Over 30, unfit, questionable attitude, unreasonable demands but can still play a bit? There may be an opening for you in South America. Sam Kelly looks at week 2 in Argentina and the final(?) episode of the Juan-Román saga.
Two rounds in, and one or two things are already starting to take a tentative shape in the Argentine first division. With the short championships lasting only half a season, the first few weeks can be very formative – albeit not necessarily decisive – for a team's ambitions, and teams' starts can hugely affect the relegation points scrap, since the ups and downs between divisions are worked out with a different, three-season-long, table altogether.
To cut an awfully long explanation short, that relegation table means that River Plate have had to get off to the best possible start – and they have done. It also obliges the newly-promoted sides – three of them this season – to do likewise, and so far that's not come to pass. As for the title scrap, no fewer than five teams have won both of their first two matches. And River, near the bottom of the relegation table, are one of them. It'll take a title challenge, bizarrely, to keep one of the country's biggest clubs clear of relegation. And that's exactly what they're going after.
On Sunday, River boss Ángel Cappa was given a hero's welcome back to Huracán's stadium, for his first visit back to the club where he almost claimed a league title a little over a year ago. His side played well in the first half, less so in the second, and saw Ariel Ortega sent off for a very sly elbow to an opponent's head which will only see him get a one-game suspension. Crucially, though, they won, 1-0. The scoreline by which they'd taken their opening game at home to Tigre the previous weekend. On the points-per-game average table, River are still third from bottom (only two of the three promoted teams, All Boys and Quilmes, both yet to win a game, are below them), but crucially they're gaining some ground on the teams above them.
Cappa's sides have a reputation for playing expansive, inventive football, full of neat passing and attacking intent. In Argentina, the phrase 'tiki-tiki' is almost exclusively reserved for his team, even if at present the debate is centred around how long it will take River to get into the kind of rhythm Cappa wants of them. He's going to be afforded a bit of extra time by perhaps the most important signing of the winter; goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, who endured an unhappy spell in Europe with Lazio, where he slipped down the pecking order, is back. Last time he played for River, they won the title and Carrizo was one of the best players of the tournament, never mind merely being comfortably the most impressive 'keeper. The solidity he'll lend to their back line should ensure they've got a good foundation from which to move forward.
River's most famous rivals, meanwhile, aren't in danger of relegation. All the same, Boca Juniors haven't exactly been on top form in recent seasons. This winter they've made wholesale changes, bringing in Claudio Borghi – the manager who won an unexpected championship with Argentinos Juniors back in May – and a host of new players. For all the changes though, there have been distractions during the break, and the team have started just as poorly as they left off.
The renewal of Juan Román Riquelme's contract was the big winter soap-opera in Argentina. He announced he probably wouldn't sign a new deal a couple of months before the old season even ended, then went quiet. Shortly after the end of the World Cup, he was calling a press conference and telling all and sundry that the offer Boca had him was 'laughable' and that he wouldn't be signing a new deal unless they significantly improved it. This, by the way, was after the previous contract he had with the club had already expired.
Apparently, US$5 million over four years, in an economy like Argentina's, is an insulting offer to make a 32-year-old football player. Never mind that in most countries a player over 30 would be lucky to get more than a one-year deal. Boca were, insultingly, telling Riquelme he'd have to pay his own tax, rather than them paying it for him – as in fact they were entitled to, given his free agent status. Eventually, after months of to-ing and fro-ing, Riquelme signed on, with the tax split 50-50 between the two parties. He's currently injured and unfit to play, but that's by the by, in many ways. Boca's treasurer, Daniel Angelici, resigned in outrage over the financial terms the club had ceded to the player, insisting they won't be able to afford it over the duration of his contract.
Without an injured Riquelme though, Boca so far have just one point, from an opening weekend draw away to Godoy Cruz. Racing's win over them on Saturday in La Bombonera made Racing manager Miguel Ángel Russo only the second boss ever of La Academia to win successive away matches over Boca. Along with River, they're one of the five teams who've had perfect starts; the others are Estudiantes de La Plata, Vélez Sarsfield, and 2009 Apertura winners Banfield.
Although both Racing and River are among Argentine football's 'Big Five' (the other three are Boca, Independiente and San Lorenzo), neither have been much good for the last few years. Indeed, Racing have struggled against relegation for the last few seasons now, much longer than River have been battling it for. Both, though, have started strongly. With River set to play Independiente and Racing at home to San Lorenzo in the coming weekend, those starts will be tested sorely, but both are hopeful that, with new managers and (relatively) new presidents – Daniel Passarella at River and Rodolfo Molina at Racing – they're finally starting to change trajectories again. Boca might take a little longer to do so.
Anything can still happen, though. Two matches down and seventeen to go means the Torneo Apertura is far from over. This may or may not be the campaign for two of the traditional heavyweights to dream of returning to former glories, but it'll be fun finding out.
Sam also writes for Soccernet and When Saturday Comes, and you can follow all the day-to-day action at his blog Hasta El Gol Siempre during the Argentine season.