“Racing has ceased to exist” – 4th March 1999.
Liliana Ripoll, the state appointed administrator of the stricken club, pronounced the burial rites of one of Argentina’s historic “Big 5” along with Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente and San Lorenzo. In the preceding months and years, the youth teams had to train in borrowed facilities which were over an hour’s travel away. The kids sold raffles to pay for their trips to tournaments inside the country. The club had reached the point where an internal vote ended with a rooster being sacrificed so that the youth teams could be fed. Here, the provincial court had ordered that the club be closed and liquidated immediately. Daniel Lalín, the president, was hit over the head with a drum when he tried to explain himself to the fans. Racing was not allowed to begin the league the following weekend. This was it, game over. Yet, at the same time, it was just the beginning.
Fast forward to the present day, and a cursory glance at the league table will show Racing Club in the upper echelons of the table, about to complete the biggest sale in the history of the Argentine league (Lautaro Martinez to Internazionale for 33 million USD). So, none of this actually happened? Yes, it was very real, too real for most of the club’s fans. What happened between March 1999 and now is a story worth telling.
Three days after Ripoll’s statement, the Argentine Premier Division began, and Racing’s stadium, the Estadio Presidente Perón, known to most in Argentina as El Cilindro for its cylindrical shape, was full. Had the league changed its mind? Had some mysterious saviour come to rescue the club? Had the courts changed their mind? No, no, and certainly not. There was no match on today, neither was there a concert, nor a political gathering. This was much more important than any of those things. The fans gathered in their thousands to save their club. Under the pressure of the multitude, both the courts and the Argentine Football Association declare that the club could remain open whilst the liquidation is completed and that they were allowed to participate in the league, respectively
This was not just any club, this was Racing Club de Avellaneda, one of the biggest teams in the country, with a rich history that includes beating Celtic’s Lisbon Lions in the Intercontinental Cup and being one of the very few clubs to win their league seven years in a row. This was a club that had earned the nickname of “The Academy”, because they taught their players to play attractive football. It was also a club with a reputation in modern times for filling their stands with some of the most passionate fans in the country, but also with a reputation for glorious failure on the pitch. Even Pelé pronounced his admiration for the club and its fans. Here, we had a giant who had fallen on hard times. Make the comparisons with clubs from your own leagues as you wish. Liverpool, Tottenham, the two Milan clubs, Olympique de Marseille, Valencia CF, Hamburger SV, the list goes on.
3rd August 1999 – a 79 year old woman dies in Avellaneda. Racing goes into mourning for the second time in 4 months. Elena Margarita Mattiussi, known to all by her nickname “Tita”, was a cornerstone of the club and its day to day life. Her parents answered a classified advert in 1915 from a foot-ball club looking for staff. César Mattiussi became the new groundsman, whilst Aída worked in the laundry rooms. After her parents passed away, Tita took over both jobs, and later found time to take responsibility for the club’s “pension”, where the youth players from other parts of the country stayed. According to legendary former defender and manager Alfio “Coco” Basile, she was “like a mother, it was a pleasure to be around her and talk with her”. At the time of the club’s greatest moment, the Intercontinental Cup win, the players, Basile included, clubbed together to pay Tita’s travel and accommodation in Glasgow and Montevideo. Players used to stop by her house, inside the stadium grounds, just to sit down and discuss their issues with Tita over some mate (herbal tea popular in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and the south of Brazil).
The following month, some federal land was up for sale in Avellaneda. It was some old railway sidings, with the surrounding scrub land. Racing’s barrabrava put a collection together, bought it and named the ground Tita Mattiussi. If the worst came to the worst and Racing Club really did cease to exist, it was a good place to start a phoenix club, and if not, they would work out what to do with it afterwards. The closest translation of barrabrava into English would be hooligans, but that word focuses on only one aspect of their raison d’être. Like Ultra groups in Italy and Spain, they consider themselves as custodians of the club and its culture. They are not afraid to take direct action if they feel that the club is going in the wrong direction. They are also criminal organisations who illegally charge for car parking close to the stadium, control the food and merchandising stadiums in and around the ground, as well as the drug trade. If that was not enough, if they are short on funds, they tend to intimidate the manager/president/star players into coughing up. They are known for their violence, which has been known to go as far as murdering people from rival factions.
The overwhelming majority of clubs in Argentina have presidential systems similar to those in Spain. Fans can pay a monthly fee to become partners or “socios” of the club. In exchange they get discounted tickets and a chance to vote for the club’s president each time the authorities have to be renewed. Racing had somehow stumbled through a year and a half of bankruptcy without disappearing, with state appointed administrators in charge. However, there was a brand new way of running a football club in Argentina as of 29th December 2000. Blanquiceleste SA (Skyblueandwhite Ltd. would be a literal translation of the name) took an Argentine club into private ownership for the first time. Fans were wary about any business trying to make money out of their club. Racing’s fans were doubly alarmed when the first debts the new administration paid were the ones owed to the previous president Lalín, the man who had taken them down this rabbit hole.
