The Cream of Argentine football keep rising to the top

Most football fans have probably never heard of Atletico Rafaela. Indeed, having only been promoted to the second tier of the Argentine football in 1989, this may not seem wholly surprising.

For those familiar with the European model of football club governance, the example of Atletico is one very different to the norm. In 1988, they became a non-profit organization – although through their own choice, unlike the plethora of European clubs who make gargantuan losses – and just a year after becoming a Mutual, Social and Sporting Association, they achieved the aforementioned promotion and have never looked back.

During the years of artificial financial stability in the Menem and De La Rúa presidencies, Rafaela mirrored this with fourteen years of consolidation in the second division, finally gaining a first ever promotion to the Primera in 2003 following successive Apertura and Clausura wins.

The intervening period was one of yo-yoing between the top two divisions, before the promotion this year that has found them back in the big time. Dwarfed by its provincial neighbours Santa Fe and Rosario and with a population of just 100,000, it’s a small city club with idealistic principles – but punching well above its weight.

It may only be four games in, but that’s nearly a quarter of the way through the Apertura championship and Atletico Rafaela find themselves top. ‘La Crema’ (the Cream) have nine points from their opening fixtures and continue surprising the more established names, like last year’s Apertura winners Estudiantes – Juan Sebastian Veron’s side currently find themselves second bottom and winless.

Rather bizarrely though, they haven’t played particularly well. They say it’s the sign of champions, not newly-promoted relegation candidates, to win even when they play badly. But Rafaela were fairly evenly-matched with Olimpo last weekend and found themselves 3-0 up. Olimpo got a goal back late on to add some semblance of justice to the score-line and Atletico midfielder Nicolas Castro admitted as much:

“We resorted to long balls and we didn’t play how we know. Luckily, we managed to settle it in the second half”.

The key to their success thus far seems to have been keeping together their strong side from last year. Having won the ‘B’ by eight clear points, they have maintained largely the same side in a bid to add some continuity and it’s working so far. Dario Gandín - playing his first home game for ‘la crema’ in eight years following leaving in 2003 – seemed to not be getting carried away with their form:

“We’ve got to keep our feet on the ground: we’re not better nor worse than anyone. We are a team that knows what it has to do.”He also acknowledges the importance of keeping last year’s squad together. In the short-termist nightmare of the Argentine league (principally brought about by the ‘short tournament’ system), there is a far higher turnover of players at clubs. Fellow promoted club San Martin de San Juan have brought in eleven new faces since winning their promotion play-off but Gandín points out that

“Rafaela plays from memory, it’s the same team that got promoted, plus [Fabricio] Fontanini and I.”

A winning mentality and a solid unit, the likelihood is that when other teams begin to gel, they will wrest back the ‘puntero’ position from the new boys. But in spite of having lost star striker Cesar Carignano in June, their performances have surprised everyone and it remains to be seen whether ‘the cream’ can continue to rise to the top…

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