NOTE: This column is double-posted over at a brand new website for which I am a contributor, The Sports Trough. So check out all the new stuff there!
Imagine if you will, that during the New York Knicks’ various failures over the last decade there was something far more important at stake. Or that the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of significant consequences for their futility beyond continued razzing from White Sox fans. What if the Knicks were relegated to the NBDL, and the Cubs to AAA ball? Can you imagine the Nashville Sounds playing a summer classic at Wrigley? How would the fans react? Would they violently revolt, or just leave the team completely? What about all the lost TV revenue? These are just a few of the concerns at stake this Sunday in Buenos Aires.
In Argentine soccer, two teams rise above all others in terms of popularity. The owners of the “Superclasico” and one of the most renowned rivalries in all of sport: River Plate and Boca Juniors. In recent polls, roughly 80% of all Argentines root for one of these two teams over all others. They have the most money, and some would argue the richest history. But all that people know about soccer in Argentina may change in just a few days. Over the last three years, both teams have been in a steady decline, clinging to veterans who were either over the hill or lacking the desire to fight for victories. And that freefall has put River in a suddenly extremely precarious position.
There are five levels of soccer leagues in the country, and the bottom two teams from each division are relegated down a notch at the end of every season, with the top two teams sent up. The next two lowest performers get a chance to fight to stay with the big boys. There are only three teams that have never been sent down to the B league: Boca, River, and Independiente. River, for the first time in their history, is now fighting for their lives. Their fans refer to themselves as “The Millionaires,” but the equal parts shock, shame, and disgust they are enduring is unheard of in the 110 year history of the club, and they are feeling nothing like a million bucks.
After several seasons of struggles, River cleaned house, fired their third head coach in a year, and started the season with a lot of hope. After seven games, they were just a few points out of first place. But as quickly as the hope arrived, they began to lose. Seemingly every week. In the last week, they had to win or tie to avoid the “promotion” (games against a B team, the winner of which ends up in the top league). They gave up a goal in the last few minutes to lose 2-1, and the players left the field under a hail of bottles, garbage, and anything else their fans could grab. Instead of Millionaires, they performed more like the derisive nickname their rivals apply to them: the Chickens.
The Promotion works thusly: The fourth worst team from the top division plays the fourth best team from the B division twice. Once on each team’s home turf. After both games, they take the sum of the goals. In the case of a tie, the team from the top division wins.
Wednesday night, some 400 miles from home, River took the field against Belgrano de Cordoba, and laid an egg. The Cordobeses were clearly more prepared for the game, and, with their home crowd going bonkers, blasted in a penalty kick after a clear handball in the penalty box 25 minutes into the game. From that point on, as they have all season when under a bit of pressure, River collapsed. Despite a steady string of free kicks and corners, they got few quality chances and played sloppy the rest of the first half. Eight minutes into the second, Belgrano notched a superb goal by César Pereya. And at that moment, 40% of Argentina was shitting their pants or smashing their television or both.
But what happened next was even more surprising. Suddenly there were fans on the field, not streaking or trying to steal the ball, but attacking the River players. At first it seemed these were fans of Belgrano, trying to celebrate, as they wore no gear marking their allegiance. Instead, these were River fans so enraged by what they were seeing that they tore through the fence separating them from the field. “Find your balls!” yelled one fan as he gave a two-handed shove to a midfielder. After a 20 minute delay and the crowd threatened firehoses, play resumed. Needless to say, this did not help River find balls of any kind, and they returned to the capital under heavy guard with a deficit of two goals.So this Sunday, at 3pm, they will take the field in the largest stadium in the country, but they don’t even know whether their fans will be rooting for them. In fact, with good reason, it is more likely the players will fear for their lives. The murder of soccer players who err is not unheard of in Latin America, and when you consider the sheer quantity of enraged Millionaires/Chickens, if I were a player, I would be worried about any public appearance.
There are other factors worth mentioning. There is a tremendous amount of money at stake. For the television alone, River will make 10 times less money in the B division. Not to mention the fact that nobody will be buying jerseys, hats, or probably even tickets. Some teams go to the B and never come back. River has enough funding that this is unlikely, but even playing in the Promotion was unheard of before this week.
Rival factions are conflicted. The sheer pleasure they have taken over these last two weeks in relentlessly making fun of the River fans has possibly been enough. And many don’t wish to see River leave the top league. Boca, for one, stands to lose money, and to a certain degree all teams do. Think what would happen if the Cubs never played any major competition. That’s a huge fan base that no longer buys visitors’ tickets.
For all the Machiavellian thinking we hear about how the NBA is fixed or that the MLB doesn’t care about their small-market teams, you wouldn’t believe some of the accusations levied at the AFA before the first Promotion game even took place. Everyone is assuming that somehow the league will ensure that River wins the last game by at least two goals. That the refs will be bought off, that fans will storm the field to disrupt the game in a way that affects the scoreboard, that God will come down and declare River the overall winner. Belgrano is likely going to have to play out of their minds just to lose by only one.
I arrived in Argentina with the chance to pick any team from the 20 in the top division. That’s a rare opportunity in life, and after great research and contemplation, I settled on Independiente. River is not our top Rival, but definitely our second. Think Notre Dame/Michigan. And they always beat us. I am not conflicted. I have every desire to see Belgrano win 3-0. My wife (also, not coincidentally an Independiente fan), is of the same mind. And there are so many reasons for this. Perhaps this is comparable Alabama fans rooting for Auburn in their bowl game – something I just can’t fathom. I want River, and all their Chicken followers to suffer. After this, I want to see them go to the C, then the D (note: this will not happen ever, but a guy can dream).
Watching this River team play, they collapse once things go badly. Like Stan Van Gundy said about the Atlanta Hawks, they’re “frontrunners.” Only in this case, they are rarely in front. Now they have to come back home, play in front of 58,000 fans, most of whom want them dead, and find a way to win by two goals. That’s going to be some pregame locker room.
Death is on the line Sunday. Surely at risk is the legacy of one of the world’s most famous futbol clubs. Hopefully nothing more grave. I’m sure the government will try to put 58,000 cops on the field, just in case. If it weren’t a Sunday, it would be the ideal day to rob a bank. I can say this. I’m keeping the hell away from that stadium, and will be eagerly watching the drama unfold on TV, rooting for ruin and heartbreak. It’s a rare opportunity to see a nationwide car wreck live. With slow-motion replays. Today, I’m a Cordobés, too.
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