Millionaires Turned Paupers

You may blame the Mayans. They had predicted something similar. The fifth of the seven key Mayan prophecies talks about how the established world order will change. It also gives a time frame of when the change will be manifested – sometime in 1999 things will start deteriorating. 1999 is also the year, when a special edition of the Argentine sports magazine “El Gráfico” named River Plate as “Champions of the Century”, noting the club’s achievements, especially their (then) 28 Argentine championships against Boca Juniors’ 19 and Independiente’s 13. If one were to plot the course of achievements for the club based in the Belgrano neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, then that would very much be it. Whatever ensued, culminating in relegation in June 2011, looks like a swift and steep curve down.

The History

One can’t stress enough on the significance of River Plate in the history of Argentine and South American football and the society in general. Founded on May 25, 1901, in what is today the neighbourhood of its fiercest rival – Boca Juniors, the club moved to Palermo and  then on to Belgrano in the northern part of Buenos Aires in 1923. They earned their nickname of Los Millionarios when in the early 1930s, they paid £23,000 for Bernabé Ferreyra, a quite unheard of sum and a record transfer fee for over 20 years, and most of it was paid in gold. Ferreyra repaid the amount with a scarcely believable 187 goals in 185 matches for River.

A new impetus also came from the social movement whereby, the military rulers as well as the civilian reformers of Argentina focused on the development of character through sports in the 1920-40s. It was seen as a step towards the building of a modern nation. River became the symbol of that with an all conquering team that swept everyone before them. Three league titles in the 1930s were followed by four in the 1940s and five in the 1950s. The 1940s team earned its nickname, La Maquina (the machine), based on their ruthless efficiency in the domestic and international scene. The team even bears comparison to and is seen as one of the earliest precursor to ‘total football’ as propounded by the Ajax and Dutch of 1970s vintage.

The Achievements

River Plate in its 110 years of history has been the most decorated club in the Argentinian domestic front. Much like other fierce rivalries in Europe, where one of the rivals would collect more international trophies only to be outdone in the domestic scene by its fiercest rival (think Liverpool – Manchester United or AC Milan – Juventus), River swept through the domestic scene collecting 33 league titles in its 110 year history. Even though bitter rival, Boca Juniors have the record (jointly owned with Milan) for the maximum international club tournaments. River can point towards their Annus Mirabilis of 1986-87 when they won the domestic title, the Copa Libertadores, the Copa Interamericana and the Copa Intercontinental. Such a clean sweep was quite unprecedented. They almost repeated the same after a decade in 1996, when they once again won the domestic title and the Copa Libertadores. This 1996-97 display by the team led the club to first place in the IFFHS ranking for six consecutive months, the first Argentine club to do so. They are also the only Argentine club ranked as the best World team in a full season (1997–1998). At the turn  of the century, the ultimate accolade of “Champions of the Century” was thus conferred on the club. The following year, in a FIFA sponsored vote, River was voted the best Argentine team of the 20th century. Indeed the club has been a conglomerate of champions over its 100 years and one would not attempt to capture the stars that have passed through the El Monumental but fair to say that, in every decade, the best of Argentina have always come from either River or Boca, who together commandeer over 70% of the Argentine public support.

The Decline Years

The last decade has not been kind to River Plate, especially in the latter half. A brief note about the Argentine domestic tournament details may be relevant. Like many Latin American leagues, the Argentina league is divided into 2 halves, the Apertura and the Clausura (literally, the opening and the closure). The winners of each of those halves can claim to have won a league. This departure from a unified single home and away league was undertaken from the 1990-91 season and incidentally River Plate was the last club to win the unified league championship in 1989-90.
With this truncated 2 mini leagues (one home and one away) put into a season, River were doing fine as can be seen from the 12 league titles (Apertura or Clausura) in the next 14 years i.e. till 2004. Since then, only once have they managed to win – the 2008 Clausura. But there has been no shortage of managerial merry-go-rounds. To illustrate the point, Ramon Diaz was the last manager to preside over consecutive seasons, from 1995-1999, arguably the time when River were the team to beat and had won their title as Champion of the Century. Since then there have been 15 (yes 15!) managerial appointments in 12 seasons. None of those managers could string 2 seasons consecutively but there were many re-appointments, and each ended with further misery than the previous one.

Financially too, the fortunes took a nosedive as the club is estimated to have run up a debt of 280 million Argentine pesos ($67.76 million). Part of the reason is how the club let the ultras (Los Borrachos del Tablón – literally “the Drunks in the Stands”) take care of certain financial transactions of the club. A lot of ultras and miscreants took charge of merchandising, and even had a pie from player transfer earnings. They enjoyed huge perks like all expenses paid for away matches and even free tickets. All this was done with José María Aguilar as the club president (2001-09). For these 8 long years, many of the top talents from River were sold off to Europe while filling the gap with players who were owned by 3rd party or by agents. Hence when they moved on, the club didn’t earn much out of it. Some of the money is still unaccounted for and may have been siphoned off. The total mismanagement of funds coupled with power given to the ultras and lack of motivation for players led to a huge decline in the performance. Refer to the table for decline.

