|River Plate goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo crying at the end of the match.|
With 33 Primera División titles, River Plate are by far the most successful side in Argentine domestic football and are the second most popular team in Argentina after their bitter Superclásico rivals Boca Juniors. Even after River lost the first leg of their promotion/relegation play-off 2-0 in Córdoba the majority of Argentine football supporters still seemed certain that AFA (the Argentine Football Association) would prevent River's relegation through dodgy refereeing, pressure on their opponents or a hasty rewriting of the relegation rules.
As it turned out even a debatably awarded penalty couldn't save River Plate from their fate meaning that next season they will be playing second tier football for the first time since they won promotion to the Argentine top flight in 1908. Their descent leaves only three teams never to have experience relegation, River's eternal rivals Boca Juniors, Club Atlético Independiente and minnows Arsenal de Sarandí who have survived the last eight seasons without relegation.
Under the play-off rules River Plate needed to finish level on aggregate with Belgrano in order to remain in the Primera División and having lost the first leg 2-0 River needed a two goal margain of victory in order to survive. This may have seemed fairly achievable objective for one of the giants of Argentine football in their own stadium, however 8 games without a win, a haul of only 15 goals in 19 league games and a run of 13 consecutive matches without scoring more than a single goal put the scale of the task into perspective.
Both sides managed to find the net within the first few minutes of the game, Belgrano's goal was correctly disallowed for offside then Mariano Pavone hit a cracking goal for the hosts after only five minutes of play. The goal was greeted with wild celebrations and a renewed sense of optimism around "El Monumental". River Plate played the better football for the remainder of the first half without managing to find their vital second goal.
In the second half Belgrano began to make more headway with their counter-attacking game, their striker Cesár Pereyra took advantage of a gaping hole in the River defence but fluffed his chance chipping the ball over River goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo but wide of the goal. River didn't heed the warning and conceded the equaliser after another catastrophic bit of defending, which resulted in the ball breaking to the completely unmarked Belgrano midfielder Guillermo Farré who volleyed the ball home to restore their two goal advantage.
Minutes later the referee awarded River a lifeline with a very soft penalty call but Pavone chose power instead of accuracy allowing Belgrano goalkeeper Juan Olave to make an easy save. From that point onwards River looked drained of confidence and seemed to be drifting towards relegation until some of their fans began rioting with a few minutes remaining leaving referee Sergio Pezotta no choice but to abandon the game to seal River's relegation.
River Plate refused to go down with dignity, several players including goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo began crying like children on the pitch, having to be consoled against a background of rioting home fans and deliriously celebrating visitors from Córdoba. The riots soon spread into the streets around the stadium with several hundred disgruntled supporters attacking their own stadium, the police, parked vehicles and local shops. Several dozen people were seriously injured in the riots including one police officer that had to be airlifted to hospital. Many River Plate followers had to return to the stadium in order to avoid the violence while the Belgrano supporters found themselves locked into El Monumental in freezing conditions for their own safety. After several hours the trouble died down and the Belgrano players were allowed out onto the pitch to celebrate with their fans.
Given AFA's often lax attitude towards violence in football and River Plate's complete unfamiliarity with relegation, the post match riots were hardly a surprise however a few things should be considered. In footballing terms getting the game abandoned in the dying minutes was idiotic, especially given what 9 man Gimnasia managed to achieve in the dying minutes of their relegation playoff against Atlético Rafaela two years ago. The violent reaction could also have serious implications for next season's promotion campaign, when Nueva Chicago fans rioted after their playoff defeat to Tigre in 2006-07 they were hit with a massive 18 point deduction for the next season, resulting in a further relegation into the regional divisions where they remain to this day. It is unlikely that River will suffer any points deductions as AFA have never been even handed when handing out punishments when the big clubs are involved. We only need to look at AFA's non-response to the 20 minute River Plate pitch invasion in the play-off first leg, when several smaller Primera División teams have been forced to play subsequent home games without supporters as punishment for similar incidents earlier in the season.
The relegation system
Several commentators have come out with the trite and predictable judgement that this is the worst River Plate team ever, however they quite clearly are not. Over the course of the 2010-11 season they finished with 57 points, the 6th highest points tally in the league which would have qualified them to play in Copa Sudamericana had they not been involved in the relegation play-offs. The reason they got relegated despite this reasonably decent season is that Argentine uses the "promedios" (points averaging) system meaning that a team's relegation status is determined by working out their points per game average over the last three seasons.
The root cause of their relegation was their dismal form in the two previous seasons where they only accumulated 41 and 43 points dragging their points average down to 1.238 points per game. To put this in perspective they are only the 3rd team ever to be relegated from the Primera División with an average of more than 1.2 points per game and only just shy of the Lanús' record 1.245 points average that saw them relegated in 2001-02.
The much criticised Argentine relegation system has led to the relegation of a team that avoided finishing in the bottom five in any of the past three seasons, however the system was put in place to allow the time needed to recover for successful teams that have inevitably been stripped of their best players by European clubs. River Plate were undoubtedly victims of the system but they had three years and plenty of resources to take action to overcome it, so only have themselves to blame.
Every River Plate fan has their own ideas of where to point the finger of blame, including the club's president, players and former and current managers, here are some of the most common complaints.
Daniel Passarella (former manager & president): Argentina's 1978 World Cup winning captain and former River Plate manager became the first River president ever to preside over a relegation. Passarella was a legendary player for the club and led the team to a number of titles during his first stint as manager between 1990 & 1994. His second spell was far less successful and ended after the club were embarrassingly eliminated in the Copa Sudamericana 2007 semi-finals by Argentine minnows Arsenal de Sarandí. He came back as the club's president in 2009 but oversaw a couple of strategically unintelligible managerial appointments from Angel Cappa who favoured a swaggering attacking style of play to the uber-defensive style of his replacement J.J. López. After the relegation Passarella stated that the only way he would be removed from River Plate would be feet first, i.e. dead.
