As a football fan who has lived in the US for a very long time, I’ve had to defend (and explain) the concept of relegation more than once. I always saw it as a key part of the sport, something that was essential to a “proper” football league. Seeing sports franchises in America that year-in and year-out fail to compete has strengthened that point-of-view. For those teams, the second half of a season is merely an exercise in revenue generation through ticket sales and player development because a championship is unachievable.
That may be the way of most new sports leagues these days, from Major League Soccer in the USA to Super Rugby in the southern hemisphere. Relegation is simply not financially sensible, it seems, to the teams being relegated. Unless of course, you are in the Premier League/Championship elevator, with “parachute payments” helping you adjust from one league to the other and encouraging at least some investment so that your team isn’t hammered 6-0 every weekend.
So, Premier League aside, relegation is a positive element for fans. It gives the end of a team’s season meaning. You show up at the stadium wanting and needing your team to win, rather than just “putting in a good performance” or “giving the kids a chance”. It also establishes a Darwinian logic that is hard to refute, finishing last is proof of your club’s lack of fitness at its current level. Dropping a division is only natural, replaced by the evolution of another club, ready to take on a higher challenge. It’s natural selection at a sporting league level. Finishing last is bad, therefore there should be a penalty, and that makes relegation a good thing.
Or is it?
A view from the other side (of the league table)
My view of relegation has been shaped by the fact that my club team, that I love with a passion that most true football fans out there can understand, has never been relegated. Argentina’s River Plate was promoted to the Argentina top division in 1908 (yes, oh-eight) and has never dropped back down. Two other teams have achieved this in Argentina: Independiente and our eternal rivals, Boca Juniors. Not coincidentally, these are the three top clubs in the list of titles won.
Around the world there are many other teams who have never been relegated, including seven in the history of the Premier League/English First Division: Arsenal. Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa, Chelsea; and three in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid (no surprise) and Athletic Bilbao. Only one in Italy, current European Champions Inter Milan, though as with most other matters in Italian football, there is some controversy around that (they finished last in the league and would’ve been relegated if not for a league merger between the CCI and the FIGC into a single national league).
This year, however, things are different. River Plate are in a serious relegation battle in Argentina as the season kicks off. The Argentine league doesn’t decide relegation by simply dropping the clubs finishing last, they take an average of the first division points-per-game over the last three season.
For example, if your team played a full complement of 77 matches over the last three seasons (the latest season has just begun and teams have only played 1 match) and achieved 107 points in those matches, their “Promedio” (Average) is 1.390 points per match. That is Independiente’s total and they sit comfortably in mid-table as far as relegation goes. River Plate sits at the bottom, with 87 points in 77 matches for an average of a paltry 1.130. Only the teams just promoted from the second division (Nacional B) have less, since they’ve started from zero.
Confusing, I know. What it means is that relegation battles are fought over a rolling three-season period, rather that a single season; and over the last two seasons, River Plate have been — it pains me to say it — the worst team in the Argentine Primera División (First Division). The most heartbreaking part is that a mid-table finish for River may not be enough. They must finish among the top teams in the league, say with 55-60 points from 38 matches, in order to not be relegated. It’s possible that they may achieve it with less (say, 50 points), but that’s leaving too much to chance and bad performances from other clubs for anyone’s comfort.
For comparison, 60 points would’ve put them 7th in last year’s combined league table (Argentina plays two seasons fo 19 matches each). It’s akin to having to finish in the European places in the Premier League in order to avoid relegation. Ordinarily, that isn’t a problem for River, as they are usually title contenders, but recent history has shown us different.
All of a sudden, I’m looking a lot like the caricature of the suffering, relegation-threatened fan. No longer am I looking at the top of the league table and comparing schedules with title contenders to see who is most likely to achieve maximum points. Now I stare melancholically at the bottom of the relegation table and desperately try to calculate how far each precious three-pointer takes us to our goal — salvation (cue the seraphim blowing their trumpets). At the same time, I check the scores of other relegation contenders such as Tigre, Arsenal de Sarandí and Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata — clubs for whom I used to have no strong feelings one way or another — and I wish them the same terrible and soul-crushing fate I used to only wish on one other club, our main rivals, Boca Juniors.
Which is not to say I don’t wish Boca the same, but if they’re playing one of these clubs, for the first time in years I have to think twice before cheering for a Boca loss. This in turn, brings an even worse prospect: being saved by Boca on the last week of the season because they beat one of our relegation rivals. But I know this wouldn’t actually happen. Boca would happily lose that match in order to relegate us.
