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Jun 27, 2012

River Plate wake from their nightmare

Just inside the press entrance of the Belgrano stand in the Estadio Monumental, as we're waiting to be let out of the ground, two senior journalists, clearly friends and River Plate fans of long standing, bump into each other and embrace, almost in tears. "Give me a hug, mate! The nightmare's over!" one of them says, trying hard to stifle a grin. It's around 5pm on Saturday June 23 and, following a 2-0 win over Almirante Brown, with both goals coming from the right foot of David Trezeguet, River's spell in Argentina's second division is over. The most successful club in the history of Argentina's top flight have won back the right to compete in it next term.

I'm writing this on Tuesday evening, a year to the hour since the previously unimaginable happened as Belgrano de Cordoba, with a 1-1 draw to add to the 2-0 win they'd managed in the first leg, condemned River to their first season in over a century in La B, Argentina's colloquial name for the second tier. As a River fan myself, it was frustrating that tickets for non-members were so hard to come by throughout the spell in the second division, so when a newly-made acquaintance offered to help me get a press pass for Saturday's decisive match, I jumped at the chance.

The fact River's matches remained so popular has been held by some commentators as evidence that Nacional B - as the second tier is formally titled - has gained more attention during the season that's now drawing to an end, but in reality, of course, it's merely a symptom of the fact River themselves remain as popular as ever. They continued to divide up most of the sports pages with rivals Boca Juniors, while the rest of the lower divisions got no more coverage than previously, which is to say very little indeed.

River's presence in the second tier has had knock-on effects though. Visiting fans are now allowed back into Nacional B stadia - or, at least, those stadia that have been passed fit - after a controversial match early in the season when Daniel Vila, president of Independiente Rivadavia de Mendoza and an opponent of AFA president Julio Grondona, agreed to play their home fixture against River in Mendoza's municipal stadium - a 1978 World Cup venue - and designated a stand for 'neutral' fans. Plenty of sides who hosted River - and who might have found a few new fans of their own when the giants came to town - enjoyed a cash windfall.

Needless to say, River's rivals enjoyed the season enormously, especially the bitterest ones of all: Boca Juniors won the 2011 Torneo Apertura, the first short championship after River's relegation, and on Wednesday night will play the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final against Brazilian giants Corinthians. Some small consolation for River fans comes in the fact that Boca relinquished their domestic crown the day after River won promotion.

For the most part, there's an attitude of marking the achievement of going back up but refusing to call it "celebrating" (apart from this correspondent who, I'm afraid to say, spent all of Sunday with a stinking hangover). For a club who've won 33 league titles, finishing first in the second tier isn't seen as a milestone, even though those of us who were there will find it a hard afternoon to forget. I also sense something of an embarrassment, though; there's the knowledge that if River were to celebrate too long and loud, it would only lead to ribbing from Boca and their fans.

All the same, there was no hiding the joy on faces all over the Monumental when, four minutes into Saturday's second half, David Trezeguet exchanged headed passes with Rogelio Funes Mori (who was a good yard or two offside) and hit a brilliant first-time volley low into the corner to finally give River the lead after a dominant but nervy first half.

Although results elsewhere meant River would have gone up automatically even with a draw, and the very worst case scenario was that they'd drop into the play-off spots, there was a real sense from all present - fans as well as players and technical staff - that with all meaningful Nacional B matches being played simultaneously, nothing should be left to chance. So Trezeguet's first strike calmed a lot of nerves.

If you're not familiar with Trezeguet's biography, you might be wondering whether I'm even talking about the same David Trezeguet who's won, among other trophies, a World Cup and a European Championship with the French national team. I am. Trezeguet was born in France but grew up in Buenos Aires - his dad is part Argentine - and was, and indeed is, a fanatical River fan. He's now six months into a three-year contract, and has become an instant fan favourite.

If this match was almost as high-pressure as last June's relegation play-off, then, who better to have up front than a man with that kind of experience? Yet even Trezeguet wasn't totally free of nerves. Last year, Mariano Pavone had a penalty saved during that fateful match against Belgrano; on Saturday, Trezeguet also had one saved that would have put River 2-0 up. He added the second late on, though, to ensure that was nothing more than an anecdote. The second assist, like the first, came from Rogelio Funes Mori (not offside this time), who after being ridiculed by fans for ages has come good at last: having scored a winning goal late in their previous home match, he set up both in this one. Whether the fans cut him more slack from now on, and whether it becomes the start of something better for him, we'll have to wait and see.

The coming days and weeks will see plenty of work at River, who are expected to confirm Matias Almeyda's continued presence as manager on Wednesday. Arsenal de Sarandi won their first ever league title the next day and, even though they're a pretty dislikeable club, it's hard not to a feel a bit sorry for them: the only story in the Argentine sports press was that River have finally woken up from their nightmare.

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