Little Arsenal making big waves

The specialised press dedicated 21 pages to other matters before finally getting there.

The Big Five all had their story – with Independiente winning in the Sudamericana (despite the opposition keeper having blood pouring from his head after being hit by a rock thrown by fans). Boca are arguing about where they’ll spend the preseason, River have to bring in a new holding midfielder to the starting XI, San Lorenzo have the clásico against Huracán and Racing star Gio Moreno took up the centre spread.

Then came Vélez and Estudiantes, the top two, who play on Friday in a match that could decide the championship.

Only then, 22 pages in, did Arsenal get a mention. All 164 words of a mention.

Usually, the club from Sarandí only really deserve a small column hidden away in the deeper depths of the press because they are wallowing in a mid- to low-table mediocrity, with no real stars, not playing particularly well, and just getting by.

But this year it is different. This year’s league title race is a three-way between Estudiantes, top of the table on 26 points, Vélez, on 23, and Arsenal. Although they only get 164 words, Arsenal are also on 23 points.

The Arse, as they are affectionately known, are an extremely modest club. The club’s history is limited, along with its resources. The ground has a capacity of 16,000 but has a distinctly non-league feel to it. The club’s record top scorer in the first division has scored a mere 33.

In 1957, Julio, his brother and a group of friends decided to set up a club. Legend has it that it was the friend with a stutter who suggested they should name the new club after the Londoners, Ar-Ar-Ar-Arsenal.

The group of amigos looked no further than their local rivals, giants Independiente and Racing, for inspiration over what Arsenal de Sarandí’s club colours must be – hence the sky-blue shirt with the red stripe.

Julio later moved on to the presidency of Independiente, and in 1979 made the move into the role he holds to this day – president of AFA. But it wasn’t just Grondona who moved onwards and upwards, so too did the club that he founded 53 years ago.

After wallowing in the lower divisions, then gradually working their way up, Arsenal gained promotion to the top flight in 2002. Jorge Burruchaga, the clubs most successful youth team product who returned to coach the side and take them to the first division, said he shouted more when the Arse won promotion than when he won the World Cup with Argentina.

The crowning moment in Arsenal’s history came in 2007, when the side beat Club America in the final of the Copa Sudamericana to win on away goals.

But just three points off the top, Arsenal are now in with the chance of becoming the latest ‘surprise package’ in Argentina.

In recent years, Argentinos Juniors – current holders, Banfield, Lanús, are just a few examples of ‘modest’ clubs to have won the league title. Tigre, Huracán and Godoy Cruz have all come close.

And should Estudiantes and Vélez cancel each other out on Friday, Arsenal could go joint-top of the table this weekend.

Gustavo Alfaro, who won the Sudamericana with the club in 2007, returned as coach this year and looked to build up a team that hid it's defects. “This is down to everyone,’ he said this week speaking about the side's position in the league, ‘from the players, the coaching staff and the board to the kit men.’ But Alfaro is playing the classic underdog card in the title race. ‘It is up to Vélez and Estudiantes, who have the responsibility here. We are just onlookers.’

At one stage in the season, Arsenal seemed content to do just that – look on and let things happen. Against River at the Monumental a few weeks ago, Arsenal started to kill time with less than 10 minutes on the clock. There would be no initiative. A point would do, and if we can grab one on the counter then great, seemed to be the plan.

But last weekend they showed that they could take games to their opposition too. They may have only been playing Gimnasia, deep in the relegation battle, but twice Arsenal found themselves behind, twice they pulled it back and when it counted, right at the death, they took the lead and all three points.

Working against Arsenal is the fact that with Estudiantes and Vélez out of the Sudamericana, both are now focusing solely on the league. Arsenal might push the two of them to the death, just don’t expect to hear too much about it.