Looking for a light at the end of the tunnel
Amidst the doom and gloom, there are hopeful signs. The new River Plate coach, appointed near the end of last season is Angel Cappa, who narrowly missed out on a title two years ago with Huracán, and who is a man who likes teams that play football “the right way”. A relegation fight usually means that teams resort to the most cynical strategies in order to reduce risks and gain as many points as possible by sacrificing attacking football. Not so with River Plate. Cappa demands that his teams play a quick passing game long on beauty and possession and short on cynical long clearances and putting men behind the ball. In many ways, he is the anti-Mourinho, though it would be more accurate to portray him as the antithesis of another manager noted for success with less-than-attractive tactics, Carlos Bilardo, who took Argentina to a World Cup title in 1986.
Cappa certainly seems to come with the right attitude. Recently he was quoted in the newspaper La Nación saying “Relegation doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not worried.” His message? Forget relegation, we’re here to win championships. It is certainly the kind of attitude River Plate fans want, and a more pragmatic one that it would seem at first, considering that River Plate actually have to be in contention for the title if they hope to avoid relegation.
Along with Cappa, River Plate club members elected former player and manager Daniel Passarella as the institution’s president. And despite some controversy in his past regarding business dealings, a lack of tax payments and other economic matters, it has to be said that he is miles better than the administration of José María Aguilar, who seemingly did everything possible to run one of Argentina’s most globally recognised organisations into the ground.
River Plate’s current situation is as much as financial crisis as a footballing one. Massive player selloffs, horrible player purchases, expensive loans, high salaries to squad members who rarely saw the pitch, much less played in it. Add to that a civil war fought amongst two sectors of the club’s barrabravas and you have a massive institutional crisis for a club which may or may not be on the road back to recovery.
Passarella and Cappa, at least, have been able to renew the squad with some significant and highly positive player purchases. Back is goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, a player who came through all of River Plate’s youth levels and was sold to Lazio in Italy but never achieved much playing time there, or in Spain after a loan. Carrizo already proved his worth by being one of the key players in River’s first match of season, a 1-0 win over relegation rival Tigre. Fit and playing regularly, he is a strong candidate for the Argentina No. 1 jersey.
Other important purchases are Carlos Arano, Jonathan Maidana (ex-Boca!), title-winning Paraguayan Adalberto Román, and another former youth product, Cristian Nasuti, returning from a sting with Aris Salonika in Greece; in midfield there’s now Walter Acevedo for holding and Peruvian up-and-comer Josepmir Ballón for creating; and most importantly at forward, where River has struggled for production the last two seasons, Leandro Caruso on loan from Udineses and Mariano Pavone, returning from Spain on loan from the recently relegated Real Betis. Pavone is a former top scorer in Argentina and holds a special place in the hearts of River Plate fans for denying Boca a title by scoring in a playoff match for Estudiantes de La Plata in 2007. Not bad for a player who started in Boca’s academy before moving on.
In addition, River Plate sees the full-time return of two of it’s best and most creative players, veteran Ariel Ortega after a battle with alcohol abuse and just about everyone in the outgoing River Plate administration, and Diego Buonanotte, possibly River’s most promising young player in years. Buonanotte sat out last season following a car accident which left him severely injured and cost the life of three of his close friends. Add to that the first-team debut of Manuel Lanzini, another creative midfielder that Cappa compares favorably with Javier Pastore, whom he coached at Huracán and who made two appearances for Argentina’s national team in the World Cup under Diego Maradona.
A somewhat-promising start
The season kicked off this past weekend, and River Plate already notched an important victory over Tigre, who sit just seven points above them on the relegation table. The match itself, however, was lacking in the stylish football that Cappa has been espousing. In fact, the only shot on goal for River Plate was the one that went in, and that came in the 46th minute of the second half.
Suspense is the last thing you want when you’re fighting relegation, but I’ll take the three points nonetheless. The goal itself came by way of an Ortega scamper down the left side of the penalty box which he centered to forward Rogelio Funes Mori (playing because Pavone is not quite fit yet after an injury in Spain last season) who headed it home. Funes Mori’s celebration, shirtless and running towards the stands, was echoed in the screams of joy of the River Plate faithful.
And that’s exactly why my feelings toward relegation have not changed. Despite the threat of the unimaginable, River Plate in the second division, I haven’t been this happy with a River Plate goal since we were playing Boca Juniors in the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores. It’s that important. Every match is a superclásico. Every goal is a treasure. After the terrible time of the last two years, it just might be this season that restores the fortunes of River Plate and reestablishes the club as a force in the domestic game at least.
Unless we get relegated. Then, the hearts of more than 10 mllion Argentines would truly be broken and I have no idea if the institution could ever possibly recover.