‘We will resist the critics. We will reformulate the club from now on.‘ These were the words uttered by River Plate president Daniel Passarella once the dust had settled on the relegation of his beloved club. An intriguing if somewhat redundant statement regarding River’s future. The harrowing reality is that ‘reformulation’ is often something of an obligation for the freshly relegated club chiefly due to the fact they will lose key players, international interest will dwindle and austerity becomes the foremost principle. What’s truly compelling here is that River’s demise may serve as an omen for others. What becomes of a league stripped of its most successful club? What happens to a team when its fiercest rival is lost? Can a club really recover from its biggest ever fall?
The most peculiar part of River’s surprise descent is that it really isn’t much of a surprise at all. Certainly its an unprecedented occurrence in the club’s 110 year history but the infrastructure of Argentine football dictates that relegation is determined on a three year basis and, as such, demotion, for River Plate, was ultimately the bitter fruit of three year’s unsatisfactory labour, having placed 17th overall.
And their dilemma has been self-inflicted in many respects. Whoever is running things at River Plate seems to have attended the Roman Abramovic school of authority where failure is invariably met with a strong prescription of ‘sack the manager’. The head coach has been changed no less than 3 times since the club’s last trophy in 2008 and continuity has been thoroughly inhibited by the sort of erratic hierarchy that so often precedes a fall.
Furthermore, the cavalcade of managers to occupy the vacancy have been undermined by a modest squad, no longer capable of retaining the sparse talent that it occasionally yields. So, when crunch time finally reared its head on June 26th in the form of a second-leg play-off tie against lowly outfit Atlético Belgrano, River Plate couldn’t prevail and, when despondence turned to belligerence, chaos ensued in the Monumental stadium offering up 100 arrests and 70 injuries. Worse still are the accusations that have emerged since, alleging that threats made to the referee at half-time during the encounter were encouraged by an influential River Plate figurehead. In short, it’s a mess and the clean up could be problematic.
But who knows? This season’s relegation could ultimately prove to be merely a blemish on an otherwise prosperous history. However, the rise is trickier than the fall and, if they are to negotiate an immediate promotion, they will likely need to do so without some of their more formidable personnel and a weaker financial pedigree. Indeed, they are already $19m in debt, a predicament that won’t be aided by a a plunge in TV revenue and the requisite drop in ticket prices that comes with playing against the less stellar opposition of Argentina’s second tier.
So, rehabilitation may prove too fanciful a prospect for the team dubbed Los millonarios (rather ironically nowadays) as we’ll likely see a shop window where a football club once stood. The ever precarious future of their starlet Erik Lamela seems set to be resolved with his swift departure to Italian shores and others may follow suit while they can still manage to make the jump across the ever growing pond. And without them, the River may dry up pretty quickly.
Meanwhile, Boca Juniors fans may fervently revel in the plight of their adversaries but might they anticipate the vacuousness of a season bereft of superclassicos? The sentiment is a curious one as every football fan is conditioned to delight in each misfortune of their rivals, regardless of circumstances. Indeed, the truest of Celtic fan might candidly testify to wishing the worst on their foes in blue but what would happen if one side of the old firm were to collapse, be it financially or competitively? Mightn’t it be a pity if we weren’t afforded the most compelling spectacle of the Scottish campaign? In such a hypothetical, the revenue void would be second only to the void of excitement and passion.
Only, in Argentina’s case it isn’t a hypothetical and without their tireless endeavours to overcome their traditionally superior rivals, Boca fans may sense some disorientation. After all, hasn’t some fundamental equilibrium been upset here? When speaking of Rangers, we allude to Celtic. A reference to Real Madrid leads inevitably to a discussion of their Catalan counterparts. And from Boca we reach River. Synonymous in acrimony. The encounters are simply the league’s biggest draw and time will tell if the Argentine Primera División is impervious to the tedium that will likely accompany a season marred by the conspicuous absence of the nation’s most hostile rivalry.
So, 2011/2012 will be the first ever Argentine Primera División season without River Plate, the league’s most successful club. Will they be missed? Well, they are often ridiculed as the villains of the Argentine league and sadly the conduct of the fans following relegation is unlikely to endear the Buenos Aires club to anyone who already has a distaste for them. However, a revenue slump and dissipated interest in the top tier will perhaps be cited as reasons for which they should be missed in the long term. Yet, something else will be lacking too and, when Boca Juniors fans glance at the fixture list for next season, they may just realise what that something is.