Spain’s El País newspaper called it “the worst moment in their history” and it is impossible to disagree. River Plate, Argentina’s most decorated and successful club, producer of talents such as Hernán Crespo, Javier Saviola, Marcelo Gallardo, Gonzalo Higuaín, Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega and Javier Mascherano, have been relegated from the Primera División. The unthinkable has happened to the once mighty club in a league system designed to help the big teams avoid the drop.
A Complex League Structure
Unlike Europe’s premier competitions, the league system in Argentina comprises of 2 Championships of 19 games each year, the Apertura (Opening Championship) and the Clausura (Closing Championship), and relegation is a bit of a complex affair. Instead of simply relegating the bottom few teams, as we are used to in Europe, the Argentinian league determines who is to go down over a period of 3 years – or 6 Championships. Teams have their points totals for each of the last three years added up and divided and are giving an overall ranking in the Relegation Table. The bottom team is automatically relegated to the Segunda División, while the teams placed 17th to 19th go through certain playoffs against eachother and the teams finishing 3rd and 4th in la Segunda. The system is designed to stop big teams from being relegated for one poor season because football in South America can at times be chaotic, with many players sold to Europe throughout each campaign, managers hired and fired at will and continental competitions taking a toll.
For River Plate to find themselves in the situation that they were in required 3 consecutive years of under-performance and, due to internal troubles at the club, an ever-increasing debt hanging over their heads (ironic for a club nicknamed The Millionaires) and an under-performing squad, that is exactly what happened. The winners of 33 domestic titles will play next season in the Segunda División after losing the Relegation Playoff 3-1 to Belgrano.
The first leg saw River lose 2-0 away from home, but a draw on aggregate would have been enough to see them saved from the ignominy of relegation. In a packed Estadio Monumental Mariano Pavone put them ahead after only 6 minutes and things looked as if they might be going to plan. However, a second-half equaliser by Guillermo Farre and a penalty miss from Pavone conspired to send River down. Fans, who are difficult to control at even the best of times, began rioting and hurling objects onto the field in frustration and anger, hardly believing what they had just witnessed.
River’s relegation leaves many questions to ponder about the state of football today, and should act as a warning to other teams with large debts and under-performing players. Before this result, River were one of the 3 teams who had never been relegated from the Primera División along with Boca Juniors and Independiente. To put it into context, it’s similar to if Liverpool or Man Utd were to be relegated. Their fanbase is both huge (numbering at 18 million) and fanatically loyal, and with Boca Juniors they contest one of the world’s biggest derbies – the Superclásico. Boca have also seen themselves slump down the table in recent years and it’s not unthinkable to imagine them at the wrong end of the Relegation Table next year if they endure another bad campaign.
River’s relegation will undoubtedly affect their squad, with players leaving in search of top-flight football and clubs from Europe picking off talent at lowered prices. The one player on many clubs’ wishlists is 19 year old Erik Lamela. Barcelona tried to sign Lamela as a 12 year old but his family opted for him to stay in Argentina to develop, and he has blossomed into an exciting young player. River have managed to hold on to him until now, but with their bargaining power at an all time low speculation will only continue to grow about Lamela leaving this summer.
Who knows, maybe a year out of the pressure cooker will give River time to breathe and sort themselves out. On the other hand, their massive debt and big possible player exodus could conspire to affect their performances next season too. We all know of big clubs in England that have been relegated and fallen into the footballing abyss. Personally, I hope that this once great club will get back to where they belong as soon as possible.