Taking 2007 Clausura, which they won; if we consider the mean of the gap that existed between the winner and River over the last 6 tournaments (2008-9 – 2010-11) was close to 18 points, implying a gap of 6 defeats. For a team that had won the 2007 Clausura, that is a steep, sharp and ignominious decline. The most appalling fact being, the team managed to finish last in the league in the 2008 Apertura, right after winning the 2007 Clausura. Once a domestic behemoth, River Plate now stood merely as a middling team, for whom finishing in the top 5 could prove beyond their means in 8 out of 14 attempts since 2004. Certainly this is not the stuff of “Campeon de Campeones”. The Millionaires were on the precipice of bankruptcy. The push would come soon.

The Relegation

The rules of relegation in the Argentine League, needs a bit of discussion before we delve into River’s final ignominy. Back in the 80s when the league was concerned with sudden departure of top talents from the big teams to Europe, they wanted to put in place a system which would help these teams recuperate from sudden loss of form owing to such transfers. So they installed a system of “promedios” (points averaging), whereby a team’s relegation status is determined by working out their points per game average over the last three seasons instead of the overall performance in that particular season. Although this implies that one poorly played season by a newly promoted team could spell doom, on the flip side, it was quite unthinkable that a big team would have 3 consecutive bad seasons spread over 6 league phases.

There is but one more chance provided to teams following the average of 3 seasons. Based on them, the bottom two teams (19th and 20th) are demoted directly to Primera B Nacional. However the 18th and 17th teams go into a 2-legged playoff with the 3rd and 4th placed teams from the Primera B Nacional. With the away goals rule present, the 17th and 18th teams can thus win these matches and remain in the Primera Division.

For the year 2010-11, it came down to these 4 teams – River Plate (17th) with a points average of 1.237, Gimnasia La Plata (18th) with a points average of 1.096, Huracan (19th) with a points average of 1.096 and Quilmes (20th) with a points average of 1.096. Quilmes was relegated directly and Huracan lost in a relegation play-off with Gimnasia as they both had the same average, and thus relegated directly. River and Gimnasia went into a 2-legged play-off with Belgrano and San Martín de San Juan respectively.

River lost the 1st leg 0-2 away and hence needed to win by 3 goals to stay in Primera Division or to win 2-0 and force a tie breaker. When the return leg arrived, River were desperate to win it. Around 60,000 had packed into the El Monumental (government safety limit being 40,000) to watch their favourite team battle for their lives. The match itself started very promisingly as River took the lead in the 6th minute with Mariano Pavone scoring a fine goal. An uneventful 1st half followed by a calamitous 2nd half that sealed their fate. First Belgrano equalized from a defensive shamble by the River defenders and goalkeeper and then Pavone missed a penalty that would have given them a glimmer of hope. The referee, pressed by the rioting of fans, didn’t bother with extra added time for stoppages and finished the match in 90 minutes sharp.

The Aftermath

If the match itself was insulting what with such a proud club going into uncharted ignominy, more disgrace was added with the rioting and violence that followed. Violence broke a minute before the match got over. Annoyed fans pelted players with a variety of objects from the stands, and police replied with high-powered fire hoses while some fans climbed fences topped with razor wire.

The clashes left 89 people injured, while over 50 were arrested, according to Argentina’s Federal Police. Fans were sprayed with high-power water hoses – inside and outside the stadium – with police using teargas, rubber bullets and hand-to-hand combat in a futile attempt to control the rioting. As they scattered, rioting fans set fire to vehicles and rubbish bins around the stadium, with many smashing windows and breaking into shops in upscale areas.

Looking Ahead

The future ahead doesn’t look too rosy. There lies the debt factor, which cannot be helped by the reduced revenues that will be a feature of life in 2nd division. For example, the TV revenue of around $7.5 mn per year would take a nosedive to $855,000 per year as is the standard for Primera B. The sponsorship deals would also be markedly reduced since they hinged on River being a Premier Division team.

The advertising deals, which include sponsors like Adidas, Petrobras and others wouldn’t help much as the money has already been used to pay the debt that had been built up since 2001 under President José María Aguilar. Club legend and World Cup winning captain, Daniel Pasarella became the President in 2009 and it was expected that after 8 years of misdirection, he would lead the club to its former glories. Instead the results have only deteriorated. The steady flux of managers and invasion of the ultras remain.

Post the recent relegation, the reins of the club have been handed over to Mattias Almeyda, who retired this season as a player at River. It is for him to chart a path to the top division at the earliest. President Pasarella has been quoted as saying, “I would be dragged out feet first”, which shows a resolve to restore the team to its rightful position. The manager has been given some new players, all on a free transfer. Some of those names have a River history and are good bargain buys (Christian Nasuti, Alejandro Dominguez, Fernando Cavenaghi), however, some of the talents have left too, notedly Erik Lamela, the crown jewel of the River team, who was sold for about half of what he would have been sold had River not been relegated.

One cannot imagine the South American football scene without a club like River Plate in its midst, as much as one cannot imagine a year without Superclásico in Argentina. A new chapter has been added to Argentine and South American football. One hopes that River would bounce back soon enough to give a happy ending to this chapter.