Football is clearly back and the previews are coming thick and fast. The Primera División in Argentina kicks off in just under two hours with Arsenal de Sarandí against Lanús . IBWM's man in Buenos Aires, Sam Kelly, has the lowdown.
It's been a chilly post-World Cup winter in Argentina, with no participants left in the Copa Libertadores and Boca Juniors' tour of Australasia meaning their pre-season matches against foreign sides were televised in the middle of the night. This country just isn't quite the same without some football going on, somewhere. Thankfully though, that's no longer a concern, because on Friday the 6th August, one of the hardest-to-call leagues in world football returns.
The last eight titles fought out in Argentina have seen eight different teams crowned champions, and there have been so many surprises that one can't even suggest they've always been teams who were expected to challenge, never mind win the thing. The format of the league means campaigns are short, which many argue can artificially lift the chances of a 'smaller' side winning, compared with a season-long championship – but if it only takes a run of three or four wins to lift a team into title contention, then it only takes a similarly short run without a win for them to drop back out.
The reigning champions are Argentinos Juniors, who won a highly unexpected title in the Clausura (the closing half of the season, i.e. the campaign that ended before the World Cup) after coming from nowhere with a few weeks to go. The highlight of that campaign was an astonishing turnaround at home to Independiente in the penultimate round; losing 1-3 in the 75th minute, and still 2-3 down as the clock ticked into stoppage time, they scored twice in two minutes to win 4-3 and go into the last week top of the table.
I was lucky enough to be at that game, and to be shown round Argentinos' wonderful new fan-run museum afterwards, and got a real sense of what another title would mean to a club who – including the one they wrapped up the following week away to Huracán – have just three national titles to their name. Indicating the strength in depth of the Argentine game though, they can also claim a victory in the Copa Libertadores back in 1985, the same year they won their second league title.
The champions before them, in last year's Apertura (opening championship) were Banfield, an even smaller club who were celebrating their first title in the professional era – which in Argentina means since 1931. In reality though, it had been a much longer wait; Banfield are the only club still in existence in Argentina who won a title (any title) in the 19th century, but that was the 1899 second division championship – they'd never been Argentine champions until eight months ago. And their title came just two years after their bitter local rivals Lanús had won their own first-ever championship.
All this history-making recently hasn't stopped one or two big boys weighing in, but the two traditional giants, River Plate and Boca Juniors, have endured a slump even as the rest of the league has become more even than it once was. River's last title was in the 2008 Clausura, but they've had (by their standards) long barren spells featuring some atrocious football either side of that – six months later, they were bottom of the 2008 Apertura, which coincidentally is the only championship Boca have won in the last four years.
Both those sides will be hopeful of better things this term, with new managers; Boca have brought in Argentinos' title-winning mastermind and former River player Claudio Borghi, whilst Ángel Cappa, a former assistant coach at both Real Madrid and Barcelona but also a gifted manager in his own right, breathed new life into River in the final weeks of the Clausura. Neither club are the all-dominating monsters they once were, though.
Improved scouting by European sides, who realise now that it's not only River and Boca producing all the good Argentine players and that it's cheaper to buy them at source, has cut out a large part of the two giants' income lately. Combine that with the general global financial downturn and a spell of boardroom incompetence at both clubs (Boca's is ongoing whilst River voted in former playing legend Daniel Passarella as their new president last year and he's been sweeping away some of the cobwebs) and it's easy to see why – in spite of their past records and good signings during the winter break – no-one quite feels ready to call this as River's or Boca's comeback season yet. For River at least though, it might have to be.
That's because the relegation table in Argentina is worked out not over one season, but over an average of points-per-game from the last three seasons (or one or two for newly-promoted teams). And in that average table (which you can follow here), River are currently bottom bar the three promoted clubs. Two clubs go down automatically and two go into relegation/promotion playoffs with clubs from the division below, so Cappa's charges really need to get their skates on this year. It's make or break for them.
Boca's main worry for the winter has seemingly been the renewal of Juan Román Riquelme's contract, which (to a non Boca fan – I try to stay neutral when writing but should declare my interest for River at this stage) was one of the most amusing aspects of the winter break. Piqued for a long time at Boca's 'laughable' contract offer, and choosing to none-too-subtly conduct his negotiations by medium of press conferences, Riquelme finally announced everything had been agreed at the start of last week. He still hasn't signed the thing though, and news was leaked on Thursday suggesting he's still unhappy with the tax payments outlined in the contract; he wants the club to pay, which they say they can't afford and, as a free agent, he'll have to pay his own taxes. This one could run and run.
Which way Riquelme's situation will go is considerably easier to predict who'll be the champions by the time the league ends for the summer break in December though. At least there are only two possibilities for the contract situation. As far as what goes on out on the pitch is concerned, at this stage of the season everyone's a potential winner. It's been a long wait, but at long last football is back.
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. Sam will also be providing IBWM with a near-weekly rundown of the ins and outs as the championship proceeds.