Titanic day for Argentine football sinks the unsinkable

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Ed Malyon on the end of an era in Argentina...

It was thought that the Titanic was unsinkable, an impossibility. Yet she sank in April 1912.

It was thought that River Plate would never get relegated. They couldn’t. Yet on June 27th 2011, the bow of the ship disappeared under the water, and into the B Nacional.

The utterly unthinkable state of affairs is that River Plate will now face trips to play clubs like Almirante Brown and Deportivo Merlo next season, following defeat in their relegation playoff game against Belgrano de Cordoba.

The sequence of events that has led to this is so surprising not just because they are Argentina’s most successful club, with 33 league titles, but because they have failed to avoid relegation despite having the buffer of the ‘promedio’ average points system and a two-legged play-off in which tied scores would have seen them safe.

The delicious irony for those enjoying the demise of River is that the promedio system was introduced in the early 1980s to prevent them from being relegated. This is no exaggeration.

Following a poor season that saw them finish in the relegation places, the AFA unashamedly changed the rules to introduce an average points per game table, calculated over three years in the hope that it would mean that the two biggest clubs could never slip down a league following a bad campaign.

Cry me a River: Weeping players leave the pitch and division

So what this week’s events show, is that this isn’t just River Plate having a bad season, this is the culmination of a whole host of short-, mid- and long-term factors that have seen them descend to la B for the first time in their 110-year history.

Long term
José Maria Aguilar was president of River Plate from 2001-2009, and in this period the club enjoyed a lot of success on the field, particularly in his first four-year term. In the second half though, off-field decisions were being taken that were placing the club in jeopardy.

In a bid to gain popularity – as well as a poorly-advised cost-cutting measure – Aguilar began to cave in to demands of the barra bravas, the organised gangs of the club’s fans. The barras in Argentina are very powerful groups, virtually untouchable to the police. They are guilty of racketeering, corruption and being involved in organised and serious violent crime.

Aguilar made them responsible for security within the stadium following an incident in which a member of the group known as ‘Bolita’ Nazareno was beaten to within an inch of his life for thieving inside the stadium. The idea was to send a message to the President, and it worked.

However, legitimising the Borrachos del Tablon [the Drunks of the Terrace], River’s unimaginatively named barra, was an enormous mistake and the tip of the iceberg. Within years, members of the group would be drawing salaries from the club and even receiving percentages of transfer fees.

Under Aguilar’s stewardship, the club also ran up big debts. They may be nicknamed los Millionarios [the Millionaires] but having sold a staggering $350million worth of players between 1989 and 2010, the most River Plate have ever paid for a player was $4m to Newell’s Old Boys for Fernando Belluschi.

This enormous income from player sales, which has long been the modus operandi for football clubs - particularly in South America – is vital for their well-being off the field but questions inevitably remain over where this money has gone.

It’s natural to sell your best players and expect difficulties on the pitch, but River, in fact, would consistently pluck players from smaller clubs to fill the gaps – and maintain their success.

Between 1999 and 2005, the Millionaires sold a ludicrously talented list of players for big fees, including Angel, Saviola, Yepes, D’Alessandro, Cambiasso, Demichelis, Cavenaghi, ‘Lucho’ Gonzalez and Javier Mascherano… but still won five domestic titles.

In 2008-09, however, they lost Falcao, Belluschi, Alexis Sanchez, Sebastian Abreu and Juan Pablo Carrizo from their talented side and failed to adequately replace them.

Medium term
Having played for and managed the club, Daniel Passarella seemed like a safe pair of hands for the club when elected in 2009 but he failed to right the wrongs of the previous regime.

The Kaiser, as he is known, never successfully implemented the financial mechanisms that he had publicised in his campaign, meaning that the club could never truly get on top of the increasing debts that they were faced with.

He may have inherited an unsuccessful manager in Leonardo Astrada but his subsequent managerial choices left a lot to be desired. Angel Cappa succeeded Astrada but was dismissed after an unproductive spell; in November 2010 he hired Juan Jose Lopez – a former team-mate of Passarella's, but a coach who hadn’t managed a side in the Argentine top flight for eight years. Lopez’s last act was to preside over this week’s relegation.

Cold comfort: Coach Lopez cuddles Carlos Arano

Passarella’s transfer dealings have been called into question, a short-termist policy revolving around loans was never going to allow the club to form a solid core. The signing of Juan Pablo Carizzo on loan had an option to buy, but at $6m, it was never going to be a viable option.

Rejecting a sizeable bid from Benfica for young striker Rogelio Funes Mori in favour of holding out for $15m was also a grave error. The academy product had shown little to merit such an inflated price tag and Passarella failed to realise that knowing when to sell is as vital as knowing who to buy.

Looking at the three seasons to blame for River’s relegation in the promedio standings, the combined Apertura and Clausura table for 2010/11 sees them finish fifth and qualifying for the Copa Sudamericana (South America’s Europa League) – so it’s the two preceding campaigns that have caused River to hit the iceberg.

They began 2008/09 by finishing rock bottom of the 2008 Apertura for the first time in the club’s history. A paltry 14 points from 19 games meant that even an improved second half of the season would cause them issues. In 2009/10 they amassed only two points more, and heading into the 2010/11 season, everyone knew River would face relegation worries – though no-one believed it could actually happen.

Short term
An excellent Apertura could have been a title-winning campaign if they hadn’t suffered seven games without a win in the middle of the season. A change in manager brought an end-of-season boost and a superclasico win as the Red Stripe finished in fourth.

In the Clausura, River led at half-way, and at the beginning of May were set for a to-the-wire title race. However, a run of nine games without a win saw them drop into the relegation playoff places, and then out of the division. Whilst their early-season form had impressed, based predominantly on a strong defence and around the creativity of starlet Erik Lamela, when things started going against them, coach Lopez faltered in leading his team.

Seemingly with no plan B, River would be relegated to the ‘B’. The common criticisms of the side were that they lacked passion and fight; in truth, a lack of quality in front of goal was a much more enormous problem, along with a dearth of experience in the squad, apart from the ancient but excellent Matias Almeyda (who will be River’s new manager next season).

Shellshock: the players gather after the match

Regardless of all these factors, River were still in the position to save themselves on numerous occasions, even before the playoff with Belgrano. Yet they serially came up short. Lopez’s falling-out with diminutive playmaker Diego Buonanotte could be argued to have cost them vital points, and at vital moments, he took wrong decisions.

He wasn’t the only one to make mistakes, far from it – Leandro Chichizola’s air-kick against Velez Sarsfield cost them at least a point, and Adalberto Roman’s error in the play-off first leg at Belgrano caused some River fans to run onto the pitch and threaten him.

Individuals aside though, the fact remains that gaining just five points from the last 21 possible destroyed the fragile confidence of the squad and manager, and playing off against a side with momentum was always going to be difficult.

So the future for River is up in the air. The nosedive in income will plunge their finances into a more perilous state; Passarella has declared that for him to go "They will have to drag me out by the feet"; and in a poll by leading sports daily Canchallena, River fans voted overwhelmingly that the first step to resolving River’s problems is a politician putting the end to the barras.

Contextualising this relegation is hard – it’s like Real Madrid, Ajax or Celtic getting relegated in their respective countries – but it’s happened, and whether those in charge at River look to implement real solutions, or just try to plug the leaks, will be the key to whether this club sinks for good or not.