Rise of the interior?

The Godoy Cruz players celebrating their first ever
appearance in the Copa Libertadores.
When Argentine side Godoy Cruz made their international début in the 2011 Copa Libertadores with a 2-1 win against 2008 champions Liga de Quito in group 8 it was a historic moment for football fans in Mendoza Province. Not only were Godoy Cruz the first team from the sparsely populated province that stretches from the heights of the Andes in the west to the Cuyo plains in the east to feature in a Libertadores game, it was the first time that Argentina has been represented in South America's premier club competition by an indirectly affiliated side (from outside of the traditional triopoly of Argentine football Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires Province & Santa Fe Province).

The most joyful thing about their achievement is that they managed to qualify for the Libertadores without sacrificing their style of play. Throughout the 2010 Apertura Godoy Cruz were one of the most entertaining and unpredictable teams to watch. They only managed to win three of their ten home games but had the third best away record behind the runaway top two of Estudiantes and Vélez Sarsfield. Their nineteen games featured fifty seven goals, an average of three per game, so if you judge entertainment by the number of goals per game they were by far the most entertaining team to watch in the Apertura.

The most impressive thing about their achievement is that they managed to finish as the fourth most consistent Argentine team in 2010 in only their fourth season in the top flight. They made their Primera División debut in 2006-07 but were relegated at the end of the season thanks to the notorious promedios (points averaging) system. They bounced straight back and in 2008-09 they secured their top flight status. At the end of the 2009-10 season Atlético Tucumán were relegated meaning that Godoy Cruz were the only remaining team in the Argentine top flight from the non-traditional provinces.

No team from outside the three traditional heartlands of Argentine football has ever won the Argentine league, the closest that any of the indirectly affiliated  teams have ever come were the two Córdoba based sides Talleres and Racing that finished as runners up more than thirty years ago. Talleres appeared in the final of the 1977 Nacional but were beaten by Independiente, and three years later Racing lost the final of the Nacional to Rosario Central.

In 1999 Talleres de Córdoba became the first side
from outside of the three traditional heartlands of
Argentine football to win a major honour.
In 1999 Talleres became the first indirectly affiliated side ever to win a major honour when they won the last edition of the defunct Copa Conmebol but fortunes have not been kind to them in the intervening twelve years, they were relegated from the Primera División in 2004 despite a 3rd place finish and in 2009 they were relegated from the Argentine 2nd division to join city rivals Racing Club in the regionalised third division, Torneo Argentino A.

Clubs that face relegation out of the top two tiers of Argentine football face very different challenges, indirectly affiliated teams from the interior face the notoriously difficult challenge of adjusting to life in the regional leagues. Argentino A currently has 25 teams with only one automatic promotion spot available, Argentino B has 48 teams and relegation to Argentino C means a battle against more than 250 other teams to secure one of the few promotion places. Directly affiliated teams from Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires Province & Santa Fe Province drop down into the Metropolitana structure which is a further three tiers of standard leagues with only one relegation spot at the bottom. In recent years Tigre and All Boys have achieved the double promotion necessary to find their way back from the Metropolitana to the Primera División.

Several indirectly affiliated teams from the interior that once played at the highest level of Argentine football have disappeared almost without trace into the labyrinthine structure of Argentino C, a couple of the most notable examples being Altos Hornos Zapla who played with the best in the 1970s and Huracán de Corrientes who featured at the highest level as recently as the 1990s.

It is no surprise that the top clubs come from the most heavily populated areas, the same can be said for most countries. In Uruguay eleven out of the twelve top flight teams come from the capital Montevideo, it is nowhere near as extreme in Argentina but fourteen of the twenty Primera División sides come from greater Buenos Aires and of the remaining six, four come from the large conurbation of La Plata and the heavily populated Santa Fe Province. The remaining two teams are Olimpo from the Atlantic coast of Buenos Aires Province and Godoy Cruz from Mendoza.

Huracán de Corrientes have disappeared into obscurity
after playing at the highest level of Argentine football
as recently as the 1990's

As it stands, four of the six non-Buenos Aires based teams are pretty much immune from relegation, the other two, Olimpo and Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata are embroiled in the relegation fight but still capable of escaping the drop zone, meaning that as many as four Buenos Aires based sides could find themselves relegated at the end of the season. The relegated teams are almost certain  to be replaced by teams from the interior given that eleven of the top twelve sides in the second division come from the interior and the other team is Aldosivi from the Atlantic coast of Buenos Aires Province.

Of the eleven "interior" teams chasing promotion the most famous are four time Argentine champions Rosario Central who suffered relegation from the Primera División last season after losing a playoff against All Boys. Other notable teams in the promotion chase are Unión de Santa Fe who were runners up in the Nacional championship in 1979, Gimnasia de Jujuy who are historically the most successful team from the far north of Argentina and Atlético Rafaela who have missed out on promotion in the last two seasons after failing to beat Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata in playoff games.

The recent success of Godoy Cruz and the host of teams from the interior vying for promotion shows that football is alive and kicking in the Argentine interior, however there remain some real concerns about football in the indirectly affiliated provinces of Argentina. The main problem is that even though they are doing brilliantly by themselves Godoy Cruz are the only representatives of the 21 non-traditional provinces currently playing in the top flight. Another concern is that C.A.I. from Comodoro Rivadavia, the only team from the southern provinces playing at the national level look certain to be relegated to the regional leagues at the end of the season.

In their second Copa Libertadores fixture Godoy Cruz suffered a 1-3 home defeat against Uruguayan Libertadores veterans Peñarol. It was a poor result in front of their own fans but they can take comfort in the fact that they have had an incredibly good away record over the last year and if they can find some points away from home in the Libertadores they will still have a good chance of making it out of the toughest of the eight groups to reach the knock-out stages. Fans from all over Argentina will be behind them because at best they represent hope that success can be decentralised in Argentine football and at worst people will cheer them on because nobody knows how long it will be before another team from the backwaters of Argentine football will break the dominance of the Buenos Aires/La Plata/Santa Fe Province triopoly in order to have a tilt at the most prestigious trophy in South American club football.

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