IBWM loves Argentina and always has. Not just for the quality of the football and the passion of the fans, but also the unadulterated silliness that is point scoring in the Apertura. Pay attention dear reader and let Sam Kelly explain.
Title challengers, and relegation battlers. Under normal circumstances, the two would be mutually exclusive terms in which to describe a football team. Under the unique way in which the Argentine system is run, though, they're more than compatible. On Sunday, River Plate lost for the first time this season, putting them in the direct relegation positions for the first time this year in spite of the fact that they're only two points off the lead in the title race. Only in Argentina.
Relegation in Argentina isn't worked out over a single season, you see. Each team has the total number of points won in their current division during the last three seasons divided by the number of matches they've played in the same period of time, and from that table, the relegation standings are worked out. It was a system first brought in in 1957, and used until 1966, but reintroduced in 1983 when River themselves finished in a relegation place for the season then just finished, and two years after another of the 'Big Five', San Lorenzo, had been relegated. The re-arrangement saved River from the drop, though another grande (big club), Racing, were relegated. It's entirely coincidental, of course, that AFA president – then as now – Julio Grondona is a lifelong fan of Independiente, Racing's big local rivals.
So River have previous for being rescued by this system, but some woeful campaigns in recent years have meant they need a title challenge this term just to stay clear of danger. And a title challenge is what they're managing after five matches of the Torneo Apertura. River manager Ángel Cappa has reckoned without the impressive form of two of the three newly-promoted clubs, though. Both All Boys and Club Olimpo have gained more points than predicted, and with All Boys' win over Olimpo on Saturday both sides now have enough points to be firmly mid-table in the Promedio (average) standings for the relegation table.
The issue, of course, is that whilst newly-promoted sides have some huge disadvantages from the sporting point of view – and often institutionally as well; All Boys were handed a horrible run of fixtures in their opening four matches – their points are divided over fewer matches played. Whilst River Plate have now played eighty-one games in the current Promedio standings, All Boys and Olimpo have just five each. As such, a win for River next weekend would be worth just 3/82 (three points for the win divided by 82 matches they'll have played after it) of a point, whilst one for either of the promoted sides would count for 3/6, or half a point. As things currently look, only Quilmes, who've been useless, are below River in the standings, and it's looking more than possible that it could be them plus one more 'established' side who go into the direct relegation slots (the next two places up the table will play off against third- and fourth-place from the second division).
Of course, there are sceptics. In fact, anyone who's used to watching how the AFA work is fully aware that if, going into the last third of the season, River are still in trouble, they'll start to get an improbable number of ridiculous calls going their way from the officials. I don't state this as conjecture; it's more or less a statement of fact. With the exception of Racing, it's unthinkable that the AFA would allow any of the 'Big Five' to be relegated today (and, since some readers are bound to be wondering, I should mention at this point that I'm a River fan myself).
It's making for a bizarre situation in the River camp, in which a team still in with a more than fighting chance in what's already looking to be another very tight title race have lost one match, but find themselves in the relegation zone.
At the very least, River's directors and technical staff can be glad of the fact that this has all come to pass in this particular weekend. They'll be afforded a little shelter from what might have been an absolute torrent of vitriol by the visit of newly-crowned world champions Spain to the Estadio Monumental – River's very own – on Tuesday afternoon.
The Argentine press have been going bananas for Spain, of course, not least because the champions play in the kind of manner Argentina themselves would like to – and, given the attacking talent at their disposal, should – aspire to, but also because so many of the World Cup-winning squad are team-mates of Argentina's very own Lionel Messi at club level. Spain, for their part, have been playing the part of the visiting diplomats wonderfully; having their photos taken during training at Boca Juniors' Bombonera and the Monumental in the last few days, and talking at length about how much they look forward to playing in front of a passionate South American crowd for once.
Little do they seem to realise that some of the most passionate fans are priced out of the match by the AFA's ticket policy. Or, indeed, that at least four Englishmen – myself included – will be present (and, to be fair, joining in with the jumping, shouting, singing locals). But it's the first visit of any European side to Buenos Aires since Lithuania played Argentina here in 1999, and the first by a 'major' European power since West Germany came down in 1987 to reprise the previous year's World Cup final.
It'll also provide an interesting punctuation to the tale of Sergio Batista's caretaker managership of the national side – a decent result for Argentina (which some would still say would be anything other than getting slaughtered) would go a long way towards his being given the job on a full-time basis. That, though, is for another day. For now, Batista's taking things one game at a time, and not having to look over his shoulder or far into the future. Ángel Cappa and his River Plate squad must be wishing they had such luxuries.
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.