José María Aguilar (former president): When passarella took over in 2009 he was quick to point out the huge debts accumulated under his predecessor. Between 2001 and 2009 Aguilar had overseen the sale of many highly talented players (D'Allesandro, Cavenaghi, Mascherano, Higuaín, Falcao) and their replacement with loanees and players wholly or largely owned by third party companies and agents. It is rumoured that huge chunks of these transfer fees are unaccounted for and that the club are still around £30 million in debt.
Diego Simeone (former manager): Is the last manager to lead River to a championship title in Clausura 2008 but was largely responsible for the embarrassment of the club's first and only bottom of the table finish in Apertura 2008 and since then threats have been made against him and his family including his son who plays in the River Plate academy.
Angel Cappa (former manager): Cappa's critics have been quick to point out that the three sides he has managed since 2008; Huracán, River Plate and Gimnasia y Esgrima have all found themselves in the relegation places at the end of Clausura 2011, however in retrospect his stint in charge of River didn't seem all that bad compared to the defensive and goal-shy set-up of his successor JJ López.
JJ López (manager): After replacing Cappa, López instilled plenty of defensive discipline in the River Plate side but at the expense of goals. His style of play was criticised by many as unfitting for such a great club and derided by his critics as a 7-0-3 formation. The club's lack of goals and long winless streak at the end of Clausura resulted in River nosediving into the relegation places when a couple of extra goals in any two of their last 8 games could have prevented them free-falling into trouble.
The players: Many River Plate fans were extremely disappointed by the perceived lack of effort from the players, things came to a head during the first leg of the playoff in Córdoba when a number of River Plate supporters invaded the pitch to berrate their own players after they went 2-0 down. The younger attacking players can perhaps be excused because of their inexperience and the difficulty they found adapting to the rigid defensive style of manager JJ López, more experienced players such as goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo have no excuses for the blunders that cost the team so many points.
Julio Grondona (AFA president): After River president Passarella publicly criticised AFA President Julio Grondona towards the end of the Clausura season, Diego Maradona praised his arch-rival for " having the balls to say what we have all known for years" adding that "you can be certain that this outburst by Passarella will be paid for on the pitch by River". Most Argentine cynics believed that AFA would do anything to keep River in the top flight while some River Plate conspiracy theorists and Grondona critics choose to believe the exact opposite.
Los Borrachos del Tablón: It has been claimed that the River Plate barras (ultras) have far too much control over the club from determining which players are bought and sold (and taking a slice of the transfer fees), intimidating players and coaching staff and generally creating a poisonous atmosphere around the club.
Karma: Some people have claimed that the relegation is the result of "bad karma", if this is the case a lot of it must have come from the disgraceful way they have treated legendary veteran midfielder Ariel Ortega. Not only have they failed to pay his wages for two years they have also denied him the kind of grand send-off that Boca Juniors afforded their own legendary veteran Martín Palermo by shipping him off to Buenos Aires minnows All Boys. It is not like they are unaware of his influence on the team, he was a key player in the Clausura 2008 championship winning side but after a fall out with manager Diego Simeone he was farmed out to 2nd division side Independiente Rivadavia. While he was away River went from champs to chumps finishing bottom of the table for the first time in their history. In Clausura 2011 they packed him off to All Boys and ended up getting relegated. It is not hard to see the parallels however it is down to opinion whether you think it is fate or just pure coincidence.
The prospects for River Plate in Primera B Nacional do not look great. The club is lumbered with huge debts (estimated at £30million), facing a massive shortfall in revenue and look set to sell most of their most influential players. Diego Buonanotte has already gone, young talents Erik Lamela, Rogelio Funes Mori and Manuel Lanzini look set to be sold for far less than the club could have demanded in the January transfer window and a number of the club's established stars may also need to be sold.
River are one of a record six former Argentine champions to face playing the 2011-12 season in Primera B Nacional, the others being Rosario Central, Ferro Carril Oeste, Huracán, Quilmes and Chacarita Juniors. The presence of such a gigantic club in the second tier can only be good for Primera B Nacional however things could turn out to be really tough for River with most of the division's players seeing their games against River as once in a lifetime opportunities to give their absolute best for their side in order to be part of a historic win.
Many River Plate fans may be confident that their gigantic status should see them bounce straight back however they need to take a quick look at the plight of Rosario giants Rosario Central's failure to bounce back from relegation last season and the plight of one of the great sides of the 1980s, Ferro Carril Oeste who have been outside the Primera since 2000 and even endured a stint playing in the regionalised 3rd division.
At first my view was that under a new manager River Plate would almost certainly return to the Primera División at the first attempt, largely because Argentine football needs them playing in the top division. The Superclásico derby against Boca Juniors is an iconic fixture in world football and the biggest money-spinning event in Argentine sport. Argentine football will be much poorer next season for the lack of it's show piece fixtures and everything possible will be done to ensure that it returns for the 2012-13 season. However I forgot to factor in Daniel Passarella's penchant for making crazy managerial appointments.
River Plate moved quickly to appoint a new manager after the resignation of JJ López, however plucking Matías Almeyda out of the team and giving him the enormous responsibility for guiding the club back into the top flight looks like a massive gamble given his complete lack of managerial experience. At a time the club should have been looking for an experienced manager to steady the ship and rebuild the team for the forthcoming promotion campaign they have gone for a complete rookie instead.