RiBer’s Banks Finally Burst

Only thirteen years ago, River Plate were named as the Best World Team in a full season by the IFFHS. Only twelve years before this, River were the club world champions, beating Steaua Bucharest in the final of the Intercontinental Cup. But today, River face the previously unimaginable reality of being a Nacional B team after they were relegated by Belgrano de Córdoba in a relegation/promotion playoff.

The Buenos Aires club have been crowned champions of Argentina a record thirty-three times, and have never played below Argentinian top-flight in the professional history of the club. However come the start of the 2011 Apertura, they’ll be one of the relegated teams fighting for promotion back to where they firmly believe they belong, in the Primera División.

What’s even crazier is that River have hardly been on a long and grueling road to demise, they won the 2008 Clausura. The magnitude of shock that is sending tremors from Buenos Aires to the rest of Argentina, and indeed world football, is astounding.

Anguish of River players

Anguish of River players

You may think that because it took three years for The Millionaires to get relegated since their last title win, it wasn’t as sudden as what it’s made out to be. However the Argentine football league operates on a totally different system of relegation that what most of the world is accustomed to. The teams with the lowest points average of the past three seasons are the ones who go down or fight in the relegation/promotion playoff. It would take a minimum of three bad years on the trot for a team to go down – unless of course they were a newly promoted side in which case the average is made since their most recent promotion to the Primera.

It was solely down to this system that River were relegated. Over the last few seasons, Los Millonarios always finished around lower mid-table after the full 38 game season (Apertura + Clausura), but they never finished in the bottom four. However it was the consistent poor-enough finishes that confined them to their fate, whereas teams that finished below them any year had better seasons other years to avoid the drop.

It may be seen fitting in some corners of Argentinian football that it was this format that ironically relegated River. The averaging system for relegation was introduced in 1983, the same year that River finished 18th – and importantly, would have been relegated. However the previous two seasons were then taken into account and the Gallinas were saved from their plight. The averaging format may be seen as a fairer way to determine the worst teams in the league, or alternatively it may be viewed as a corrupt way to minimize the chances of the bigger clubs going down a division. River fell through the gaps of a system originally designed to help them.

So between the seasons of 2008/09 – 2010-11, River accumulated an average of 1.237 points per game, just below Olimpo who were only just promoted to the top flight. They finished 17th in the relegation table, which put them in the playoff against Belgrano, the 4th best team from Primera B Nacional for the season 2010/11.

The 33 time Argentina champions had a difficult 2011 Clausura campaign. They totaled only 15 goals in the 19 games they played, but still managed to finish 9th in the half-season competition. The first leg of the playoff was played in the Estadio Gigante de Alberdi, the home stadium of Belgrano, and it was the home team who gave themselves a 2-0 advantage heading into the second leg.

The night before the second leg in Buenos Aires, roughly 300 River fans gathered outside the Belgrano hotel, setting off fireworks and making noise in attempt of intimidation prior to the decisive match. Both at 3am and 6am, the hotel alarm was set off, of course severely damaging chances of a healthy sleep and a needed good rest before an important match. Acts of such classlessness are extra reasons why River have very few sympathisers in the midst of possibly the club’s biggest ever crisis.

And so, at three bells local time on Sunday, June 26th, the fate of such an historic and glory-filled club was left in the hands of Juan José Lopez, Mariano Pavone, Matías Almeyda et al in the iconic El Monumental stadium. They couldn’t have dreamed for a better start, as Belgrano scored a goal that was disallowed for offside, while Pavone scored a legitimate goal a minute later, all inside the opening five minutes. Tears streamed down the eyes of fans and players, as was the importance of the goal in this particular match.

Passion and determination were to be seen in abundance, as the River players were very keen not to make a mockery of their once-great club.

Despite their efforts, they couldn’t finish off chances that they created, while Belgrano were a lot more organised in the second half and manged to score an equaliser after a comedy of errors in the home defence. Los Millonarios couldn’t even capitalise on a penalty they were awarded, and with a minute to go the game was paused because of crowd trouble, before the referee brought the game to an end without a restart.

But how could such an illustrious and powerful club fall to its knees in such a fashion? Money does indeed make the world go round, and that fact is just as true in the world of football as it is in the political one. The Buenos Aires aristocrats were poorly managed and financed in recent years. The debts that the club is reported to have gathered over the past few years is around the $70 million. Los Millonarios by name, but Millones in debt.

The club president Jose Maria Aguilar is said to be the prime culprit in the implosion that is River Plate. The head of the club made a lot of bad choices while at the helm, including paying excessive transfer fees, giving wages they couldn’t pay and making poor decisions in selling and buying.

RiBer – now mockingly referred to because of their new league status – will find it very difficult to clear these debts. Should they fail to win promotion in their first year or two in the second tier, it will only get harder and harder for the Gallinas. Television rights in the Primera División pay clubs figures around the $30 million mark, but River will only be making circa 10% of that in their new league.

Crowd trouble at the vital match

To end the whole crazy story of River’s Relegation, the crowd trouble that marred the ending of the playoff match are bringing the club into disrepute, as the latest figure of injuries that I have heard at the time of writing comes to 89, while four policemen are in serious conditions in hospital. So-called “fans” took their anger out on the club’s own stadium, as riots also poured out onto the adjacent streets. Police were forced to blast sections of the crowd at El Monumental with power hoses.

History was made on June 26th, 2011 as River were relegated, and for more than that reason it was by far the darkest day in Argentina’s most successful club’s past.


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