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Sep 23, 2009

Argentina's struggling rivalry

Big-name players not achieving their potential; directors who are widely seen as bad for the team and for football by the fans; famous reputations being decidedly unfulfilled; managers whose positions seem less tenable by the day. It's the Argentine national team, isn't it?

For once, no.

The names of the clubs in question will be familiar, though, even to those who aren't so well versed in the Argentine football scene. The start of the 2009 Torneo Apertura has been an unmitigated disaster for great rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors, the two towering giants of the Argentine club game. The problems are both on and off the pitch: poor form is only part of a story given added spice by institutional issues and infighting.

The proper stages of the Copa Sudamericana started this week, the preliminary rounds having concluded, and River Plate were involved - but it wasn't the Argentine club you've all heard of, at whose stadium the national side play their home matches (they're moving back there to face Peru next month, after the disastrous showing against Brazil at Rosario Central's ground). It was the Uruguayan club of the same name who were in action. Their more famous namesakes across the Río de la Plata had been dumped out in the preliminaries by domestic rivals Lanús.

Boca were eliminated by Argentine champions Vélez Sársfield from South America's secondary club competition - the two Argentine giants were playing in the Sudamericana for the final time without having had to qualify, after CONMEBOL announced that from 2010 they'll no longer have their exclusive 'invitation' to the tournament regardless of league position. This had previously been extended to bring in the huge slice of the Argentine and international TV market their names draw.

Early elimination from a competition whose own organisers treat it with such lack of dignity as to invite teams who haven't qualified is the least of their worries, though. Five matches into the Torneo Apertura, the championship played during the first half of the 2009-10 season, River are fifteenth and Boca thirteenth in the 20-team top flight, having managed just one win apiece. The past weekend saw both lose yet again, and the fact that both managers are still in their jobs is a huge surprise to everyone.

After Boca's home loss to Mendoza's Godoy Cruz, Alfio Basile - the manager who stood aside a year ago to be replaced by Diego Maradona at the helm of the national team - offered his resignation. The match itself was a cracker, finishing 2-3 with dreadful defensive lapses, a dubiously-allowed goal which didn't look, from most angles, like it had crossed the line, and an 89th-minute winner for the visitors, a club promoted a couple of seasons ago, who thrashed Boca 5-0 when the two sides last met, in Mendoza.

Basile met the club's general manager Carlos Bianchi right after the match and told him he planned to resign, but Bianchi refused to accept the manager's offer, and along with playmaker Juan Román Riquelme set about convincing Basile to stay at least another week.

If it is an undignified situation for Boca to find themselves in, at least their fans can remind themselves that their rivals in the north of Buenos Aires are just as deep in the mire. River's opponents on Sunday were Arsenal de Sarandí, a small club from Avellaneda whose founding president was current AFA head honcho Julio Grondona. As such they're one of the few clubs who are accused of getting the benefit of the doubt from referees as often as River and Boca themselves, and early on they were awarded a dubious penalty to take the lead.

Minutes later, Arsenal scored again but the goal was disallowed for an offside which turned out to be just as dubious a call, as if to even things out. The end result wasn't affected though, because River, who have been a pathetic excuse for a football team for the last few seasons now, were unable to muster anything by way of a response and it ended 1-0 to the Arsenal. Before the final whistle had faded from the air, River's fans were already berating the team's manager, Néstor Gorosito.

Now that Juan Pablo Sorín has announced his retirement, Gorosito is the owner of probably the most luxuriant head of hair in Argentine football, and until now he has had a relatively smooth ride from the fans. This is because at River, the problems are deeply institutional. With the directors - and president José María Aguilar in particular - allowing far too much power to Los Borrachos del Tablón, the club's barra brava (hooligan gang) and allowing personal gain get in the way of the team, successive managers have failed to drag River back to their feet but the fans have kept their anger for the suits in the boardroom.

An example of how bizarrely River are run lies in the signing, to cover for injured club captain Oscar Ahumada, of Matías Almeyda, a Copa Libertadores winner in 1996 and a legend in the eyes of the fans, but at 35 years of age and having not played professionally since 2005, probably not a player who can take the club forward into a bright new future.

Boca, after nearly a decade of stability in the boardroom, were rocked last October by the death of their president Pedro Pompilio, and have spent most of this year trying to pretend head boys Juan Román Riquelme and Martín Palermo are actually speaking to one another. Having won the Apertura last year they fell away badly in the Clausura after gambling everything (and failing) on the Copa Libertadores, and are struggling seriously to pick themselves up again now.

Both Basile and Gorosito are under severe pressure at the country's two biggest clubs, but both have a stay of execution - for now. It's clear that unlike the national side, it'll take a lot more than a change of manager to stop the rot at River and Boca.

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