The barrabrava thought to turn their land, the old railway sidings 500 metres from the stadium, into a training complex for the club’s youth system. However, they wanted nothing to do with a private company running their club. So the fans themselves worked to turn what was wasteland into a training centre, and they offered to lease it, rather than sell it, to the club for a nominal fee, as long as it was used for the stated purpose. From that moment onwards, Racing’s youth teams have trained at the “Tita Mattiussi Grounds”, the first, and only youth academy in the world bought, built and run by the club’s fans.
Let’s fast forward several years of mostly mediocrity under the private ownership, past the club’s 2001 championship win, their first in 35 years, where they had to play the final “home” game at another stadium, so the fans filled that ground and their own at the same time. Past the private ownership’s thirst for money deciding that their biggest rivals, Independiente, could rent the Cilindro while they were making improvements to their own stadium, allowing the enemy’s barra to stand on their turf. Past their close shave with relegation in the middle of 2008, to the end of that same year. Blanquiceleste SA, the private company brought in to save the club from liquidation, was liquidated itself after 8 years of wages paid late, financial irregularities and, occasionally, paying off debts, mostly to themselves. The provincial justice system looked at the cub’s accounts and decided that the club was no longer in bankruptcy after more than ten years. There could be an elected president again. The club could have “socios” again.
The first elected president of Racing headed up a unity list of differing groups who agreed to join forces to avoid a bitter election battle after so many years of being unable to have elections. This being Racing Club; it was anything but a smooth ride. The club’s financial situation was delicate, but under control. Debts were approximately 30 million USD, and the club had started to blood promising youngsters who had graduated through the Tita Mattiussi academy. The senior team was in trouble with relegation, though, and its star striker, Colombian Teo Gutierrez, pulled a fake gun on his teammates following a dressing room discussion, and was banished from returning legend “Coco” Basile’s squad. The coalition presidency fractured under the pressure of the situation, and the side led by Victor Blanco won the vote on a ticket of more financial sensibility.
Over all of these years, kids have played in the Tita Mattiussi grounds and on the mini concrete pitches between the West stand of the Cilindro and the barrier fencing dreaming of being the next Diego Milito. They dream of being the kid who came through the youth teams, won a title, went to Europe, won the Champions League, played for his country and came back to lead his club to another title. In one moderately famous case, physical impediment was no such barrier to a kid’s dreaming, as a boy with one leg played on his crutches against able-bodied counterparts, getting a nutmeg in during the process. At a previous game, Diego Milito’s farewell, no less, he lent one of his crutches to his friend to stand on so that they could both see over the wall and watch the game.
In the last 10 years, Racing Club has sold youth team graduates for over 65 million USD, without counting the as yet unconfirmed sale of Lautaro Martínez, which would add another 33 million to that total. That is also leaving out players such as Óscar Romero, Gustavo Bou and Marcos Acuña who were bought from other clubs, developed and sold on at considerable profit.
Today, Racing Club is in a strong financial position relative to its rivals in Argentina. It has over 80,000 “socios”, has a strong academy pushing talents towards the first team, and has found space in its budgets to make improvements to the stadium, buy a training ground for the first team and improve the “Tita”. When they finish making the documentary about the story of that youth academy, the wider world will get to hear the story about how the fans saved one of Argentina’s biggest clubs. For now, those same fans sing about it at every home game:
De pendejo te sigo
I’ve followed you since I was a kid
Junto a Racing siempre a todos lados
Together with Racing everywhere
Nos bancamos una quiebra, el descenso y fuimos alquilados
We put up with bankruptcy, relegation and we were rented out
No me olvido ese día que una vieja chiflada decía
I don’t forget that day that a crazy old lady said
Que Racing no existía que tenía que ser liquidado
That Racing no longer existed and had to be liquidated
Si llenamos nuestra cancha y no jugamos
Yes, we filled our stadium when we didn’t play
Defendimos del remate nuestra sede
We defended our offices from auction
Si la nuestra es una hinchada diferente
Yes, this is a different fanbase
No es amarga como la de Independiente
It isn’t bitter like that of Independiente
Los bosteros, San Lorenzo, y las gallinas
The bosteros (Boca fans), San Lorenzo, and the chickens (River fans)
Nunca llenaron dos canchas el mismo día
Never filled two stadiums on the same day
Y a vos Independiente yo te digo
And to you, Independiente, I say
Vos sos amargo y pecho frío
You are bitter, and fainthearted
Vos sos amargo y tiratiros
You are bitter and cowards
Picture credit to Aaro Ylitalo.