentina are in real trouble right now.  Although 8 of the 12 teams advance to the quarterfinals, Argentina now have to be thinking that even if they advance they may have to do so as a top ranked 3rd place team.  Which also means Argentina could be playing Brazil in the quarterfinals.  Should Argentina advance–words I never thought I would write.

I have no idea what is going on. Is it psychological (the pressure of playing at home)?  Is it tactical (the wrong players are being used)?  Is it the weather?  The team is just not gelling.  Is it Messi or his teammates or both?  As far as I know, the Copa America doesn’t air on television here, so I can only go by reading reports and game casts.

So what is going on?

Argentina Draws, Colombia Wins

Group A of the Copa America has played.  Colombia beat Costa Rica 1-0 today.  Yesterday though Argentina barely drew with Bolivia 1-1 after a Sergio Aguero goal saved blue and white pride.

I am trying to figure out whether this was a case of nerves or something else.  It’s one thing to draw with or lose to Bolivia in Bolivia where the dreaded elevation comes into play, but the Copa America is in Argentina this year.  By any standard this was embarrassing, and it could have been worse. Bolivia are on the whole the worst team in South America, and there is no indication the team will ever get better.

Now the first match is usually where all the jitter comes in, and Argentina have plenty of time to recover, but is Argentina perhaps overrated?  Is too much expected of Messi and his compatriots? Did Sergio Batista fall to the pressure of taking Carlos Tevez, and thus is no longer in control of his team?   Or is this something Argentina will just shake off?

And what will happen if Brazil win?

Elegy* Written For A Fallen Legend

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.

Footnotes:

* 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.

Football News (Part II)

Final update for tonight about the u20 South American Championship.  Brazil beat Ecuador 1-0 (without the suspended Neymar.)  As a result, Ecuador is officially out of the Olympics hunt and in danger of being the tournament goat.

On Saturday, Uruguay and Brazil will duke it out for the title, however both of them will probably go to the Olympics.  Even if Brazil lose to Uruguay (and they will have to lose to miss out on the Olympics), the goal differential looks like to be too much for Argentina to overcome (Brazil is +6 and Argentina as a 0 goal differential and Argentina will have to beat Colombia by at least 4 goals.)  The good news however, is that Argentina made the Youth World Cup again after missing out on the last one.  The loss of the Olympics is going to hurt though, especially since Argentina is the the two-time defending Olympic champion.

Ecuador’s players must be kicking themselves.  If they had beaten Uruguay instead of drawing them (which almost a reality but for one of the all-time great misses in football history), then they would still be in the hunt for both an Olympic berth and the title.  As it is, they need to beat or draw Chile just to qualify for the Youth World Cup.

So the final match day on Saturday is going to be extremely exciting.  The title is still up for grabs, as is one Olympic berth and a final spot in the Youth World Cup.  What a great tournament.  South America never fails to entertain.

Finally, I want to link to a great drawing I came across.  Matt Groening of Simpsons fame immortalized the Spanish National Team.  His rendition of Carles Puyol is spot on.