Argentina braces itself for crazy new top flight season
"If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!" This often seemed the philosophy by which the former president of the Argentine Football Association, Julio Grondona, lived his life. Leading the organisation from 1979 to 2014, he was, until his death in July 2014, the last Argentine public figure in a position of power from the era of the country's last military dictatorship, and he often ruled Argentine football with an iron fist to match that legacy.
Of course, the quote isn't something Julio Grondona said -- that we know of. It's a quote from Mary Shelley's masterpiece, "Frankenstein." Whether Grondona was a fan of Shelley's is unrecorded, but his parting gift to Argentine football is as unloved and unwanted as Victor Frankenstein's misunderstood creation, and it enters the world this Friday the 13th (ironically, not an unlucky date in Argentina).
What do you do with a league whose standard is criticised and which is woefully short of money? Why, you add more teams, of course, and you do it in such a way that everyone will actually be playing fewer matches, which means less gate and TV money for all. Here's how it happened.
Grondona's methods of keeping power are well-documented. Votes at AFA board meetings were never held in secret ballots but were always carried out by a show of hands. Grondona -- a FIFA vice-president and Sepp Blatter's right-hand man right up until his death -- admitted to knowing about dirty cash and more. But what we couldn't have guessed until now was that his power would continue to be felt, even from beyond the grave.
By the time Grondona passed away, the structure of this year's Primera had already been approved by an AFA vote, even though club presidents admitted they didn't like the idea. "Federalising" Argentine football by bringing in more teams from outside greater Buenos Aires was the idea -- and the method of doing so was, quite simply, to expand. By 10, in fact, so the Argentine top flight in 2015 has a quite ludicrous 30 teams competing in it.
The switch in both numbers and the timing of the season -- it will run from this weekend until November, roughly -- meant a transitional period of six months was required, with the second division totally restructured to send 10 teams up in December (there was no relegation from the top flight). Grondona died just a week before that transitional half-season was due to kick off -- far too late for the AFA to tear up the plans, as many would have wished.
Most of the Argentine press, aware that football sells and excited for the start of a new season, are overlooking the public and AFA disquiet at the new championship in their advertising. The end of Argentina's era of "short championships" is being widely trumpeted, even though this isn't an end at all. This year's championship will still be a short one because it will involve everyone playing everyone else just once -- not twice. The only difference is there are more teams involved, so time-wise, yes, it will take longer.
Well, that's not the only difference, because there's one part of this plan that even Grondona couldn't sugarcoat for the television companies. If it were only happening exactly as I've written above, there would only be one league clash each year between River Plate and Boca Juniors. That just won't do. River and Boca are by far the biggest clubs in the country, and the superclásico is the one fixture that genuinely brings Argentina to a halt.
The solution? One extra round of matches, during which each team will face off against their traditional clasico rival. Let's call it the 30th game, a bit like the much-maligned 39th-game the Premier League in England has mooted though not on foreign soil.
Racing against Independiente in Avellaneda, Newell's Old Boys against Rosario Central in Rosario, Estudiantes against Gimnasia in La Plata and, of course, River against Boca. Not all sides in the Primera have traditional derby rivals in the division, so a few new "rivalries" were created by drawing of lots. Aldosivi of Mar Del Plata vs. top flight debutants Crucero del Norte, based in Garupa, Misiones Province (a mere 723 miles away) has never been a derby before, but it is this year.
It's not elegant, but it means two superclásicos each year in the league, which keeps the money men happy. It also means River and Boca will be playing their extra matches against trickier opponents (each other) than some potential title rivals, but no one seems to have noticed that yet.
Another thing that so far has passed without much comment is Argentine clubs will only have 15 matches in each half of the year, rather than the 19 of previous years. That means less fixture congestion for those involved in continental competition. It might be an unpopular change, but this aspect at least just might help Argentine sides in the Copa Libertadores.
More sides will have the chance to qualify for next year's continental trophies too, because after the season proper ends Nov. 8, there will be playoffs for the Copa Sudamericana spots and some Libertadores places. How the champions, who won't be involved in those extra matches, are meant to keep themselves occupied for almost three months doesn't seem to bother anyone.
What happens in 2016? All change again. Though, for now, relegation will still be calculated on a three-year points average -- the total number of points divided by the total number of matches played, with the lowest relegated.
At this stage, another transition seems likely, coupled with more relegations than promotions in mid-2016 and at subsequent points onwards with the idea being to reduce the league back down to 20 or 22 teams by the start of 2019-20. You'd think by this point the league will be back to a far more sensible, compelete home and away format.
Unloved and bloated, Julio Grondona's Frankenstein monster of the Argentine Primera is nonetheless alive.